They are still laughing at the start, the Dutch star ensemble on bicycles, four women who have come to Japan for nothing less than the Olympic road cycling title. They have been dominating for years, not just this season.
Marianne Vos, who became glorious champion in the pouring rain of London nine years ago, is relaxed on the outposts talking to the competition. She feels good about herself, says her brother Anton, finish photographer on duty, 135 kilometers away. He knows: he will not slave. You can bet she will go for her own chances. Hey, didn’t the three others say something like that too? They all yearn for Olympic gold, with their track record they also have the right to dream. No leader was appointed in advance, everyone had a free role. Taking gold could be done in all sorts of ways and that also made it difficult. Annemiek van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen benefited from a tough race, while Marianne Vos and Demi Vollering could rely on their sprint.
It sounded like the five-man, world-class paper defense, looking at each other in the worst-case scenario, transfixed, while a striker is given safe conduct. A surplus of quality is no guarantee of success.
Cooling vest against the heat
It will not depend on the preparation. The Dutch women are the only ones who wear a cooling vest around their shoulders to protect themselves against the Japanese heat. In this way they maintain their core temperature. Armed, they set off, for a few kilometers neutral course through a hedge of people, because the state of emergency does not apply outside Tokyo.
Moments later, a group of riders drives away, as is almost always the case in a championship. It’s about five adventurers who already know that what they are doing is in vain, but take the gamble anyway – after all, to be able to win you have to drive ahead. The peloton of sixty has been fine for a long time. This way the match can start quietly. There is still a long blood heat ahead of them.
The camera zooms in on Anna van der Breggen, who started as the outgoing champion with number 1. It is her last road race, after Tokyo she stops cycling. In her biography Anna let them write down not to be short of a title. Winning would be nice, but it in no way determines her happiness in life. In this way she bolts extremely relaxed towards the end of a glorious career; winning, effacing, it doesn’t matter to her.
Having fun with a bottle
She squeezes a water bottle in her neck and face, and also sprays a Belgian colleague wet. But while she’s having fun, the leading group cycles away from her, three minutes in no time, and eventually about eleven. No one in orange is aware of impending doom.
But if the situation remains unchanged for a long time, time will begin to run out. There is an old cycling law that prescribes that a large group can catch up with a smaller one by one minute per ten kilometers. If that’s true, the chase has started too late. The Dutch women had discussed it so well beforehand: a group may drive away, but again not too far. They had agreed on a maximum backlog, but did not want to reveal it after the game.
Van Vleuten opens the chase, with a gear, on the first serious climb of the day, Doshi Road, 67 kilometers from the end. It is an attack without conviction, a kind of signal to her teammates that something really needs to be done now. It is understood, because now they go back and forth: Vollering, Van Vleuten, then Van der Breggen, and again Van Vleuten. Only Vos keeps his feet still during this offensive. The gap on the remaining trio at the front is somewhat reduced, to eight minutes. Then it stops. It’s not gonna be like that.
Van Vleuten’s next attack is one that drips with inspiration. This can be seen from the sharp movements, the slightly nodded head, and in a scolding struggle up to and including. This resembles the beginning of that monster solo from two years ago, at the World Championships in Harrogate. It was 105 kilometers long, this one only half. Here rides a woman who, although purring to herself and the outside world that she has nothing left to put right after that death throb of five years ago in Rio, is ambitious enough to grab what somewhere, deep inside, might be her rightful property. can feel.
She runs a minute ahead of the peloton on the funnel between two mountain passes, but alone she cannot close the gap to a disintegrating group of fortune hunters. The Olympic road race seems to culminate in an unlikely battle between one of the world’s best riders and an Austrian amateur, whom no one knows because she never moves into a peloton. Anna Kiesenhofer, 30 years old, participated in triathlon, can time trial quite well, trains herself. On her Instagram she says she has a love for climbing. She studied mathematics at Cambridge University, now Lausanne, and studied the influence of heat on the human body. She also appears to be able to pedal very hard on this Sunday.
Train of four
Five minutes behind her, an organized hunt finally gets underway. A train of four orange women thunders towards the finish. Their backlog is shrinking visibly, but they are too late. They just don’t know that yet.
The time differences passed on by the organization appear to be difficult to get through. Van der Breggen sees engines with numbers, but cannot decipher them. And at championships, mobile communication devices are prohibited. To know what is happening in the race, riders have to physically visit the team management’s car. And that is no longer possible in the full final. The last time it still works, national coach Loes Gunnewijk mistakenly passes on the wrong information in all the hectic, it would turn out afterwards – that of the leading group only the Polish Anna Plichta is still leading the way. If she had known that, Van der Breggen said, she would have handled the chase very differently. Then she might have closed the gap much earlier.
The Dutch riders are under the assumption that they will soon be competing for the title at the Fuji International Speedway, if they greedily gobble up the Polish and also an Israeli. But it turns out to be a major mistake. Because while Van Vleuten thinks she will make the decisive attack and go solo to the gold, the Olympic champion is already known. Kiesenhofer drops onto the asphalt on her back. She cries, shrugging. Over her eyes is a film of bewilderment.
„Yes! Yes”, she shouts with a German accent, and Van Vleuten does something similar on the line. For a moment, maybe thirty seconds, two women have the idea that they are Olympic champions. Caregiver Ruud Zijlmans makes the bubble burst. “O Ruud”, says Van Vleuten, confronted with fate. “I was wrong, we didn’t get anything.” Later, with silver around her neck: “Hopefully I can still be an inspiration to others.”
The Dutch women grossly underestimated Anna Kiesenhofer from the hamlet of Kreusztetten. She should never have been given eleven minutes in the game of her life. Asked for tips for young riders, the brand new champion inadvertently sent a message to the Dutch team: “Don’t trust anyone blindly.” That’s how she had come here.