RICHMOND, Va. — Three American women came to the 2015 UCI Road World Championships with one goal.
Kristin Armstrong, Evelyn Stevens and Carmen Small — all past world championship medalists — wanted to add to their medal collections in the women’s individual time trial. But mostly, they wanted to finish top three to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
None of them made it.
Armstrong and Stevens just missed the podium, finishing fifth and sixth respectively. Small finished 14th — a tough finish to a tough year for the 35-year-old.
Stevens summed it up when she said: “I’m bummed.”
“But that’s time trialing,” she added. “I wanted to do well in this country. I’m a little disappointed not to bring home a medal in the U.S.”
This is the first time since 1986 that the UCI Road World Championships have been held in the U.S.
On the 30-kilometer course through downtown Richmond, Linda Melanie Villumsen (NZL) won her first world time trial title in 40:29.87, while Anna van der Breggen (NED) and Lisa Brennauer (GER) were second and third, with times of 40:32.41 and 40:35.13.
Armstrong’s time was 40:50.45; Stevens was just behind in 40:56.45.
After taking off nearly three years from competition — and from even riding her bike — Armstrong, now 42, began training again in February. She has osteoarthritis in her hips and, since winning her second Olympic gold medal at the 2012 London Games, has had three hip surgeries and two hip procedures.
Armstrong qualified for the world championships by winning the national time trial in May. But without any other recent races to bump her higher in rankings, she was the second racer to start the women’s TT. She set the time to beat, then sat in the leader’s “hot seat” for two hours as the 43 other women hunted down her time.
The top riders started in the fourth of four waves, and as they reached each time split, tension mounted.
“I gave it everything I had today, so I felt really good about it,” Armstrong said. “The other girls had a stronger ride today. My goals going into here, I always want to win, that’s who I am. But really, I wanted to get top three. It’s an automatic qualification for Rio. I think that was really an important step for me towards Rio.”
“Kristin loves to compete,” said her husband, Joe Savola, when asked why she returned to cycling. “We really struggled with this one because we knew it would be hard. We were banking everything on this one race.”
Per USA Cycling’s Olympic qualification criteria, Armstrong’s fifth place means that she will be nominated to the 2016 U.S. cycling long team. The two-woman Rio team will be picked by the USA Cycling Selection Committee from the long team.
“I always find that very difficult,” said Armstrong. “I’ve been in very difficult situations in the past.”
Stevens, 32, will also have to rely on coaches’ selection to make the Rio time trial squad (two women can qualify).
The former investment banker came to Richmond to win the time trial on home soil and spent last winter working on her aerodynamic position on the bike, as well as time-trial specific training, with coach Neal Henderson. She had previewed the course multiple times, visualized it, and wanted to complete her collection of world championship medals. She won silver in 2012 and bronze in 2014.
But in the end, the course did not suit Stevens, who excels at steep climbs. With 31 corners — including one U-turn and one 270-degree circle — the constant accelerations put her in the pain cave.
“If I was going to design a time trial course, I would not put X number of corners in for myself,” she said somewhat coyly. “I knew I had a really big task coming up. This is not a course that I’m suited for. But good time trialists can do it on any course.”
Small, 35, also had tough day. After detouring to track racing last year, in an attempt to qualify for the Rio Games in team pursuit, Small returned to the road this summer.
“It was a rough year doing (track), and it was just very up and down,” she told VeloNews.com in June. “Plus, I missed the bike. I missed being outside, I miss the long rides, and I missed racing. I missed road racing a lot.
“I had to really ask myself, what was more important: going to the Olympics or being happy doing it? I would rather fail at going, not go, and be happy rather than go and be miserable the whole entire time.”
She looked pretty miserable after the time trial in Richmond. Her only comment was, “Really hard, really hard.” After a pause, she added, “Unbelievable.”
Stevens has another chance to automatically qualify for Rio if she finishes in the top three in the women’s road race on Saturday.
But Armstrong and Stevens are already looking beyond that.
On Oct. 3, Stevens will marry her fiancé, Brett Baker, in Sun Valley, Idaho. But she will be back racing mostly in Europe next season.
Looking toward Rio, Armstrong will race in the U.S. with her TWENTY16 cycling team. And she will continue to focus on rehabbing her body from the hip surgeries.
“It’s a build back, and I can’t expect to come back overnight and be on the podium on the top step,” she said. “But again, my goal was to get top three today. I am disappointed at that.”
From Richmond, she will return to her home in Boise, Idaho, where she is the director of community health at St. Luke’s Medical Center. And she is Mom to Lucas, who put a RIDE sticker on her arm as she talked to reporters.
“My son just turned 5, and that is … that’s the most important,” she said, dissolving into tears.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.