Talk about going off early.
Annemiek van Vleuten was hoping to create some new Olympic memories after a horror crash in Rio, but the damage done to her ego in Tokyo will be just as bad as anything inflicted on her body five years ago.
The Dutch cyclist crossed the finish line of the women’s road race on Sunday with her arms aloft, jubilation and relief splashed across her face. After a shocking accident in 2016 that resulted in a heavy concussion, three cracked vertebrae and a stay in intensive care, she was desperate for a very different outcome this time around.
And van Vleuten thought she’d achieved just that. At the end of the race she celebrated like she’d won gold – which is exactly what she thought had happened. But the truth hurts.
In fact, she finished the four-hour race 75 seconds behind actual winner, Anna Kiesenhofer of Austria.
Van Vleuten couldn’t believe it. She was devastated when told by a team member she wouldn’t be standing on the top step of the podium.
In a race without communication between teams and their riders, the 38-year-old and her Dutch teammates had no idea Kiesenhofer had broken ahead of the pack, unaware there was someone to chase down for top spot.
“Yes, I thought I had won,” van Vleuten said. “I’m gutted about this, of course.
“At first I felt really stupid, but then the others (her teammates) also did not know who had won.”
There was earlier drama for van Vleuten after she took a tumble when Denmark’s Emma Joergensen veered into her path after falling. The 2019 world road race champion quickly regathered and moved her way back into the peloton to take up the fight
Fellow Dutch rider Anna van der Breggen told De Telegraaf: “This is actually the only race where we ride without communication, without earphones.
“We got some riders back and we thought we were going for the win. But that was not the case. You should actually start counting how many come back.
“It was confusing in several ways. We can go to the squad car for the information and we will. But in the final you don’t do that anymore.”
It means van Vleuten will leave Tokyo with a scar just as painful as those she picked up on her last Olympic visit.
The world cringed at the awkward ending.
She missed out on gold, but who knows whether silver will satisfy the ultra-competitive van Vleuten.
“They were so happy that I was still alive,” van Vleuten told the Wall Street Journal in 2017 when asked about her family’s reaction to her 2016 crash. “But I only woke up in hospital like, ‘S**t I lost the gold medal’.
“I’d wake up in the morning with a stone in my stomach thinking, ‘Why did I misjudge that corner?’ I was so near to something so big in my life, in my career, and I just made a stupid mistake.”
Van Vleuten looked to be heading for victory on that terrifying day five years ago but tumbled head over heels in a stomach-churning fall that left her motionless in a crumpled heap on the side of the road.
That she was able to ride again, let alone compete at another Olympics and be at the front of the pack is a miracle in itself.
More than anything, the incident motivated van Vleuten even more to win gold. She wasn’t going to waste time feeling sorry for herself because she had goals to achieve.
“I don’t know what would have happened had she won in Rio, but there’s a hunger there,” her coach at Orica-Scott, Gene Bates, said in 2017. “It certainly kicked on her career.”
The redemption she’s after will have to wait.
The cruel development for van Vleuten was contrasted by the sheer ecstasy of Kiesenhofer, who was responsible for one of the biggest upsets of the Games so far. The Austrian isn’t even part of a professional cycling team, but stunned the field in the 137km race by breaking away at the start and keeping her foot on the gas.
The 31-year-old battled cramp in the dying stages but willed her body not to give out as the finish line approached. Kiesenhofer held on for dear life. She collapsed on the ground after securing gold and broke out in tears as she gasped for air.
“It’s incredible, I couldn’t believe it, even when I crossed the line,” said Kiesenhofer. “I planned to attack at kilometre zero and I was happy I could get in front. 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.”
Italy’s Elisa Longo Borghini rounded off the podium in third, and said van Vleuten and the Netherlands paid the price for trying to be too smart.
“I thought that Holland had everything in their hands but in the end sometimes when you play tactics too much and you think you are the strongest, you lose the race,” she said.
“As the national team, we are really humble and we knew that we really had to suffer to get a medal, and so we did.”