OYAMA, Japan (AP) — Anna Kiesenhofer of Austria pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Olympic road race Sunday, using an early breakaway to win the gold medal at the Tokyo Games.
The heavily favored Dutch team, featuring the past two Olympic champions, nearly brought her back on the final circuits at Fuji International Speedway. But the gap proved too much and they were left racing for the other two podium positions.
Annemiek van Vleuten rebounded from an early crash to escape a reduced pack in the closing kilometers and salvage silver for the Netherlands. But she appeared to think she had won when she broke into tears at the finish line. Riders are not allowed radios at the Olympics, so she may have been unaware Kiesenhofer had already finished.
It was another crushing disappointment for the 38-year-old former world champion. Van Vleuten was leading five years ago in Rio before a horrific crash on a sharp descent left her with a concussion and three fractured bones in her lower back.
Elisa Longo Borghini of Italy won a sprint for bronze Sunday as the rest of the field chased her across the line.
The relatively unknown Kiesenhofer, who has a doctorate in math on her resume but few cycling accomplishments, knew that without a teammate at the starting line she would have to attack early. And she did with panache, getting into a three-woman break and building a 10-minute gap that proved to be just enough at the end.
Kiesenhofer held her arms in the air in triumph as she crossed the finish line before a crowd of several thousand fans, then she toppled to the asphalt — her face crusted in sweat — and began trying to catch her breath while fighting back tears.
Tight COVID-19 controls that have kept fans from seeing most of the Olympics in person do not apply to the Shizuoka Prefecture, which meant thousands turned out for the second consecutive day to see racing at the old Formula 1 circuit.
Dutifully wearing masks, they lined the barricades from the start at Musashinonomori Park. They hiked up the two climbs through scorching Japanese summer heat to watch the riders pass. And they filled a long, double-decker grandstand on the finishing straightaway at Fuji International Speedway to await their dash for the line.
The German team controlled the early stages of the race, trying to protect Lisa Brennauer should the day end in a sprint, but all eyes were on the four-woman Dutch team — van Vleuten, 2012 Olympic champion Marianne Vos, reigning gold medalist Anna van der Breggen and young standout Demi Vollering — as the peloton rolled through the hilly countryside.
The problems began for the Dutch in the middle stages of the race.
Van Vleuten had a mechanical issue that resulted in a bike change, forcing Vos to drop back and help pace her teammate into the field. As soon as they arrived, Danish rider Emma Cecilie Joergensen hit the deck and van Vleuten locked up her back wheel and rode right into her, leaving their bikes tangled on the tarmac.
The attacks began to fly with 60 kilometers left in the 137-kilometer journey southwest of Tokyo.
Vollering went first. Van der Breggen took a shot. Then, recovered from her earlier spill, van Vleuten charged away as the peloton continued to climb, putting in a big effort that forced the peloton to work together to bring her back.
Nobody could bring back Kiesenhofer, though.
She left breakaway companions Omer Shapira of Israel and Anna Plichta of Poland before reaching the speedway, then held a gap of about five minutes as she crossed the start-finish line for the closing circuit. But despite more attacks from the field and a rapidly increasing tempo, Kiesenhofer kept her head down and concentrated only on herself.
After spending so much of the day riding by herself, it was somehow fitting that she was still alone at the end.
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Dave Skretta, The Associated Press