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A recap of the 2021 Women’s Olympic Road Race

The 2021 women’s Olympic road race was won by the 500/1 longshot, Anna Kiesenhofer of Austria. A totally unexpected victory from a rider who’s quietly had a decent pro career before becoming a gold medallist. The race was previewed on this site and I was torn between a strong rider going solo or there being a small bunch sprint. Going into the race, all 4 of the Dutch riders were in the top-4 favourites. How did such a strong team fail to take the victory on a course that felt tailor made for them?

Pre-Race

The Dutch were the big big favourites for the race. The bookies had Anna van der Breggen as the favourite ahead of Annemiek van Vleuten. The strength in depth of the team was such that Marianne Vos and Demi Vollering rounded out the top-4 favourites. The pre-race wisdom suggested that Van Vleuten would try a long-range attack, followed by Van der Breggen with the mid-range attack and Vos/Vollering to work it out between them if the race came down to a sprint. All 4 have won major races in 2021 and would be desperate to earn themselves a medal each – a Dutch 1-2-3 was being talked about. I’d gone for Van der Breggen winning ahead of Vollering and Kopecky.

A long 10km neutralised period started the race. The Dutch noticeable wearing white ice vests to keep their core temperature down early on.

Marianne Vos is sent back to the team car when it’s time for the ice vests to come off, she brings bottles back up to the front of the peloton.

Whilst that’s been going on, Anna Kiesenhofer has been chilling at the back of the peloton. She spends most of the neutralisation just off the back of all the riders ahead.

As Vos comes back into the peloton, Kiesenhofer moves to the left of the pack and is seen moving up from there as Vos re-joins and drops off again with a bottle issue. We then get a heli shot where it’s impossible to tell where Kiesenhofer is in the peloton initially but a rider begins to shoot off as the peloton crosses the suspension bridge. As we switch to the moto camera, it’s Anna Kiesenhofer, joined by Carla Oberholzer and Vera Looser with Omer Shapira, Anna Plichta and Selam Amha Gerefiel trying to chase on.

Early Stages of the Women’s Olympic Road Race

At this point the peloton aren’t remotely worried. Australia are sitting on the front, Van der Breggen is joking with SD Worx teammate Anna Shackley, Italy cover the one edge and Germany cover the other with the USA hiding behind them. Ethiopian Selam Amha Gerefiel in unable to bridge so the main break settles down and contains 5 riders. With Gerefiel within sight of the peloton, the Eritrean Mossana Debesay makes a move across to join her. Once again the peloton isn’t worried and with 130km left to ride, the break has 1:42 and the African pair are 30 seconds ahead of the peloton.

The next phase of the race is the bottle refill and ice sock phase. Lots of riders go back to the cars and come back into the peloton. The major teams are all seen near the front at this point, except the Dutch who sit further back and don’t contribute on the front at all. Interestingly, Van der Breggen goes back to the car but doesn’t take any extra bottles forward and Marianne Vos is shortly afterwards also seen coming back to the peloton from the cars.

Whilst this is happening, with the gap to the break at 4:30, Trixi Worrack attacks. Van Vleuten had moved up to the front and helps close it down. Once Worrack is caught, Ludwig attacks for Germany in a 1-2 attack. Van Vleuten is there though with Marta Lach of Poland to keep it tight. Germany and Australia are key features of the front of the peloton as it settles down again. There’s a spell where everyone just watches each other, waiting for the next move. This allows the break to gain more than a minute’s advantage within the next 10km – the main break now has 6:40 with 110km to race.

Olga Zabelinskaya of Uzbekistan takes up the work on the front and the Dutch are just about visible right at the back of the peloton once again. This caginess and non-working is starting to be noticed by the Germans and Australians still near or on the front of the peloton. The gap to the break has already gone to over 7 minutes with the African duo nearly about to be caught. With them in sight and the peloton riding slowly, that inspires an attack from Agua Marina Espinola of Paraguay, who is joined shortly by Catalina Soto Campos of Chile. The South Americans quickly overtake the Africans.

