The much anticipated Olympics are done and the dust has settled on a dramatic two weeks of racing. After a week to reflect on the road and track cycling events at Tokyo 2020, here’s what we concluded.
Roglic is a mental colossus
If anyone deserves a gold medal, if only for mental fortitude, it’s Primoz Roglic. Imagine being a teenage ski jumping sensation, winning junior world championships, then suffering a life-threatening ski jump accident. Then coming back to a high level again, coming to terms of your limitations in the sport, then imagine switching to another pretty hard sport and spending three years riding for a relatively unknown UCI Continental team. Then imagine getting an opportunity to ride for a WorldTour team at the highest level in cycling and winning build-up races to the Giro d’Italia and imagine being on the cusp of winning the Giro, crashing while your DS was having a nature break so he wasn’t there in time to give you a spare bike.
Then imagine bouncing back to win the Vuelta. Then putting together a perfect ride at the Tour de France the following year, and famously faltering on the penultimate day. Then coming back to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège, (against the same rider that trounced you at the Tour). Imagine crashing in the 2021 Paris Nice, finishing the stage half-naked and losing the race (and still having the good grace to congratulate GC winner Max Schachmann – before seeking medical attention). Then imagine getting back to your best shape ever for the Tour, then crashing out. Then you come back from that to win Olympic gold in the time trial, against the very finest in the world. Like we said, the sport of cycling is hard. But Primoz Roglic is harder.
Someone in Holland needs a written warning
It’s impossible to imagine the women’s road race finish line emotions Annemiek van Vleuten experienced, just as she was informed of the results. For cycling fans, it’ll be another infamous moment etched in history, alongside Julian Alaphilippe at the 2020 Liege Bastogne Liege, Erik Zabel at the 2004 Milan San Remo and Laurent Fignon at the 1989 Tour de France – riders who thought they had it in the bag, but didn’t. The difference is that Alaphilippe, Zabel and Fignon only had themselves to blame.
Sure, the Dutch management can decry the ban of race radios and the organisers’ completely inept time gap info-communications, but surely there had to be a point in the race at which a Dutch representative in the car, or in the feed zone, or following on the live TV feed said something. Like at the 42km to go mark when eventual winner Anna Kiesenhofer dropped her last remaining breakaway companions Omer Shapira and Anna Plichta and was 6 minutes up (at this time, van Vleuten was also on her own in pursuit of the break). Someone should’ve said something when van Vleuten was caught at 25km to go and Kiesenhofer still had 5 minutes on the field. Someone should’ve said something when Shapira and Plichta were caught at 4.5km to go and Kiesenhofer still had 3 minutes on the field (but at this point it was way too late, info or no info).
It could be said that the Dutch women’s team didn’t have it as easy as the pre-race predictions said. The team was so stacked that it was a case of too many chiefs (three of them are former or current world champions and one is the pre-eminent rising star of the sport). Tactically this raises issues on the road, when there are too many scenarios to account for i.e. should they have expended Lottering and van der Breggen and gamble on Vos’ powerful sprint or should they have attacked one by one hoping that something sticks. Also, van Vleuten’s crash would’ve put plans on hold for a while, with the kilometres ticking by (why didn’t someone tell her then that Kiesenhofer, Shapira and Plicht were such a long way up the road). That break should never have been given that much leeway, especially with the quality of Shapiro and Plichta, well-known on the circuit, riding at the highest level on UCI Women’s World and Continental Teams. It was certainly up to the Dutch to control it, but they needed the right info. It’s not all up to the athletes to manage this, especially with the hypoxia that a high-stakes race finale can bring on. Considering the exhaustive and no-stone-unturned diligence and dedication van Vleuten approaches her preparation, you’d think that the well-staffed Dutch management could’ve found a way to get her and the team accurate time checks.
Remco has a bit to go still
We use his first name because it’s easy to say and it’s a cool name, like Sting or Madonna, or Eddy. Talking of Eddy, comparisons with the GOAT are plentiful so let’s not get into that (especially after another Belgian Wout van Aert turned out a diverse and magnificent performance at the Tour de France). Let’s just say Remco’s been touted as the next big thing since dominating the 2018 junior world championships. He then skipped the under 23 category altogether in 2019, winning elite European Championships time trial, overall GC at Tour of Belgium and his first big one-day win at Clásica de San Sebastián. 2020 was highlighted by overall wins at Volta ao Algarve, Tour de Pologne and Vuelta a Burgos but then came the low point (of 2020 and his young life) – a chilling crash on a descent over a wall into a ravine at Giro Lombardia, bruising a lung and breaking his pelvis.
