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Anna Kiesenhofer: Mathematician, amateur cyclist, Olympic champion

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games - Olimpiadi Tokyo 2020 - Women's Road Race - Musashinonomori Park - Fuji Internetional Speedway 137 km - 25/07/2021 - Anna Kiesenhofer (Austria) - photo Luca Bettini/BettiniPhoto©2021
(Image credit: Bettini Photo)

As an amateur rider, Anna Kiesenhofer’s Olympics victory might have been a surprise, but she was not a rider to be underestimated.

In an extraordinary comeback story, the winner of the road race at the Tokyo Olympics left the sport at the end of 2017 when she found herself out of contract. She came into Tokyo without a pro team and left as Olympic Champion. 

The 30-year-old began her cycling career in 2014 after sustaining running injuries that prevented her from continuing her pursuits of triathlon and duathlon. She later joined a Catalan amateur team based near Girona and went on to win the Spanish National Cup overall in 2016.

That same year, Kiesenhofer entered the 2.2 Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l'Ardèche, which she had failed to finish the previous season due to a crash on the third stage. On the third stage of the 2016 edition, which featured a summit finish on Mont Ventoux, Kiesenhofer bridged to a breakaway group which, amongst others, contained the Polish rider Anna Plichta, who would later become her breakaway companion in Tokyo. 

After bridging, Keisenhofer then went on to attack the group at the bottom of Ventoux and won the 94.9km stage by 3:53. Kiesenhofer eventually took second overall in the race. 

The then-26-year-old signed her first professional contract with Lotto Soudal Ladies for the following season. However, after a series of DNFs, she ended her 2017 campaign in April and did not sign a contract for 2018, eventually taking a year off the bike.

In 2019, Kiesenhofer came back to the sport as an amateur rider, winning the Austrian national road race and time trial championships and placing 20th in the World Championship time trial. She has gone on to replicate her time trial win every year since, including 2021. Despite her results, Kiesenhofer was still without a professional contract going into the Olympics.

Off the bike, the new Olympic Champion has a PhD in mathematics after studying at the Technical University of Vienna as well as at Cambridge University before completing her doctorate in Catalonia in 2016 alongside her racing career. She currently works at the University of Lausanne, combining research with teaching. 

Kiesenhofer’s specialism in time trialling coupled with her mathematics expertise make it all the more fitting that the Austrian won by solo breakaway and after a calculation error from the rest of the peloton. 

Before the race, Kiesenhofer had also been using her studies to prepare for the Games: earlier this month, she Tweeted a graph demonstrating her meticulous heat acclimation process in preparation for the temperatures in Tokyo. 

Kiesenhofer was the very first rider to attack in the Olympic road race, eventually forming a breakaway alongsize Carl Oberholzer (South Africa), Omer Shapira (Israel), Vera Looser (Namibia), and Anna Plichta (Poland) which went on to reach a gap of 11 minutes. After Looser and Oberholzer were dropped, Kiesenhofer attacked her two remaining breakaway companions and time-trialled her way to the finish for over 40km. 

After Shapira and Plichta were caught by the remainder of the peloton the rest of the riders seemed to believe that they were racing amongst themselves for Gold, unaware that Kiesenhofer was still in front. 

However, while it might have been a miscalculation from the rest of the peloton that allowed Kiesenhofer to maintain her lead of more than two minutes, her rivals' mistakes should not detract from the Austrian’s efforts and eventual win.