The gap to the break quickly balloons out to nearly 11 minutes and we finally see a Dutch rider on the front working. Demi Vollering draws the short straw and does a stint. The break has Vera Looser drop off the back as they begin the long stretch of climbing. The next time we see the peloton, 2km later, Van Vleuten is working on the front with Vollering fully dropped back and out of sight. It turns out she’s gone back to the rear where we see Anna van der Breggen and Marianne Vos also chilling. Van Vleuten finishes her turn and 3 German riders go to to work. The Dutch are once again noticeable by their absence.

Middle Section of the Women’s Olympic Road Race

The cameras switch back to the break and when we come back to the peloton, we see Van Vleuten on the front for a couple of seconds. Bastianelli of Italy does an even shorter turn before flicking the elbow. Behind them, Van der Breggen has got a bottle for her trade teammate Demi Vollering who then moves forwards to not quite the front.

Vollering (top), Van der Breggen/Van Vleuten/Vos (bottom)

The other 3 Dutch riders are once again at the back of the peloton, letting the other teams commit to the chase. The gap is now 10 minutes with 90km to go. The break is also now down to 3 riders as Carla Oberholzer drops off with the road heading upwards. Vollering is briefly see back on the front of the peloton but it’s still Germany committing the most numbers to the chase.

Germany seem the most worried by the time gap and Australia are beginning to join them in doing the bulk of the work. Belgium are visible, along with Poland, USA and Great Britain are in the Australian line. The gap is out to 10:38, despite the work being put in. A sign that whilst Germany are visible, they’re not putting a huge amount of power down to get the gap closed. 4km later we see Marianne Vos doing a turn but quickly comes off and Van Vleuten moves up to work in front of Australia’s Sarah Gigante. With the Dutch involved in the chase, the gap comes down to 09:33 with 78km to go.

The turns from the Dutch favourites are short though and very quickly there are none in sight at the front of the peloton once more. The work is again left to the Germans, Brits and Australians at the front. 2km later, all 4 Dutch riders are clearly visible from the moto camera at the rear of the peloton. The South American pair are finally caught with 74km to go.

Whilst they go backwards, Anna van der Breggen is seen on the front for a rare turn. She takes on a long turn for a Dutch rider and gets the gap to come down 30 seconds. A quick flick of the camera to the break and back to the peloton and she’s disappeared again. We see her back with the cars shortly afterwards and her work on the front is undone already by the pace of the peloton.

Van der Breggen takes on a new ice sock at the top of her back and a quick chat with DS Loes Gunnewijk takes place. The gap to the break is consistently bouncing around 9:33 again. The SD Worx team divide shows itself when we see Van Vleuten coming back through the cars and Marianne Vos comes back to help her. All 4 Dutch riders are then seen near the back of the peloton, again in their pairs.

Van der Breggen and Vollering begin moving back up, whilst behind them Emma Norsgaard slides out at the same point Geraint Thomas crashed the day before. It looked slightly odd that Van Vleuten crashed into Norsgaard with a lot of distance and room between her and the prone Norsgaard. Van Vleuten is quickly upright and riding but has taken a couple of scrapes as a result.

In the meantime, Zabelinskaya attacks and causes a split in the peloton. It’s the usual countries at the front able to cover the move, although Germany are strangely absent until after Zabelinskaya’s move is neutralised. It doesn’t amount to much with all the Dutch riders near the back of the peloton again and Van Vleuten safely in the car convoy. She stops by her team car for a drink, ice sock and a chat. She’s ok to continue and takes a lot of instruction from the DS. She’s told to attack by Loes Gunnewijk and that the gap is over 10 minutes.

Demi Vollering makes the first move, as Carla Oberholzer is finally caught by the peloton. Germany, Great Britain and USA are at the front of the chase behind with Van Vleuten watching closely. Vollering is neutralised by an effort from Leah Thomas but an added bonus of the attack is that Germany lose Trixi Worrack out the back of the peloton. Van Vleuten takes over and puts on the hurt but USA’s Ruth Winder comes over the top and gets a gap.

This spell of attacking is starting to bring the gap to the break down, with it now sub-9 minutes for the first time in a long while. Winder’s attack doesn’t last long but the accelerations are dropping riders from the rear of the peloton. The next Dutch rider to attack is Marianne Vos but the camera switches to the break as it happens, by the time we return Vos has been caught. Another 30 seconds has gone from the gap to the break as Vollering takes up the work once more for a short turn. Everything settles down once more.

