Until today, Megan Guarnier was the best female cyclist you had never heard of.
But after winning a bronze medal in the elite women’s road race at the 2015 UCI Road World Championships, 30-year-old Guarnier made headlines on home soil. The 129.8-kilometer (80.6-mile) course looped around Richmond, Virginia.
“Just hearing my name and hearing USA, all of the girls rode their hearts out today,” Guarnier said.
It’s the first medal for the U.S. women in the world championship road race since 1994. And by finishing in the top three, Guarnier provisionally qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic cycling team going to Rio next summer. Guarnier will confirm her qualification if she continues to perform until the nomination date of June 24, 2016.
Taking the gold medal was Elizabeth Armistead from Great Britain, with the Netherlands’ Anna van der Breggen claiming the silver medal. The lead group of nine riders crossed the line in 3:23:56.
The race featured several attacks. But with around 25 kilometers to go, a small group of women escaped from the peloton. In that group was Coryn Rivera, one of Team USA’s best sprinters.
It looked like this might be the winning break. But the peloton caught them on the final lap up the cobbled Libby Hill, and another group, including Armistead and van der Breggen took off. Guarnier joined at the very end.
“I knew I had to mark that immediately because if you hesitate in those final kilometers, it’s gone,” she said.
On the finish stretch up Richmond’s Broad Street, Armistead attacked with about 500 meters to go.
In a sprint finish, Guarnier was able to come around Italy’s Elisa Longo Borghini in the final meters before the finish and secure a spot on the podium — and become the first cyclist to qualify for next year’s U.S. Olympic team.
The bronze medal is a fitting end to Guarnier’s stellar season.
Growing up, Guarnier was a top swimmer. But at Middlebury College, where she graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in neuroscience in 2007, she developed shoulder issues. She considered changing to triathlons. But a dorm mate invited her to compete in a collegiate bike race.
Guarnier has bicycle raced ever since. And 2015 has been a season to remember. She won a stage of the women’s Giro d’Italia and finished third overall, won the Tour of Norway, and finished on the podium in two spring cycling classics (La Fleche Wallonne and Strade Bianche).
She also won the national road race title in May, thanks to help from Evelyn Stevens, her teammate on the Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team.
“Megan has had a great year,” said Stevens.
But road racing is a team event, and Guarnier’s bronze medal was possible thanks to a strong U.S. women’s team, including Stevens and Rivera. The six-woman U.S. team in world championship road race also included Olympian Shelley Olds, Tayler Wiles, Lauren Komanski and Lauren Stevens.
They took turns making and marking attacks, trying to break up the group of cyclists and get a U.S. rider in the winning break.
“It’s a tricky sport because if you do a team sport in the Olympics, everyone gets the medal,” explained Stevens, who finished 24th, 19 seconds behind the leader. “This is a sport where the one person gets the medal, which I think is very wrong. I think all six should get that medal.”
But only Guarnier was awarded the world championship bronze medal on the rainbow ribbon. And only Guarnier has qualified so far for the 2016 U.S. Olympic cycling team.
Still, it’s a major achievement for the Americans to come away with a medal on home turf.
“I would be disappointed if we left home without one, to be honest,” said Stevens earlier in the week. “You just want to see an American on that podium, and you want to do it here in front of a home crowd.”
After the race, Stevens tweeted, “Well that was absolutely amazing, thanks @richmond2015, goose bumps all day. Now it is time for my bachelorette party, watch out, Richmond.”
Stevens’ next stop? The altar, to marry fiancé Brett Baker next Saturday.
As for Guarnier, look for her name in more headlines in the lead-up to Rio.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.