Commentary: These were the 10 most important stories in US cycling in 2016

by Neal Rogers

December 22, 2016

1. Kristin Armstrong, Olympic time trial champion

by Neal Rogers

Standing atop a podium along Pontal beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Kristin Armstrong took in a deep breath. The air, still humid after a rainfall, smelled of salt and sea. Her eyes filled with tears, while her heart swelled with the chemical mix of accomplishment, and relief — but also of vindication.

She’s been gone from the sport too long. She’s too old. She didn’t win the national TT championship. She was selected because the head of USA Cycling’s athletics department is her coach.

These were but a few of the clouds that had swirled around Armstrong’s build up to the Rio Olympics, her fourth consecutive Games. A pair of gold medals, earned in Beijing and London, as well as two world titles gave her bragging rights to claim the title as the greatest woman to ever race against the clock.

But that was then, when Armstrong was younger. Before she’d had her son. Before she’d had hip surgeries. Before she’d retired. Before she’d retired again.

This was now.

And while questions about her Olympic team selection swirled — those same arguments were presented in an arbitration hearing in June — Armstrong, 43, stayed focused on the task at hand. She’d returned from retirement once before to win Olympic gold. She just needed to do it again.

“I had a support team that believed in me, and I believed in myself,” she said. “And I knew that I knew how to get it done on the day.”

Armstrong’s third-place at nationals in May, 1:08 behind winner Carmen Small on a 33km course, became a lightning rod. Critics of USA Cycling’s discretionary selection criteria maintained that Small deserved one of the two Olympic TT spots. (Evelyn Stevens, twice the national time-trial champion and the UCI Hour Record holder, had been chosen for the other spot.)

Lost in the defense of the newly crowned national champion, however, was the fact that the national championships had not been prioritized the same way international events had been prioritized in USA Cycling’s selection criteria. At the 2015 world championships, Armstrong finished fifth in the time trial, the top American, just ahead of Stevens. Even the time trial at the Tour of the Gila, a UCI stage race, had greater priority due to its international status; at that race, Armstrong beat Linda Villumsen, the world champion, as well as Small.

Also putting a dent in Small’s appeal — she beat two riders, Armstrong and Amber Neben, who had spent the previous week racing the Amgen Tour of California, while Small had not, and instead had been able to focus on the time trial championship. During the period of Olympic qualification — January 1, 2015, through June 20, 2016 — the 2016 TT nationals was the only event where Small had beaten Armstrong out of five head-to-head competitions.

The arbitration panel agreed with USA Cycling’s decision, and Armstrong repaid their confidence in her with a perfect ride in Rio, bringing home an unprecedented third gold medal.

“I had the hardest journey this Olympic Games that I’ve ever had,” Armstrong said. “Coming back within 18 months was difficult, and there was a lot of pressure. I didn’t realize that third place [at the national time trial championship] was a really bad result for me — that’s what everyone else thought, at least. I had to win everything, and if I won, it wasn’t by a big enough margin. It was really difficult. I felt like people were really hard on me.”

On that rainy day in Rio, Armstrong won a third gold medal by five seconds over Russia’s Olga Zabelinskaya. In that moment, the winning margin was big enough, and the taste of vindication was sweet.