It was a week of mixed blessings for Megan Guarnier of Boels Dolmans. The US national champion won the first stage of the Amgen Women's Race in South Lake Tahoe but then lost the GC lead the next day. Guarnier's first victory of the season did not provide the catharsis one might expect after a quiet start to the season.
"I was mostly happy to have pulled it off after all the hard work my teammates had done," Guarnier said. "It is nice to be back here and show myself I can get back to the level I was."
Guarnier's spring was beset with hurdles that made replicating the success of 2016 difficult. At Thursday's press conference Guarnier revealed that in addition to suffering a concussion at the end of February, she lost her grandmother in March. It was a devastating loss for Guarnier, who derives a lot of strength from a support network that includes family, friends and teammates. The emotional toll, combined with her injury, was more draining that Guarnier expected.
"When you miss somebody every day it makes it hard to stay motivated," Guarnier said, struggling to keep her composure. "Coming back from a concussion and having a loss like that, everything compounds. There is not a great appreciation for how difficult concussions can be and on top of that losing somebody that is extremely important. It's been hard."
Team support, sacrifice for the team
One of the key sources of strength in recent years has been Guarnier's relationship with her team. She has prized her spot on Boels Dolmans for the support and loyalty they have given her. Guarnier looked on appreciatively after her stage victory when a reporter asked Van der Breggen about her personal race ambitions. Van der Breggen explained her goals were the team goals, and that the team's goals were to support Guarnier for the win.
Racing can be cruel as conditions change, and race plans have to adapt. Despite her team's support on stage 1, Guarnier once again found herself in a support role when Van der Breggen moved ahead of her in the overall standings after the second stage.
On the final climb of stage 2 up Kingsbury Grade, Van der Breggen attacked with Katie Hall (UnitedHealthcare) and Coryn Rivera (Team Sunweb). Hall won the race with van der Breggen in second. Guarnier finished the stage in fifth place, and Boels Dolmans found themselves out of the race lead. Van der Breggen sat in second overall, with Guarnier 29 seconds down in third place. Her GC aspirations dashed, it was Guarnier's turn to ride for Van der Breggen.
Heading into the final stage of the race, Van der Breggen trailed Katie Hall by one second. Guarnier led out Van der Breggen for the intermediate sprint, gaining the Olympic champion two seconds and putting her in the virtual lead. After sacrificing her spot on the podium to help win the race for Boels Dolmans, Guarnier rode to the finish several minutes down from the main pack. Van der Breggen won the race. Guarnier finished in 33rd.
"Whether I take home the overall or my teammate does, as long as we are giving it everything that's really the driving home point," Guarnier said. "Boels Dolmans gets a lot of pressure this year. I realise in 2016 we won the initial five WorldTours or something like that and everybody expected us to do that again. When we weren't winning everybody was like, 'Boels Dolmans isn't at their level.' We are at that level, and we are giving it 100 per cent, but it's bike racing, and it might look easy, but it's not."
Guarnier was hoping to win California again, but she has been racing at the top level of the sport with UCI women's teams since 2010 and is no stranger to disappointment. After a shaky spring campaign, she's less sure of her spot in the peloton. When asked if she still feels like one of the top American riders she shrugs and tries to articulate conflicting feelings of uncertainty and desire to once again be back on top.
"It is hard to say now after missing the spring," Guarnier said. "I think after 2016 I was the top rider in the WorldTour. I felt like I was a rider that needed to be contended with. A rider on a team, in which every rider, including myself, needs to be seen as a threat."
Now that she had her first win of the season under her belt, Guarnier allowed herself a second to get excited about a handful of upcoming races including US nationals, the Giro Rosa and the World Championships. And in a rare moment, she reflected on her success.
"When I see what I did last year, I am still incredibly proud of it," Guarnier said. "It is more than I could have dreamed of."