The Road to Rio: the Americans

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The road to the Olympic glory has started. Yes, we know it’s still a year-and-a-half out, but many riders will be racing this season with one ultimate goal in mind: to be selected for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Riders will start earning Olympic points this summer, and national and regional championships will be hotly contested. The 2015 season will be the chance for riders to prove themselves and start vying for those limited team spots.

We’ll be following these Olympic hopefuls right here —in the Road to Rio series— as we lead up to August 7, 2016, when the women will tackle the 130.3km course in Fort Copacabana.

Women’s cycling at the Olympics

Men’s bike racing has been a part of the Summer Olympic Games since the 1896 Summer Olympics, at which a road race and several track events were held. Women’s cycling events however weren’t added until the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, California, USA,  where there was a single road race, won by American Connie Carpenter. Women’s track racing events were added in 1988.

Men’s and women’s mountain bike and BMX racing were added only fairly recently, in 1996 and 2008 respectively.

Fun fact: the 2012 Summer Olympics in London marked the first Games with an equal number of cycling events for men and women.

The American hopefuls

Team USA hasn’t been on the podium since Connie Carpenter’s victory in the first Olympic road race in 1984. In the individual time trial however, Team USA has been a powerful force, getting on the podium four out of the five times a women’s individual time trial has been held. Kristin Armstrong earned gold at both the London and Beijing Olympic Games. Before her, Deirdre Demet-Barry earned silver in Athens and Mari Holden secured silver in Sydney in 2000.

With a team of four riders, Team USA will be one of the larger squads at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Even so, dozens of women will be vying for a spot on that limited roster. The competition to earn an Olympic berth will be fierce.

Riders to watch – individual time trial

  • Kristin Armstrong (Twenty16)
  • Amber Neben (FCS)
  • Carmen Small (Bigla)
  • Evelyn Stevens (Boels-Dolmans)
  • Brianne Walle (Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies)
  • Tayler Wiles (Velocio-SRAM)

Riders to watch – road race

  • Mara Abbott (Wiggle-Honda)
  • Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans)
  • Lauren Hall (Twenty16)
  • Shelley Olds (Bigla)
  • Evelyn Stevens (Boels-Dolmans)
  • Tayler Wiles (Velocio-SRAM)

Olympic dreamers

One of the Americans heading into the 2015 season with a clear Olympic goal in mind is Megan Guarnier. The 2012 US national road race champion and 2014 runner-up knows just how fierce the competition for those four Olympic positions are as well as the heartbreak that comes from being left at home.

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“Selections are always difficult.  And the thing about the Olympics that kills me is that we only get to take four girls for the road race,” said Guarnier. “Being on the brink in 2012, being able to taste it but not make the team…that was a big hit. So yes, Rio is a big goal for me.”

Rio’s Fort Copacabana road race is 130.3km long and features some significant climbs with long stretches of flat road in between, favoring an all-rounder who can climb well. And Guarnier is up for the challenge.

“My specialty is road racing, and it sounds like a good course for me,” she said. “The harder the better.”

It’s time for Team USA to take home an Olympic medal, said Guarnier.

“We are targeting the gold for sure. USA hasn’t won a medal since the first road race, and it’s been hanging over our American heads for a while,” she said.

But she’ll have to get there first.

“The road to the Olympics is competitive. Everyone brings their A game leading up to the Olympics to make the team,” she said. “Sure, the racing will be fast but it’s a lot of mental pressure, too.  Every race is your opportunity to shine. You need a good run.  2015 will definitely be the telling year. There’s more at stake.”

photoshoot team Boels - Dolmans Cycling Team in Valencia

Guarnier’s Boels-Dolman teammate, Evelyn Stevens, shares Guarnier’s Olympic dream. A favorite for the Team USA squad, Stevens has quite a prize chest already. She’s been part of the winning team time trial championships at Worlds the last three year’s running, has a silver and bronze medal from individual time trial at the World Championships, won La Flèche Wallonne World Cup race in 2012, and has multiple national championships medals in the individual time trial. Yet the individual rainbow stripes and Olympic medal still elude her. Her goals are set on Richmond first, Rio second.

“It’s flattering to be considered a shoo-in but I’ll consider myself a hopeful until I know I have a spot,” Stevens said. “I got to do the road race in the last Olympics, which was incredible, but I missed out on the TT spot and I think that has kind of fueled me over the past few years.”

Stevens said she’ll be targeting both the Olympic road race and the time trial. But she’ll be chasing the rainbow stripes first.

“Rio is close but it’s still somewhat far off. I know that for the US, Richmond is a huge goal. We’ll be racing on home soil so it’s that first and then Rio,” she said.

Stevens and Team USA riders scouted the Richmond World Championship course earlier this year, and she expects an exciting race.

“I’ve seen the Richmond course and it’s an all-arounder. You have to be able to do everything in that course. I think it’s going to be an exciting race,” she said.

In comparison, Rio looks “more climby” on paper, she noted.

“But it doesn’t really matter what the course is,” said Stevens. “It’s about building that strong team, working as a team and being ready for the race.”

For Stevens, the racing leading up to Rio will differ very little from any other season.

“For me, this is what I do. This is what I love. I want to be the best at it and so I try not to worry about what the end of it is,” she explained. “Of course the goal is to make the Olympic team but if you worry about it too much it gets in the way of your riding. I like pressure. There are so many things that are up in the air so you just have to put your head down, focus and work hard.”

Joining Stevens in Richmond will be former Specialized-lululemon teammate and fellow time trial specialist Tayler Wiles.

2014 Velocio-SRAM - Lanzarote, Spain

I think Worlds will be telling [for Rio],” Wiles said. “I was able to ride the Worlds TT and road courses, and I loved them both. The road race is a mix of American crit races and Belgium kermesses with turns, turns, turns and some cobbles. It’s really spectator friendly and it will be exciting.”

With a mostly Europe-based season and racing in the World Championships on home soil, it’s going to be a big year for Wiles, but she says the pressure is good for her.

“For me, I do better under pressure when I know the stakes are high and I know I’m fighting for something big. Racing is always tough but I know for me, in the past when I’ve set pretty big goals, I perform much better just because I have a clear vision,” she said. “Everyone always wants to win, but if you actually say you want to win and make it public and hold yourself accountable, it’s actually easier to perform.”

Wiles doesn’t dream small, and she’s set some lofty goals. She hopes to medal in the time trial at the World Championships in Richmond this year while trying to qualify for both the Olympic time trial and Olympic road race.

“2015 is definitely a run-up year. Olympic points start counting in June so even in all the races before June, it’s about getting in form and trying to prove yourself,” Wiles explained. “Once June hits, you really have to start moving forward, get those points and do all those races and one-on-ones you need to do.”

With only four open spots, Wiles describes qualifying for the Olympics as “tough going”, but that seems to be just what inspires and excites her – more pressure.

Seeking higher international results, Wiles will do most of her racing in Europe this season. In addition, she’s targeting the gold medal at the Pan-Ams as an auto-qualifier for the World Championships. She also hopes to be on form for the National Championships in both the time trial and road race.

“It’s going to be a fight for sure but I think that’s a good thing,” she said. “Anything good is worth fighting for, right?”

Be sure to follow these racers on their roads to Rio. You can find them on Twitter: @meganguarnier, @evelyn_stevens and @TaylerWiles.

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