His recovery and build-up to the 2021 season was watched by the whole of Belgium, with the Giro d’Italia as the setting of his comeback story. But at his first Grand Tour his lack of racing showed. There were no intergalactic performances in the TT, he struggled on the dirt roads of Tuscany and cracked in the Dolomites. Also, more ominously, he showed some weaknesses on the technical descents. After a short rest he managed to podium at his national road race and TT, plus won Baloise Belgium Tour before heading to Tokyo 2020 – the primary goal of his season. In a Belgian team built around him and van Aert, Remco tried his luck in an escape with Vincenzo Nibali and Eddie Dunbar “but at the same time other countries woke up and closed on us. We tried! Probably lost a few percentages there…” Backing off before the race really detonated, we expected a stellar performance in the TT. However the 21-year-old was down at all the timechecks, and that was before Primoz Roglic lit the afterburners.
Perhaps it’s a case of his injuries at Il Lombardia being worse than we were led to believe, or it’s the weight of a nation’s expectation on a very young man, or he just needs a little longer to adapt to the big league. There’s no doubt he’ll do great things, but considering that Tadej Pogacar has clocked up two Tours and Tom Pidcock has a road classic to his name and an Olympic gold medal, both at 22, the jury is still out. He’s already back to his winning ways, like at the Tour of Denmark this week, but there is still some work to do.
Dutch team story deserved a happy ending
After a distinctly average showing in the men’s road race, woeful tactics in the women’s road race, Mathieu van der Poel’s ‘rampgate’ in the mountain biking event and BMX rider Niek Kimmann hitting an official on the course at full speed, we were convinced that Dutch Cycling was cursed.
Things started to look up at the women’s mountain bike race when Anne Terpstra turned in a high-quality performance for fifth place, while many of her fiercest rivals faltered spectacularly in the challenging conditions. Then came the men’s individual time trial. Yes, Roglic was on another planet with the remaining medals on the tray fought out between world champion Filippo Ganna, Stefan Küng, Rohan Dennis and Tom Dumoulin. The Dutchman had made the made the news this January when he took indefinite leave from the sport, another all too frequent example of the effects that the pressure of the sporting limelight has on athletes’ mental health.
Earlier in the year, Dumoulin was spotted spectating at the Amstel Gold Race and, at the risk of making light of the situation, he got some FOMO and by the time Tour de Suisse rolled around he was back in the game. He placed 16th in the first TT and 5th in the final TT stage, racing himself back to form. 2nd at Tokyo 2020 is surely the comeback story of the year.
Capping that off with Annemiek van Vleuten’s gold medal and Anna van der Breggen’s bronze, things were looking up. In the following week, Jeffrey Hoogland bought it home for his Dutch teammates Roy van den Berg and Harrie Lavreysen delivering on their favourite status in the men’s team sprint and they also took gold (Lavreysen) and silver (Hoogland) the men’s individual sprint, Shanne Braspennincx took gold in the women’s Keirin, Jan Willem van Schip grabbed bronze in the men’s omnium. Harrie Lavreysen added a bronze medal to his haul in the men’s Keirin and Kirsten Wild won bronze in the women’s omnium.
Oh and Niek Kimmann luckily overcame his knee injury after colliding with that official to win gold and Merel Smulders took bronze in the women’s BMX race. All’s well that ends well.
Sometimes it’s good to take (calculated) risks and go it alone
Behind every good luck fairytale, there’s a story of hard work and even hardship. There are no shortcuts. At the women’s road race, Anna Kiesenhofer pulled off one of the biggest ever coups in cycling, taking gold, leaving the favourites floundering and confused. It may have been a surprise to fans and riders alike, but not to the lone Austrian selected for the race.
Let’s go back a few years. In 2017, Kiesenhofer fulfilled her dream of becoming a professional cyclist, signing to one of the biggest teams on the road – Lotto Soudal. At the end of that season, she hadn’t finished a race. Clearly it was a negative experience and she took a hiatus from the sport. She rejoined the elite realm a year later, but on her own terms, focusing on the lone discipline of time trials.
