It was the crowning achievement of her cycling career. Except it wasn’t.
When 38-year-old Annamiek van Vleuten of the Netherlands crossed the finish line of the women’s cycling road race on Sunday, she threw her arms in the air, broke into a wide smile and celebrated her first gold medal. The problem? She wasn’t the first rider across the line.
That was Austria’s Anna Kiesenhofer, who had broken away much earlier in the race and coasted to a stunning, surprise victory. Kiesenhofer’s profile was so low and her breakaway so surprising, in fact, that as the main field lost track of her.
Later, in a blur of tactics and racing and fatigue, they reeled in one rider after another as they drove for the finish. But as they did, they apparently forgot that there was still one competitor ahead of them.
The real drama came just over a minute after Kiesenhofer crossed the line.
Van Vleuten, who had crashed spectacularly while leading late in the 2016 road race in Rio de Janeiro, burst away from the pursuing pack on Fuji International Speedway and set her sights on completing a career-defining comeback. Slowly extending her lead over the rest of what they all believed was the lead group, van Vleuten burst across the line unaware she was celebrating a silver medal, not a gold.
Unlike other top events on the professional circuit, riders in the Olympic road race are not allowed to communicate with their teams using radios. That may have left van Vleuten and a group of her Netherlands teammates, who were working together during the race, in the dark about the actual state of affairs in real time.
Only when she reached her coaches did van Vleuten learned that her gold was actually a silver.
“Yes, I thought I had won,” she said. “I was wrong.”