A year ago, Megan Guarnier left the UCI Road World Championships in Richmond, Virginia, with a bronze medal and her sights set squarely on Rio de Janeiro.
This weekend, Guarnier returns to the world championships, albeit much farther away in Doha, Qatar, and at the end of a long season that’s held both massive personal accomplishments and bitter disappointment.
“I think we have a strong team,” said Guarnier, 31, of Glens Falls, New York. “The Americans do have a few cards to play, and we’re going to go do our best.”
Guarnier was already having a strong 2015 when the world championships last came around. She finished third overall in the women’s Giro d’Italia, won the Tour of Norway and was crowned the U.S. national road racing champion in May. Her finish in the world championships, however, marked the first time an American woman medaled at the event since 1994. To do it on American soil and show what top-level international racing is really like to a U.S. audience made it that much better.
“I don’t know if I would have believed that I could have done that in that moment,” she said, “but when the finish line was right there, yeah, you just click into your sprint mode. It was a great result and a great day. To be able to have that medal on in the United States, with my family there, for them to get to see it firsthand, it was really special.”
From that point on, Guarnier said, she became singularly focused on Rio and the 2016 Olympic Games.
She and coach Corey Hart went to Rio in January to get a look at the course so they’d know how to map out her training. Even with the natural anxiety surrounding the long-term goal, Guarnier said she tried to focus on the act of improving little by little every day.
As her training continued, Guarnier collected victories along the way that provided evidence of the work paying off. She won the Amgen Women’s Tour of California, repeated as the U.S. women’s national road race champion, won the Philadelphia Classic and the prestigious and demanding Giro Rosa.
Guarnier is quick to emphasize that cycling victories don’t happen alone but rather with the help of teammates, both on Team USA and her Netherlands-based professional team, Boels-Dolmans, with whom she just signed on for another two years. For her personally, however, success these past two seasons hasn’t been a matter of anything clicking or falling into place.
“Nothing changed last year or this year,” said Guarnier, who began racing seriously in 2008. “For me, it’s been all about the progression and just every year working hard and chipping away at it and learning the sport, just being a student of the sport and being patient and putting in hours of hard work.”
Unfortunately, Guarnier said, it’s hard for her to describe Rio as anything other than a bitter disappointment. Having unsuccessfully petitioned to join the 2012 team as a support rider, Guarnier entered the 2016 Games ranked the No. 1 women’s rider in the world and hoped to medal.
It was a challenging course, just the type she likes, with a little bit of everything including cobblestones, tough climbs, quick descents and windy sections near the water, and race day saw a crash that took out leader Annemiek van Vleuten of the Netherlands.
Guarnier finished 11th overall.
“It’s amazing because I did have a really good day, power-wise,” she said. “Just the race plan and the way the race played out didn’t play into my favor that day. I think it’s easier some days to be able to walk away and say I had bad day, but unfortunately I didn’t walk away and say I had a bad day. It just wasn’t my day on the bike, and that’s the beauty and the beast of cycling.”
In September, Guarnier was crowned the women’s WorldTour champion, becoming the first American to earn the title. Although that didn’t lessen the sting of disappointment she felt in Rio, Guarnier said, at the same time she needs to be “level-headed” about her accomplishments this year.
“I put myself in the No. 1 ranking in the UCI standings and the WorldTour, so how can I be disappointed in myself?” she said. “I’ll always look back on that day (in Rio) and think, ‘This, this and this,’ but I don’t think that’s a fair way to look at the season and let that overshadow the season. I’ve had dreams come true. I had my third national championship, won WorldTour events, won the Giro Rosa, which is a special event.
“I remember when I started racing and reading about women’s cycling and reading about this women’s race that had a pink jersey in Italy and I was like, ‘Wow, that would be a dream come true to race that race.’ To set that as a goal years ago and be able to finally have done it, I think I need to take those things out of the season and not the disappointment that comes from Rio.”