Lauren Stephens had stepped away from her long-time position with Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank in the hopes of finding a new pathway to progress with Cylance Pro Cycling in 2018. For all her good intentions, however, her season was affected by a debilitating leg injury and then ended with the title sponsor re-assigning its funds to another women's team, effectively ending the American programme altogether. Tibco-SVB's team owner Linda Jackson welcomed Stephens back with open arms, and the all-rounder is now healthy and looking forward to creating a more favourable outcome to 2019.
"Coming back to this team after a year, I thought it would be like coming to a new team," Stephens wrote in an email to Cyclingnews. "There has been a lot of change with only four of the same riders from 2017 and a completely new staff. It has been great, though, as this team has welcomed me [back] like I never left. The transition has been much smoother than I anticipated."
Stephens joined Tibco-SVB at an opening training camp in February at the title sponsor's headquarters in California. This year's roster includes Megan Guarnier, Lex Albrecht, Nicole Bruderer, Brodie Chapman, Alice Cobb, Ingrid Drexel, Alison Jackson, Nina Kessler, Sharlotte Lucas, Shannon Malseed, Emily Newsom, Rozanne Slik and Kendall Ryan. The team have also hired former pro Rachel Hedderman as their head director for the 2019 season.
Stephens had spent five seasons with Jackson's programme beginning with her first pro contract in 2013, only leaving for a new position at Cylance in 2018. She had a good start under the team's manager Omer Kem and director Manel Lacambra, placing second overall at the Women's Tour Down Under. A crash during the final stage caused damage to the soft tissue in her leg and it took her most of the season to recover.
"Last year, I was very excited to race for Cylance and Manel Lacambra," Stephens said. "Manel had been my director during the first year that I was on Tibco. I was at a point in my career where I felt I needed a change in my environment to continue to progress.
"In Australia, I started strong with my new team finishing second in the GC at Tour Down Under. Unfortunately, I crashed hard in the final stage. Although I was able to get back on the bike and finish the stage in the group, I was far from alright.
"I had severe soft tissue damage in my upper thigh that would take months to diagnose. Through Nationals, Pan-Am Championships, and the rest of the year, I was unable to produce the same power due to the injury."
Despite the injury, Stephens had several good performances with second place at the Pan American Championships in the time trial and fifth place at the National Championships. She also started the Giro Rosa in July but was forced to pull out of the race because of the lingering pain in her leg.
"At the Giro Rosa, the pain and inability to perform hit its peak," Stephens said. "I was used to being at the front of the race, and so, being in the group trying to finish each day was a different feeling.
"I decided to go home and rest. It has been a challenge, mentally, chasing a cure but I'm focused on getting back to racing strong."
Stephens is already off to a strong start in 2019. She joined Tibco-SVB at the Redlands Bicycle Classic last week where she placed second overall to winner Amber Neben, while her teammate Emily Newsom was third.
Tibco-SVB plan to race in a series of international events and because they are ranked 11th on the UCI world ranking, they will receive invitations to all of the Women's WorldTour races. But they also plan on participating in key races on the North American calendar, which is something important to Stephens.
"I'm excited to have a schedule that allows me to compete in the WorldTour, but also enjoy some time at home by racing in America," Stephens said.
Stephens will once again target the time trial at the US National Championships, which will be held in Knoxville, TN at the end of June. Further down the line, however, she hopes to make the selection for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
"My target, this year, will be the US nationals time trial and select stage races," she said. "I'm going to focus on being the best that I can be and if that means I earn a spot to race in the Olympics that would be amazing."
Stephens looks to be on track to a successful 2019. Asked if this season feels a little bit like a clean slate after the ups and downs of last year, she said that she prefers to view it as a page in the story of her career.
"I don't think like that, really," Stephens said. "This is my story, and it's a new chapter every season. I don't get to edit the past. I will be working hard to make this season be a positive story."