A string of solid European results boosts American's chances
Megan Guarnier, the TIBCO-To the Top team leader currently ranked number one on USA Cycling's National Race Calendar standings, just may be one of the best US women cyclists you've barely heard of.
Since racing for a French team in 2009 and then moving to TIBCO in 2010 when team manager Linda Jackson decided to take one of America's top teams on the road to Europe, the 27-year-old 2012 Redlands Bicycle Classic overall winner has quietly been building an international race resume. Her results eventually landed her a spot on the long team of riders hoping to make the final selection for the London Olympics later this summer.
Guarnier made her biggest splash on the international scene in September of 2011 when she took the overall win at the five-day, six-stage Giro Della Toscana in Tuscany, a result that earned her an automatic berth on the Olympic long team. She started this year with her NRC-opening Redlands Classic win and then immediately headed for Europe, where she finished third out of a six-rider breakaway at the Ronde van Gelderland in the Netherlands. She followed that with a seventh-place finish at the Fleche Wallonne Feminine race won by Specialized-Lululemon's Evelyn Stevens, another Olympic hopeful.
Guarnier finished seventh, the top US result, at the EPZ Omloop van Borsele in Belgium last weekend racing for the US national team, and is third overall in Belgium's five-race KNWU Topcompetitie Vrouwen series. She has played a crucial role in the national team's effort to earn enough UCI points to take over the fifth spot in the UCI rankings, a result that would give the US four spots on the Olympic road team rather than three.
Despite all these accomplishments, Guarnier still sometimes doesn't make photographers' list of "must have" shots at races.
"The way my cycling career has gone is that I have to do the talking with my legs," she said from Belgium, where she was preparing for another UCI race with the US national team. "I just have to keep racing and doing what I do and getting the results. I try not to think about it, but sometimes it can get discouraging that I'm not one of the first names that comes to mind for people. But if I just keep doing the best I can do, that's all I can ask of myself, and hopefully I'll start to turn more heads."
Jumping out of the pool into the deep end
Guarnier came to cycling from a swimming background. She swam competitively on a national level for 13 years and planned to continue through college before persistent shoulder injuries sidelined her efforts in the pool. She thought triathlons, with a much smaller amount of training in the water, would provide a way to continue competing.
"I had done a couple triathlons in high school," she said. "So I started training for triathlons, and somebody in my hall at college had suggested I come out to a bike race, so I tried it and I loved it, and I never went back to triathlons. It was just all cycling from then on. I thought, I can do something I love without getting in the pool? Awesome, sign me up."
In 2004, Guarnier raced on the collegiate level for Vermont's Middlebury College, where current Liquigas pro Ted King was a student at the time, along with mountain bike Olympic long team members Leah Davidson and Spencer Paxson. She raced for Middlebury through 2007, taking second in the national road race that year.
After graduating Summa Cum Laude from Middlebury with an undergraduate degree in neuroscience, Guarnier, who plans to one day earn a doctorate and work in pediatric neuroscience research, raced for ProMan in 2008 and also spent time with the US U23 national team, where she got her first taste of international competition. She also competed as a guest rider that year with a French team run by Chris Georges, a "huge supporter of women's cycling" who was working with USA Cycling.
"He contacted me at the end of 2008 and said, 'Hey there's a French team looking for a rider, would you like to come over here and race?'" Guarnier said. "And I was like, 'Yeah sure.' Because that's where the racing's happening – in Europe. So I packed my bags and went over."
Guarnier scored at least a dozen top 10 results that year, including a win at the Grand Prix d’Amancey and second at Cholet-Pays De Loire, but the language barrier with her French teammates and the distance from home and family made for a tough year.
"It was hard because I never got to go home," she said. "And there was a language barrier. No one on my team spoke English, so I had to learn French. I had taken eight years of Spanish and was fluent in Italian, but I had no French whatsoever. It was just difficult, so I had this vision of being on a US-based team that raced in Europe."
TIBCO and Olympic dreams
So when Jackson proposed the idea of expanding the TIBCO program for 2010 into a UCI team that would compete overseas, Guarnier jumped at the opportunity. She's been there ever since.
"There's been a lot of planning and a lot of financial and human energy put into making this happen for all of us," she said of the team. "And it's an experience few women get. What TIBCO is doing is unique. It's hard to just pick up a team and move it to Europe. It's a lot of work to get us over here and racing at these top races that are so important for getting experience at the level of racing we need to pursue our dreams."
Now, after the win in Toscana and her other successes, Guarnier has adjusted her dreams upward.
"It definitely made me realize that I need to be shooting for the win and not just top tens," she said. "It changed my whole thinking in that I'm here to win races now. It's taken since 2008 just working hard and learning the pack and how races finish, learning the courses and the riders. Now it's finally all coming together. The hard work I put into it is coming together to win races."
With her automatic long team qualification. Guarnier has also added the 2012 Olympics to that list.
"It's certainly a dream I've had since I was a little girl," she said. "I want to go the Olympics, and I've definitely found my sport for it. But it's such a hard selection. We have either three or four spots, and you can imagine the amazing American women there are vying for those few positions.
"If you'd have asked me mid-season last year, I'd have said, 'Yeah, I'm going for it, but I need to be realistic with where I'm at. I'm looking toward 2012 but setting my sights on 2016.' But now I can say I'm looking toward 2012 and hoping to make the team. Because with this past season and last season, I'm consistently there and consistently getting the results up there. I guess my progression as an athlete is faster than I had expected. And that's a good thing. I guess I was selling myself a little short, shooting for 2012 in the back of my mind, but now I see I'm ready."
One sure-fire way for Guarnier to increase her odds of making the US Olympic team this year is to earn enough UCI points to maintain the fifth-place ranking that will ensure a fourth spot for the US women. She'll compete with the national team in three more UCI 1.1 races in Luxemburg before she flies home for the NRC Tour of the Gila and the women's Exergy Tour in Idaho, one of the last pre-Olympic races that will factor into the UCI rankings.
"I'm over here for another few UCI races," Guarnier said from Europe. "And I'm hoping to do well. I've been chipping away at the points slowly. Evie (Stevens) had that huge win (at Fleche Wallonne), and it really helped us toward our goal. But I know that Amber (Neben), Kristin (Armstrong), Evie and me have really been dedicated to getting as many points as possible."
Guarnier will miss the upcoming Joe Martin Stage Race in Arkansas, where she finished second last year, but she said TIBCO is sending a strong squad that she believes can maintain the team's overall lead in that series.