'I deserved it' - Six months on from gold-medal winning Olympic dream, Anna Kiesenhofer on how she did it
“It came as a result of a lot of work, so to me, it immediately felt as if I deserved it.” At Tokyo 2020, Austria's "amateur" racer Anna Kiesenhofer produced one of the sporting upsets of all time to beat a Dutch squad of superstars and win gold from an unforgettable women's road race. She reflects on her astonishing ride, and looks forward to Paris 2024.
'One of the greatest performances of all time' - Kiesenhofer wins road race gold
It is exactly six months since Austrian "amateur", Anna Kiesenhofer, stunned the cycling world at the Tokyo 2020 road race. With a team made up of several of the strongest riders on the professional circuit, it was a race that seemed destined to deliver for the Dutch. Kiesenhofer, however, had different ideas. She made it into the early break, worked with her colleagues to build up a sizable lead, and then was the only rider to stay away.
As Kiesenhofer reflects on having produced what is widely regarded as a heist of Hollywood proportions, if not one of the greatest upsets in sporting history, she remains one of the few people entirely unsurprised by the result.
“It came as a result of a lot of work,” she said on this week’s Cycling Show. “So to me, it immediately felt as if I deserved it."
Kiesenhofer said that her “amateur” status worked to her advantage in more ways than one. Firstly, by rendering her something of an unknown, and therefore unlikely to be seen as much of a threat.
“I used my role as an underdog,” she said. “And I knew that people probably wouldn't chase me because I wasn't very well known… I had victories at the UCI level in the past, but those weren't important races. So I was hoping people had forgotten that I was any good.”
With its long grinding gradients, the course itself, she said, was closer in profile to that of the Gran Fondos on which she had been training, than to the average professional parcours. It was, therefore, better suited to her than to most professional riders, “who have to sprint and be explosive on short climbs”.
“I think that many pro riders underestimate good amateurs,” she continued. “Especially on the female side of cycling. Some of the top amateurs who compete in Gran Fondos would actually outride a couple of pros.”
Although much of the post-race narrative focused on Kiesenhofer’s academic background in mathematics, she roundly rejected the notion that she was able to calculate the numbers necessary to stay away.
“I know myself very well so I know what kind of power I can do, but to be honest, it's not about the numbers but feeling my body… I didn't plan in advance what power I would put out at every single moment.”
'Absolutely spectacular!' - Former gold medal winner Joanna Rowsell on Anna Kiesenhofer
Kiesenhofer described herself on her website as a “minimalist, introvert, attracted by the uncommon,” the latter being a mantra she swears by. Had she held a different outlook on life, she said she would probably not have won the gold medal. The gold medal, in return, validated her approach to life, and to her sport:
“It gave me a lot of self confidence and confirmation that being different can be a good thing," she said.
It certainly wasn’t always that way for Kiesenhofer, who spent one season with the professional Lotto Soudal team in 2017.
“When I started cycling, I was the odd one out, you know, 'she can't ride in a bunch, she's doing strange things'…”
After Tokyo, Kiesenhofer left her job as a postdoctoral fellow at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, and has since committed herself to cycling full-time. Despite entertaining offers from professional teams, her experience of the professional peloton first time around has left her reluctant to rejoin their ranks.
She attributes this rejection partly to a coach at Lotto Soudal who, she said, “burnt me out” and left her feeling that “everything was too much". That was when she decided “the pro life is not for me".
As Kiesenofer looks towards Paris 2024, without a professional team behind her, she’ll be restricted to UCI races where she can ride in national colours. She’ll ride the European and World Championships for Austria, as well as the same amateur Gran Fondos that served her so well in the run-up to Tokyo.
“I know that some providers laugh [at them] but the level is extremely high in those amateur races. They're actually much more suited for people like me who are fatigue resistant, who don't like racing in a bunch. In the end, in those races, it's really the legs that count.”
“There's more to cycling than WorldTour races,” she said.
This way, she said, “I can have my own sponsors, set up my own team, work with people who fit me. I'm not saying that pro teams don't have good people, but I can just choose who I want to work with. So it's amazing.”
'That was some performance' - Wiggins reacts to Kiesenhofer winning road race
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