It’s finally Anna van der Breggen’s turn to attack and she causes some splits in the peloton behind her. Once more the camera flicks away and when we flick back it’s Annemiek van Vleuten on the front attacking again. The on/off attacking and slowing means the gap isn’t coming down as fast as it could, plus the peloton is being reduced. With 56km to go, the gap is down to 07:38.

2km later is the attack from Annemiek van Vleuten that sticks. The peloton has been hammered and no-one is able to follow. The gap is now down to 6:32 but the Dutch have put all their eggs in the Van Vleuten basket and don’t need to work in the peloton behind. They even shut down any moves that try to happen by the likes of Garcia and Deignan. Van Vleuten quickly gets a minute or so advantage over the peloton.

Annemiek asks for a time check from the moto and is told 5:15 to the peloton initially, then 5 minutes to the group ahead and doesn’t get a reply to the time behind her. A wry shake of the head shows how useful that exchange was. The gap holds steady, with 5 minutes to the break and 1 minute back to the peloton. Up ahead Kiesenhofer drops her breakaway companions and goes solo with 41km to race.

Final to the Women’s Olympic Road Race

Jumping forward a bit, something strange is happening. Van Vleuten hasn’t been catching Kiesenhofer with that gap staying steady. Even more strange, it’s looking like Van Vleuten is going to be re-caught by the peloton. Something you don’t see too often after one of her attacks. Post-race Van Vleuten said she was surprised to see Niewiadoma alongside her as she didn’t realise the peloton was that close behind.

The attacks in the peloton behind Van Vleuten has caused a large split. Van der Breggen and Vollering find themselves in the second split, with Vollering having to do the work to close the gap. For some reason, Van der Breggen doesn’t check in with the team car at this point. The effects of the splits mean the front split don’t push on either. They collectively sit up and wait for some of the team’s additional firepower to return to the group.

Now on the Fuji International Speedway and with the two split groups back together, the Dutch leave the chasing to other teams again. At this point the Dutch are the only team with 4 riders in the front group but appear unwilling to sacrifice anyone for the cause. Kiesenhofer still has an advantage of 4:35 at this point with 20km to go. With the peloton (and the Dutch) not working well, the balance swings to the Austrian.

After a turn by Annemiek van Vleuten, a conversation is had at the front of the peloton by Van der Breggen, Vollering and Vos. Juliette Labous attacks for France and for some reason the Dutch just let her go and don’t contribute to the chase. It’s left to Germany and the USA to do the bulk of the work until Van Vleuten returns to the front. Van der Breggen doesn’t rush over the finish line as they enter the last lap and the time gap is staying the same. The gap is 4:18 over the line with a lap to go.

With the Dutch not at the front, the gap only comes down 12 seconds in 6 kilometres.

Not long after we finally see a committed chase from the Dutch as they send more than one rider to the front for the first time. The gap to Kiesenhofer begins to come down but it’s still 3:30 with 8km to go but the chase still isn’t all-out by the Dutch. They reel Labous back into the pack and soon have Shapira and Plichta in their sights. On the rise to the circuit, they are finally caught and Vollering is dropped after making her efforts. The Dutch presumably now think they are at the front of the race, despite there being no lead car.

Van Vleuten does a tonne of work on the circuit, but the gap to Kiesenhofer is now insurmountable. The Dutch are clearly trying to set up Vos for the sprint with an attack by Van der Breggen designed to soften up the rival’s legs. Mavi Garcia is able to go with Van der Breggen but as she gets on the wheel, so does Van Vleuten who rides over the top of them. Uttrup Ludwig tries to bridge but doesn’t have the legs left. Longo Borghini is the only rider to gap the chasers but is still well behind Van Vleuten. Whilst this is going on, Anna Kiesenhofer crosses the finish line and lies on the floor.

As spectators we see Van Vleuten celebrating quite hard for 2nd place before finding out that she hadn’t won the race. Kiesenhofer is left almost on her own to celebrate, with no Austrian teammates in this race. The Dutch team begin their inquest.