After winning the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics, Kristin Armstrong (Twenty16-ShoAir) retired from professional cycling and spent two years commentating for TV, directing, coaching and parenting. In her recent comeback, she proved that despite her hiatus from the sport she was still a force to be reckoned with, time trialling to a third-place finish at the Tour of California Invitational Time Trial and then to the win at the USA Cycling Professional Time Trial Championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The drive that compels her to keep coming back to professional cycling is never far beneath the surface. Her competitive nature appears in many facets of her life.
"I don't just come back because I'm not satisfied, it's because I love competition," Armstrong said. "When I play dominoes with my family they say 'do you have to win every game?' and I'm like, 'I'm sorry, I do!' I just love it."
At 41 years old Armstrong is on the older side of the pro peloton but she draws inspiration from triathletes and marathon runners. Armstrong looks at triathlons as an example of a sport where older athletes are common and accepted. Like marathoners, Armstrong plans to target a handful of races and then go after them. The philosophy fits in well with her ‘quality over quantity' approach that she now must use in her busy life.
"My son's four and a half, he's in preschool. I have a part-time job, I have such great balance," Armstrong said. "It took a couple of years to get used to going back to work again and those early years before Luke went to preschool. But now I feel like I want to exercise. I love training, and why not set a goal."
Armstrong could compete as a masters rider but feels it would be sandbagging. She can still win in the pro peloton and so that is where she wants to be.
Despite her balance and focused training, getting back in is not without its challenges. Armstrong's lack of racing in the last two years has required that she start near the bottom. A planned comeback at the Pan-American Championships was squashed when USA Cycling changed the qualification criteria close the the race date.
"Politically, I feel that it happened to me when I had a child, it happened to me this time, I feel like I'm starting over," Armstrong said. "I feel like I almost have no results. I don't want any favours. I don't want any favours, and I'm definitely not getting any favours."
At the time trial in Chattanooga, USA Cycling seeded Armstrong in the first wave of riders. The favourites, including Evie Stevens (Boels-Dolmans) and Carmen Small (Twenty16-ShoAir), were all scheduled for the third wave later in the afternoon. Armstrong set the fastest time and then had to wait almost two hours before finding out if she had won. It was an unusual position for the former world champion and Olympic gold medal winner.
"I'm not used to this situation. I haven't been in this situation," Armstrong said. "When I first got my number and I found out, I was disappointed. I've spent my career learning to take time checks, judging where I am. I think it can be a positive, it can be a negative."
The early start proved to be an advantage as wind picked up through the afternoon. With a Worlds selection on the line, Armstrong would have liked to have started closer to her rivals. Her vast experience, however, led her to stay focused and even laugh off the start position in the end.
"I always tell people 'control your controllables,'" Armstrong said. "This is where I started, everyone has the same course. I just went as hard as I could. Different conditions, I couldn't really let it get to me. I was kind of like, 'you guys are playing a joke on me'. It would have been worse if I was in the middle. It was actually humorous to me."
With a career and family in place, Armstrong is taking aim at a third Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro next summer. Though tactical goals are important to Armstrong, it becomes clear it is more than just a quest for another medal.
"Everyone says live your life day by day," Armstrong said. "I think that until I retired after having Lucas, I don't think everyone realises how awesome this opportunity is, because this is the best time of their life. I'm not saying great things aren't going to come later. But man, when they say live the moment, live your dream, I can attest."