Coryn Rivera is one of the most decorated cyclists in US history, but even though she has 68 national championship titles across road, track, mountain bike and cyclo-cross, the 22-year-old considers her first elite title, the US criterium national championship this year, to be her only "real" one. After tasting success at the top of American cycling, and becoming the best young rider in the inaugural edition of La Course by Tour de France, Rivera is determined to be more than simply a talented criterium sprinter. In her second season with UnitedHealthcare, Rivera aims to be more successful and consistent in road events with an aim at being selected for the US team for Worlds in Richmond.
Rivera began her cycling career at a very young age, claiming her first stars and stripes jerseys a decade ago. Her first Worlds medal - a bronze in Junior Worlds in 2010 - came a few weeks before her 18th birthday. Rivera's first international elite victory - a stage in the Tour Féminin en Limousin - followed a year later. She was on an express route to success, but one lacking the structured development path laid down for men.
"As Greg LeMond said, 'It never gets easier, you just go faster'," Rivera said. "It's gotten a lot harder, it's a different level. There's more depth as I get older, and get further up into the ranks. With women, it's different - for men, there's a definite development path from the juniors to under-23s to elites. With the women it's juniors and then you just get thrown in. There's a little bit of having to find your own development process."
Rivera chose to pursue a degree in business at Marian University, combining school with her professional cycling career. While continuing her education allowed her to pile on more national titles in the collegiate ranks and provide some fun, low-key racing in the off-season, as many students have found, combining college with elite athletics can be overwhelming. By her sophomore year, she cracked.
"It's a time in life where you need to figure out what you want to do, and there was a lot going on. I was going to school, racing for Marian University, doing the national team stuff. I went to the Pan American championships [in March of 2012 -ed]. I was also racing for Exergy-Twenty12 at the time. I was juggling a lot and it kind of cracked me."
It's a situation many riders find themselves in, and one that contributes to the high attrition rate, especially in the women's fields. "Not having U23s as a next focus, it's hard for a lot of younger girls to grasp. They start steering away from cycling after the juniors. They go to college and do other things in life, and start to lose interest. It's a difficult time to figure out if you should keep racing or do something else," Rivera said.
Rather than make up her mind straight away, Rivera took the entire summer of 2012 off the bike. "It was really refreshing. I'd been racing so long as a junior, it was time for a solid break and to think about what my next step would be," Rivera said.
"I got back on the bike later that fall and just did collegiate cyclo-cross and eased my way back into it. It was low key and fun. That summer I went to Europe with a small UK team to see if I wanted to do this. You could say I fell in love with it again." UnitedHealthcare manager Mike Tamayo noticed that she was racing again, and she signed on for the team for 2014.
Easing back into competition with no pressure turned out to be the key to rekindling her love of the bike and her need for speed. A year later and with her first elite national title under her belt, a long-time goal of being selected for the US Olympic team is now firmly back in focus. The first step toward Rio 2016 is earning a selection for Worlds in Richmond, one that might be helped by the fact that in May, she won the collegiate road title in the test event held on the same course which will be used next September - and she did not let the race come down to a sprint, rather she attacked with a teammate on the penultimate lap and then soloed in for victory.
"I kind of surprised myself with how I rode [this year], and I think I have the potential to develop into more than just a crit rider or sprinter. I'm going to try to get to Richmond. It was an awesome course, a great venue. To go back as a professional would be huge."
Getting there won't be easy, Rivera admits. "I'll do a national team trip first thing in the spring, then hopefully go from there and get selected. Hopefully the criteria for picking the Worlds team will come out soon and we'll tackle it from there."
Winning the elite road title in Chattanooga would be a good first step, but Rivera also looks to the other UCI races in the US in addition to trips to Europe with the national team and UnitedHealthcare to gain the eye of the selectors.
"I'll keep trucking away, getting good results and consistent results on the road. I've always been seen as the crit sprinter. It was great, and I was doing really well, but I feel like I can do more in the sprints. I'd like to take the next step and do Philly, Winston-Salem now that it's UCI and I'm really looking forward to La Course. It was so hard - the cobbles were so hard. I didn't expect it to be that bad. My hands were aching. It was an unreal experience to be on the start line and the Arc de Triomphe in the background. It was really amazing."
After standing on the podium along the Champs Elysees as the best young rider of La Course, placing sixth in the inaugural edition, Rivera plans to return and challenge this year's winner Marianne Vos. Can she win? "That's the plan," Rivera stated matter-of-factly.
With her renewed love of the bike, a decade of experience, and a strong team behind her, the odds look pretty good she can do it.