Annemiek van Vleuten: No race radios led to confusion at Tokyo Olympics

Annemiek van Vleuten with the silver medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games
Annemiek van Vleuten with the silver medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games (Image credit: Getty Images)

Annemiek van Vleuten has stated her mixed feelings over securing the silver medal in the women’s road race at the Tokyo Olympic Games. The Dutch rider was unaware that gold-medal winner Anna Kiesenhofer (Austria) was ahead of the field when she attacked in the final, and crossed the line thinking she had won the Olympic title only to learn later that she had in fact taken the silver medal. 

Van Vleuten said that the problem came down to a lack of communication on the road, in part because teams and riders were not permitted the use of race radios, which are used for in-race communications, during the 137km race from Musashinonomori Park to the Fuji International Speedway.

"It summarises it quite well if after the finish we are asking each other who had won, and what the time gaps were," Van Vleuten said in a post-race press conference. 

"We didn’t know. We heard 45 seconds with 10km to go. It showed that there was a lot of confusion and not only with me. It was in the Dutch team but also the other [nations]. In the most important race, you’re not allowed to ride with communication, which we usually do. It should make the race more interesting but it made the race more confusing."

The women’s peloton is permitted the use of race radios to communicate between teammates on the road, and staff positioned in support vehicles, during Women’s WorldTour races throughout the season. 

However, the use of race radios is not permitted at the Olympic Games and so riders must rely on verbal communication between one another while racing on the road.  They can drift back to their support vehicles to get race details from a director, or they can monitor a moto-official’s information written on a whiteboard for the breakaway and peloton to view.

The debate over the use of race radios has been a long one. Some view them as a necessity for in-race communication and safety, while others believe that the dynamics of racing is more interesting without athletes relying on race radios.

Kiesenhofer was part of an early-race breakaway with Carla Oberholzer (South Africa), Vera Looser (Namibia), Omer Shapira (Israel), and Anna Plichta (Poland). Major nations relied on the powerful Dutch team of Van Vleuten, Anna van der Breggen, Demi Vollering and Marianne Vos to control the gap but they did not, and it bloomed to 10 minutes.

Van Vleuten, who crashed at roughly 60km to go, got back into the main field with help from her team and then went on a solo chase at roughly 50km to go. She wasn’t able to bridge the gap to the breakaway and was reeled back in with 25km to go. Van Vleuten had stated that she asked a TV motorbike for time gaps, suggesting a lack of communication out of the road between the peloton and race officials.

"When I was alone in front I had to ask the TV moto person what was happening, what was the advantage, the times, so I think that was far from professional and it’s very disappointing to have this situation in the most important race in four years. This is one side of the story. The other is this beautiful silver medal," Van Vleuten said.

"At the moment it’s a bit hard to be happy with it, but I achieved my goal. We underestimated Anna Kiesenhofer as a Dutch team and I think we will sit together tonight and evaluate. The big thing was a lack of communication in this race. But yeah, I’m proud of my first Olympic medal – or I hope to be proud after some more time."

This was the third Olympic Games for Van Vleuten after racing in 2012 London and 2016 Rio de Janeiro, where she was involved in a horrific, high-speed crash on the final descent while leading the race that left her recovering from a severe concussion and three small fractures in her lower back. 

She said that she was not looking for redemption at this Olympic Games, but she was looking for the gold medal. 

"We came for gold so a bit mixed feelings. For me personally, this silver medal has nothing to do with Rio. But this is my first Olympic medal ever so that makes me really proud," Van Vleuten said. 

"But we came for the gold so it’s a bit mixed feelings. There was a lot of confusion and miscommunication today. But a lot has already been said about that."

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Kirsten Frattini