Attacking from the gun in the 137km, Kiesenhofer found herself in a break with Carla Oberholzer (South Africa), Vera Looser (Namibia), Omer Shapira (Israel), and Anna Plitcha (Poland) growing the gap – at 86km to go, the gap was well over 10 minutes, still with no concerted chase from the peloton, but we’ve told that story already… The telling moment of the day was when Kiesenhofer attacked her two remaining breakaway companions with over 40km still to ride. Conventional wisdom dictates that there’s safety (and power) in numbers and that it’d be more wise to conserve energy till closer to the end. But not for the 30 year old Austrian, preferring to go it alone at that point.
Her post race interview was telling, not only of her feelings towards her old team, but also in her approach. As a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Dr Kiesenhofer revealed that this was no do-or-die, ride on emotion performance, “I’m self-coached. I plan my training myself. It’s not so sophisticated – I didn’t do any altitude training camp. I stick to the basics. I just found out what works for me – I read a lot of books about sports physiology and sports science and now I think the best book about sports science is actually my own training plan. I did have coaches in the past and I learned a lot from them but right now I’m managing everything on my own – like nutrition and equipment I make all the choices myself. I made my race plan – like how many gels I need, what kind of gels, what kind of carbs, how much water… So I’m actually also proud of that. I’m not the kind of cyclist who’s only pushing the pedals, I’m also a kind of mastermind behind my performance.” It comes across as egotistical but watch the press conference and you’ll see that she’s just delivering the facts, in a calculated way. This was clearly no fluke.
When asked if she had a message for young aspiring cyclists, she said, “Don’t trust authority too much. I was victim of it myself… you’re young, you don’t know too much and then you have some coach or somebody who says I know this and you have to do that and it will work for you. I was in that spot myself and I believed people and now I’m older I start to realize that all those people who say that they know they actually don’t know. And those who know say that they don’t know. So I started reading a lot, hear all the opinions – you start to realize there are no shortcuts, there are no miracles. Yeah you need to trust some people because you need people around – you can’t do everything you’re on your own but you have to be very careful about who to trust.” Again, no ego, just a fresh (and entirely welcome) take on the sport and it’s varying routes to success.
Bonus: You don’t need aero kinesiology tape or £50 000 bikes, you just need a Ganna
Assembled in the Izu Velodrome were a group of the highest quality athletes in the world. At this point in their lives they were at their most primed and conditioned. Yet in their five-year quest for gold, they’d still been searching for that extra edge on the competition. The controlled environment of track is a hotbed of much of the industry’s tech development and headlines about the various nations’ equipment began popping up two years prior to the Olympics – team GB’s Hope / Lotus HB.T track bike with ultrawide forks and stays to direct airflow around the rider’s legs, the Australians’ 3D printed sprint aero handlebars, the Vorteq custom-fitted skin suits, the shorter pitch chains…
In race week the tech nerds got their fix when they spotted the Danes’ custom-made helmets (specific to each individual rider) and the Malaysian riders showed off their Vorteq WX-R frame and X wheel (developed at Silverstone Sports Engineering Hub). When the Italian pursuit team pitched up with what looked like pretty standard-looking Pinarello frames and Campy disc wheels, they almost looked out of place (to be fair, Pina’s MAAT track frame is pretty special but is comparatively traditional-looking, and cheap).
The build-up to the men’s 4000m team pursuit was the perfect dramatic narrative. It started with the Danes applying some ‘aero tape’ on the leading edge of their lower legs (did they think anyone would believe that all the riders would have the same injury?), the GB manager angling to have them banned, the Aussies’ stem breaking, the Danes riding into the back of a GB rider and crashing. It all came down to the Italians and the Danish in the final – the race for the gold medal. It was pretty even, with the Danes up by 0.8 of a second as the latter half of the race commenced. Then Francesco Lamon, Jonathan Milan and Simone Consonni applied ‘the plan’ and started to claw back time. Then they put Filippo Ganna on the front. Then they set new world record time of 3:42.032 and won Olympic gold.
| WORDS: Staff writer | IMAGES: UCI & Facebook |