The giveaway was the finish. As she approached the line, Anna Kiesenhofer glanced over her shoulder. Then she did it again, and again and again. It was as if she could not believe her own eyes, telling her that no chasers were in sight.
This. Does. Not. Happen. An amateur – who has only ever had a professional contract for a year – she had obliterated a field containing the best riders on the planet and was on the verge of the impossible. The unknown 30-year-old inched closer, mouth gaping for precious air.
Then, metres from the finish, the realisation dawned. That she would not be caught. That she was about to complete one of the greatest shocks in Olympic history and win Austria’s first gold in cycling for 125 years. Now, glory awaited.
Austria’s Anna Kieserhofer pulled off a massive shock to win gold in the women’s road race
Kieserhofer was unfancied on the day but lead the pack for much of the race
The Cambridge maths graduate, an academic at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, had just delivered the perfect, calculated lesson in the biggest lecture theatre of them all. She nervously lifted her arms from the bars. Both she and her bike wobbled over the line. This was clearly not a gesture she was used to performing.
The uncertain celebration spoke volumes. While Kiesenhofer may have struggled to believe it, it quickly became clear that nobody else certainly could. A full 75 seconds later the fancied Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten (who has a team) crossed and the contrast could not be more stark.
The 38–year-old multiple world champion confidently and triumphantly threw her arms aloft. After chasing down what she imagined was the leading pack, Van Vleuten thought she had won. ‘I was wrong,’ she later said. So was everybody else.
When Britain’s Lizzie Deignan crossed in a spirited but frustrating 11th place, she was grabbed by the BBC for an interview. ‘The best person won,’ she said, congratulating ‘Annemiek’.
Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten claimed the silver medal – but was left red-faced as she celebrated at the finish line thinking she had won
In the shadows of the towering Mount Fuji, we had witnessed the unlikeliest ascent to victory. Over an astonishing three hours, 52 minutes and 45 seconds Kiesenhofer, who had 805 followers on Twitter when the 137km race concluded, did not just overcome, she blew away the planet’s best.
As he often does, BBC pundit Chris Boardman summed it up best. ‘A thousand to one shot’, he said. Only nobody would have asked for the odds. This was the feel-good story of the Olympics so far and as the realisation dawned, Kiesenhofer, sank to her knees, and then her back, tears rolling down her face.
Both hands touched the side of her helmet. Then came the victory screams. Later, she delivered confirmation. ‘
I couldn’t believe it,’ she said. ‘Even when I crossed the line, it was like, “Is it done now? Do I have to continue riding?” Incredible.’
Kiesenhofer, who has won the Austrian national time trial, is the chair of partial differential equations in her day job. The formula she deployed to solve her trickiest conundrum was relatively simple.
Just metres from the start she joined a breakaway group of six. And on the final climb of a gruelling route, some 40km from the finish, she broke clear.
‘I planned to attack at kilometre zero and I was happy I could get in front,’ she explained.
Lizzie Deignan led Team GB’s hopes at Musashinonomori Park but settled for 11th place
‘That is something I could not take for granted because I am not good at riding in the peloton. I am happy that I was not too scared and I just went for it.’
In 2016, Kiesenhofer completed a four-year PhD in Catalonia, following her time at the side of the River Cam, so she would have known all about laborious challenges.But this was something else.
‘I have really sacrificed so much for today,’ she said. ‘I wasn’t expecting to finish it off like that. I sacrificed everything even for a top-15 place and now to get this, for the sacrifices, it’s just such a reward, it’s incredible.’
When the news was relayed to the rest of an incredulous field there was understandable shock. Yorkshire folk have a habit of delivering blunt assessments and Otley’s Deignan was perfectly frank.
‘I don’t know a lot about her,’ she said, ‘she’s definitely a surprise winner’. At times, Kiesenhofer was ahead by more than two minutes and 30 seconds. And as she entered the final throes in the racetrack the only thing that could stop her was cramp or malfunction.
It was a tantalising watch from start to finish as the rider pushed themselves in the heat
Thankfully, neither transpired. ‘I was just trying to get to the line,’ she explained. ‘My legs were completely empty. I have never emptied myself so much in my whole life. I could hardly pedal any more. It felt like there was zero energy in my legs.’
The academic, who is based in Lausanne, follows compatriot Adolf Schmal, who landed a gold and two bronze medals at the inaugural Olympics of the modern era, in 1896
Schmal was also a journalist. He may never have written a story like this one.