I ride a bike, more as a hobby, than as a passion. There’s a beautiful path down the Willamette River here in Eugene Orgon that I enjoy riding several times a week. I go about 6.5 miles, stop at the park, read my book and ride back. It usually takes two hours, its good exercise and being outside is medicine for my soul.
Against this backdrop, I turned on my TV last night at 9:00 PM to watch the Olympics. The scheduled event, Woman’s Road Cycling. A grueling 4-hour, 85-mile race through stifling heat and humidity, with a course and terrain that would deplete even the most trained athlete. Being late, I told myself, it’s the Olympics, I will watch for an hour. Four hours later, I was on the edge of my seat, stunned and inspired by what occurred.
Regarding the cyclists, the main theme of discussion from the commentators was the strength of the Dutch team. How dominant they were in world competition and how they had the top four riders on one team—including the three-time reigning champion (Annemiek Van Vleuten.) I suppose in baseball that’s like having, Ryan Nolan, Cy Young, Randy Johnson, and Roger Clemens as your starting pitchers. The real question being discussed was whether this race was merely perfunctory.
Soon after the race began, five individual riders broke free from the peloton. Maybe it was their one time to shine before the professionals took over. Two riders were quickly caught while three propelled ahead. Anna Kiesenhofer of Austria, Anna Plitcha of Poland and Israel’s Omer Shapira dug deep and achieved a ten-minute lead on the Peloton. The peloton was unconcerned, feeling they would reel them in toward the end of the race. At that point, the strongest riders would challenge for the gold.
Cycling is a team sport. Usually, you have multiple people supporting one rider for victory. Riders from the team will provide cover from weather, other riders, and surprise breakaways. They help control the pace or push the pace as necessary. Thus, having a strong team and a good team strategy is a tremendous advantage.
The Olympic Road Race is different from other races. Not every cyclist belongs to a team and no radio communication is allowed. As a result, both individuals and teams are competing against each other. Keeping track of who is what and where during a race is challenging. Chaos, if you can’t keep straight who is in front and who is not. Additionally, you are competing for individual medals not team medals, so a team like the Dutch must decide who of the four strongest riders is going to try for the win and who will sacrifice for the other. Not an easy decision. Thus, the team strategies employed are not always cohesive.
Anna Kiesenhoffer is an amateur cyclist not a professional. She has a PhD in mathematics and teaches. She was an individual cyclist without a team, competing against some of the most powerful cycling teams in the world. A David against so many Goliaths. Thus, when she broke away from the peloton, it was a bold move for her, and an unnoticed move for everyone else. Why should they care? She would spend her strength alone and be caught later. When the Israeli and Polish riders dropped back, Anna was left to her own. Twenty miles of grueling solo effort to go—the lead was a mere five minutes.
Ironically, when the Israeli and Polish riders were caught by the peloton, the peloton had completely forgotten that Anna was still in front. All the major medal contenders were accounted for, but Anna an unknown was not even considered.
The Dutch Team was amazing. They attacked with precision and power. Like a chess match, they maneuvered and pushed the other riders in the peloton to breaking points. There is no doubt they were the strongest team in the field. Yet the complexity of this struggle was that the group did not realize the efforts of the individual.
After enormous individual effort, Anna crossed the finish line winning the race. She collapsed from the effort but had secured a gold medal. Her effort was a testament to her and to her strength of character. Yet when the three-time world champion, Dutch rider Annemiek Van Vleuten, crossed the finish line over a minute later she celebrated thinking she had won the race. Only later did she learn that she and everyone else had lost to an unknown individual cyclist.
How does one reconcile this outcome? Is it the group or the individual that matters—the beehive or the person that achieves success. I suppose that debate will rage long after this Olympics. Today, the individual won a victory that no one saw coming and that was not even realized even after the race was won. Why this happened and how it happened is a lesson for all of us. All I know, is that I was inspired and enthralled by what Anna accomplished and I am grateful for it.
I can honestly say after watching that race—I am glad the meager 13 miles on my bike isn’t as complicated 😊