Coryn Rivera Finishes 7th In Women’s Road Race; Brandon McNulty Talks About His 6th Place Finish In Men’s Road Race
by Peggy Shinn
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.”
The men’s road race kicked off the cycling events for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. But on paper, the two U.S. cyclists — Brandon McNulty and Lawson Craddock — were not favorites in the 243-kilometer (151-mile) race, the first point-to-point road race in Olympic cycling history. Both Americans are strong time trial riders with their eye on the Olympic individual time trial.
A former world junior time trial champion (2016), McNulty finished a strong 11th in the 2021 Tour de France’s one individual time trial, and Craddock is the reigning national time trial champion.
Moreover, with only two cyclists riding for the USA (unlike the stronger teams like Belgium that fielded five riders for the Tokyo Games), the U.S. team would not have the manpower to cover breaks from the peloton or lead out a sprint. The road race would likely just be a warm-up for the individual time trial on Wednesday.
But 23-year-old McNulty had other ideas. Fresh from competing in his first Tour de France (one of four Americans competing in this year’s Tour) — where he helped his trade team leader, Slovenia’s Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates), win his second consecutive Tour title — McNulty figured he was “either going to be incredible or be completely empty.”
He ended up feeling incredible. After the peloton hung together on the first climb, Mt. Fuji, and let an early break gain as much as 17 minutes, McNulty was part of the key action on the final climb of the race.
As the peloton started the climb towards Kagosaka Pass, Pogacar attacked, with McNulty and Canada’s Michael Woods responding. The trio pulled away and gained a 15-second lead.
The group of three was joined by cycling powerhouse like Richard Carapaz (Ecuador), Wout van Aert (Belgium), and Rigoberto Uran (Colombia) — all formidable climbers. It was the deciding move in the race.
“Any move with Tadej [Pogacar] is gonna be good,” said McNulty, who knew to follow his trade team leader who dominated the Tour de France this year. “I've been racing with him last month, so I knew the level he was at, and I knew if I could have the legs to follow him that I was in a good position.”
As the group of 13 pedaled up and over the pass, McNulty — who grew up mountain biking in Phoenix — bravely attacked this group and pulled away, with Carapaz bridging up to him. The two built a 40-second lead, and Carapaz pulled away with five kilometers to go. The Ecuadorian crossed the line alone, claiming his country’s first Olympic gold medal.
McNulty was swallowed up by the riders behind him and ended up in a bunch sprint. With van Aert taking silver and Pogacar bronze, McNulty crossed the line in sixth place — the best showing the U.S. has had since 2012, when Taylor Phinney finished fourth in the Olympic road race.
The last American rider to win an Olympic medal in the men’s road race was Alexi Grewal, who took gold in the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984.
“Wow, I'm completely empty,” McNulty said after the race, where temperatures hovered in the high 80s with humidity to match. “I'm quite happy with how it went. I'm sad not to get a medal when I was this close to it, but it was more than I could have expected to be in this group.
Craddock, 29, stayed with the main group on the final climb but missed the key breakaway. He crossed the line in 80th place but celebrated with McNulty.
“I think there's a lot that we can be proud of today,” said Craddock. “Brandon's showed that he's had a bright future for quite a while now. I think today was just confirmation of that. I'm really proud to be his teammate and be with him over the last week. I'm excited to see where it goes from here for us.”
Both men are looking forward to their chances in the ITT. The last time an American stood on the Olympic time trial podium was 2008, when Levi Leipheimer claimed the ITT bronze medal.
“The Time Trial has always been my specialty, but I've also always been kind of growing into a climber as well for the general classification [of major stage races],” said McNulty. “Hopefully, I can recover well and have similar feelings in the time trial in a few days.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.