Tokyo 2020

Israeli cyclist who just missed out on Olympic medal: ‘I went with my gut’

Omer Shapira was out ahead of the pack for much of the four-hour women’s road race, but fell back to 24th place in final minutes

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Anna Plichta of Poland and Omer Shapira of Israel compete in the women's cycling road race at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, July 25, 2021, in Oyama, Japan. (Michael Steele/Pool Photo via AP)
Anna Plichta of Poland and Omer Shapira of Israel compete in the women's cycling road race at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, July 25, 2021, in Oyama, Japan. (Michael Steele/Pool Photo via AP)

For most of the four-hour women’s cycling road race at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on Sunday, Israel’s Omer Shapira was riding in second or third place, way ahead of the pack, or peloton. That is, until the last few moments of the race, when she was caught in the pack and fell behind, ultimately finishing in 24th place.

“I’m still a little disappointed, I really did feel, for a large portion of the race — once I realized that the gap was big enough — I thought that there was really a chance that it could happen,” Shapira, 26, told a Zoom press conference of Israeli reporters on Sunday evening from Tokyo.

Cycling “is a very tactical sport,” pointed out the Olympian. Riders tend to cycle in a peloton in order to minimize wind resistance, and conserve energy and exertion until the final moments. But if riders break off and maintain enough of a gap from the rest of the pack, it can be difficult to overtake them in the final stretch.

“I thought this was my best shot, and it would get me ahead,” said Shapira of her decision to cycle out ahead of the back alongside Poland’s Anna Plichta, and just behind Austria’s Anna Kiesenhofer. Ultimately, Kiesenhofer was so far ahead that she not only took home the gold, but when silver winner Annemiek van Vleuten of the Netherlands crossed the finish line, she thought she won the race. But Shapira and Plichta were caught up when the large group of riders leapt ahead, and were unable to maintain their lead.

“I leapt ahead without a tactic or plan, I just went with my gut,” said Shapira, who was several minutes ahead of the pack for much of the race. “It worked pretty well, but unfortunately it didn’t get me a medal, but I did what I could.”

In the moment, Shapira said, it “felt like any other competition,” despite her awareness of how much attention was on the event. “I was totally focused on the race.”

Israel’s Omer Shapira competes in the women’s cycling road race on July 25, 2021 at the Tokyo Olympics. (Amit Shissel/Israeli Olympic Committee)

Shapira admitted that she had a “slipup with managing my nutrition,” and didn’t bring enough spare gel packs to make up for the “thousands of calories” burned along the four-hour competition.

“I could have been a little more conservative, especially in the early portions of the race, and conserved a little more energy,” she admitted. “Sometimes your standing confuses you and the adrenaline gets to you… it’s a sport that requires a lot of thought.”

In the very final moments of the race, “I didn’t have the physical strength to fight” as the other riders overtook her, Shapira said. “But it’s all good, at the end of the day, it’s all good.”

Shapira is hopeful that her performance on Sunday — even without a medal win — can inspire other women and girls in Israel to take part in competitive cycling.

“This is one of the biggest goals of my being here, ” she said from Tokyo. “To encourage, to advance the cycling scene in Israel overall, and of women especially.”

She said there is “so much room for improvement” in the sport in Israel.

“I think that if there’s even one little girl who saw me and started to think about sports differently… then it was all worth it.”

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