WSJ The Math Ph.D. Who Just Shocked Olympic Cycling

Tom Snitzer

The Math Ph.D. Who Just Shocked Olympic Cycling
Austria’s Anna Kiesenhofer escapes early to fend off a confused Dutch superteam and capture gold
Anna Kiesenhofer of Austria crosses the line to win the gold medal in the women’s cycling road race.

By Jason Gay
Updated July 25, 2021 12:30 pm ET

The mathematician pedaled away from the bunch, right at the start. It was a flyer, to test her limits, and see how it goes.

Anna Kiesenhofer wasn’t considered a big threat in Sunday’s Olympic women’s road race. The Austrian cyclist wasn’t considered a threat at all. Her name did not appear on any list of pre-race contenders.

She was so unthreatening, Kiesenhofer assumed the big guns in the race would let her ride away at the beginning for a bit.

She assumed correctly. They did.

Then Kiesenhofer stayed away, for the whole incredible thing, 85 miles, up and down, over the flats, through the mountains, in the late July heat, with a ferocious pack of riders—cycling superstars, world champions, national team juggernauts—trying to chase her down…until some seemed not to know Kiesenhofer remained up the road, alone.

Confused? You’re not the only one.

At least a few cyclists were confused, too, when they crossed the finish at Fuji International Speedway, presuming they were the first riders to do so…only to discover that the race had been won 75 seconds before by a 30-year-old mathematics Ph.D.

It was a mind-boggling result that stunned Kiesenhofer herself.

“I couldn’t believe it, until the final meters,” she said.

A former pro with Lotto-Soudal women’s team, Kiesenhofer now teaches and does postdoctoral research at a polytechnic institute in Lausanne, Switzerland. She is self-coached. Though she trained extensively to prepare for the Games, she did not come to Tokyo with medal expectations. She raced with no teammates.

Finishing in the Top 25 would have been a nice result, she said later.

The day before the women’s race, Kiesenhofer watched an early breakaway in the Olympic men’s race and mulled attempting the same maneuver.

That looks cool, she thought.

Kiesenhofer figured it might work for a while. It’s not uncommon for a peloton to let a few riders get up the road in the early miles, before eventually revving up the pace, and reeling them in.    

Off Kiesenhofer went, at the gun.

“Kilometer zero,” she called it.

Over the early stages of the race, she and a handful of breakaway colleagues built a gap of more than ten minutes. It was a substantial margin of time, but the peloton contained so many experienced professionals, including the decorated Dutch superteam featuring champions Annemiek van Vleuten, Marianne Vos, and 2016 Olympic road race winner Anna van der Breggen.

Surely the big names would yank Kiesenhofer back, especially when the early breakaway group started to fall apart and Kiesenhofer found herself alone.

A solo rider on their own is usually no match for the strength—and the aerodynamics—of a motivated peloton, and nowhere would a peloton be more motivated than at an Olympic Games.

Kiesenhofer kept thinking she’d get caught. How could she not get caught?

“I was always a bit scared,” Kiesenhofer said.

Still, she gave all she had. These Games had been a dream she’d long targeted amid her Ph.D. studies. If she was ever going to lay it all out, it would be here, in these tree-lined climbs leading down to the final laps on the smooth speedway tarmac.

“I couldn’t have given more than I did,” Kiesenhofer said.

Back in the peloton, there was energy, but not decisiveness. Attacks came and went, pushing the pace and narrowing the group a single-file ribbon, but there was never a successful, consequential move.

Technology was a factor. In professional races, riders are equipped with earpieces that allow them to communicate with team personnel traveling behind in support cars. Riders listen for updates about the course and potential hazards—but also, importantly, they can be told what riders are the road, and what sort of effort is needed to catch up.

Olympic road racing allows no such technology. The riders have no radio contact with cars. They get time gap information from motorbikes on the course, or on occasions when they’re within earshot of team personnel, but this information delivery is spottier than someone in your ear, telling you exactly what’s going on.

This is apparently why the Dutch super team did not ramp up a ferocious pursuit of Kiesenhofer in the closing kilometers. After collecting the remains of the original breakaway, they thought the reel-in work was done.

You may have seen it by now: the Dutch veteran racer van Vleuten, crossing the finish line next the speedway grandstand, smiling, arms raised, under the impression that she’d won gold.

She didn’t know Kiesenhofer had clinched it already.

Now there was heartbreak amid the surprise. A gold medal would have been a poetic result for van Vleuten. In 2016, she’d spent the night of the women’s road race in a hospital in Rio de Janeiro after a horrifying crash that occurred as she was leading the race, likely en route to gold.

Now gold eluded her again, in far more surreal fashion.

Van Vleuten later confessed to “mixed feelings.” She was proud of her beautiful silver medal— the first of her career—but she sounded frustrated by the confusion and the lack of race radios to give clarity about what was going on.

Bronze medalist Elisa Longo Borghini of Italy, however, said she knew a solo rider had successfully crossed beforehand.

“I knew that I was third,” she said.

Kiesenhofer had been first, though she was still getting used to what it meant. After the medal ceremony, the new Olympic champion was escorted to a press conference room to speak to the media. When they opened the door, Kiesenhofer walked straight past the podium at the front of the room, until someone pointed her in the right direction.

“I was about to go to the back of the room,” Kiesenhofer confessed.

The mathematician went up to the front, where she’d been all day, and belonged.

Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@...

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