Coryn Rivera competes in the women's road race at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 25, 2021 in Oyama, Shizuoka, Japan.
TOKYO — It’s been 37 years since U.S. women’s cycling won an Olympic medal in the road race. Now they will have to wait another three years to try again in Paris 2024.
On another hot day in Japan, America’s top sprinter, Coryn Rivera, battled to seventh place behind surprise winner Anna Kiesenhofer from Austria in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 women’s cycling road race. Rivera rode a savvy race, but the heat and humidity got to her in the end.
“Obviously, not what I want, but I’ve worked hard for it,” Rivera said after the race. “I cramped, so I gave it my all.”
“I’m pretty happy with it for my first Olympics,” she added. “After everything, I can be pretty satisfied.”
For Kiesenhofer, the race was what Olympic dreams are made of. The 30-year-old Austrian attacked the 137-kilometer (85-mile) race from the gun, taking two other riders with her. She ended up holding off all challengers, including a surprised Dutch squad, predicted to dominate the women’s road race.
A mathematician who has done post-doctoral work at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Kiesenhofer had to know the calculus was against her. Until today, she was a little known cyclist who’s biggest win was the Austrian national time trial title.
Late in the race, Annemiek van Vleuten — the Dutch rider who suffered a horrific crash in the Rio Olympic road race — attacked and rode free from the peloton. Without race radios, the entire peloton did not know that Kiesenhofer was still up the road. Van Vleuten crossed the finish line thinking she was the Olympic champion. The Dutch were, after all, favored to dominate the women’s road race. Instead, van Vleuten was the silver medalist. Elisa Longo Borghini from Italy took the bronze — the same color medal she won at the Rio Games.
Rivera was one of the favored cyclists to win the women’s road race. The course was a watered-down version of the men’s course, without the climbs to Mt. Fuji or the steep, 21 percent grade up Mikuni Pass — where the U.S.’s Brandon McNulty got away in the men’s road race yesterday. With fewer climbs and a finish at the Fuji International Speedway, the women’s race favored an all-arounder who could climb — someone like Rivera.
Known as a sprinter when she burst onto the cycling scene as a junior, Rivera, 28, has become an all-around “classics” rider in the past four years. She missed selection to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team and channeled her disappointment by entering a stage race in Germany that was scheduled for the same time as the Rio Olympic Games.
“I trained as if I was going to the Olympics, and the goal was to get a stage win,” she told Velonews in February 2020.
She improved in every stage, first taking top-five, then top-three, and on the last day a stage win.
“I was stoked because I used that hunger and motivation to have a good race,” she continued. “It put me on the radar for European teams. … I think the win showed that I could handle European racing and do well in the European peloton.”
In 2017, she became the first ever American, male or female, to win the Tour of Flanders, a legendary classics race in Belgium. Later that year, she won the team time trial world title with her trade team at the time, Sunweb.
In the 2020 Olympic road race, Rivera rode a smart race, staying near the front of the peloton but saving her energy for what she hoped would be a sprint finish. But the peloton did not cooperate. The group let Kiesenhofer’s break gain almost nine minutes. Then few riders except the Americans were willing to do the work to reel in the break.
Chloé Dygert, back from a horrendous crash in the 2020 world time trial where she flipped over a guardrail and severed her quadricep, powered the peloton at times, with Ruth Winder and Leah Thomas both launching attacks in the middle of the race.
Finally, with 9k to go, the Dutch train moved to the front and began hunting down what they thought was a break of only two riders ahead. Kiesenhofer had ridden off the front of that small group.
As the peloton neared the finish, riders launched attack after attack — first van Vleuten, then Longo Borghini and Belgium’s Lotte Kopecky. By that time, the U.S. women were cooked.
“The girls did a really good job today,” Rivera said. “We did the best that we could. We tried.”