Team USA will field arguably its strongest women's squad to date when the 2012 Olympic Games road race begins on Sunday, and if the race comes down to a bunch sprint, Shelley Olds is a prime prospect for a medal. Although she is one of the fastest women in the world, getting onto the team was never a given for the 31-year-old from Massachusetts.
The Olympic quest began on the track for Olds, but when the UCI removed the points race from the programme, she had to devote herself completely to transforming into a road sprinter, which she did to immediate success: her palmares include two national criterium titles, a Pan American championship, stages of the women's Giro d'Italia and Tour of New Zealand. But her crowning achievement to date, her first World Cup victory on Chongming Island in China in May, came at a extraordinarily opportune moment.
At the start of the season, the United States had slipped out of the top five in the UCI's nations rankings, a designation which determines the size of the team for the Olympic Games. The entire team was devoted to gaining points: Evelyn Stevens won in La Flèche Wallonne, Amber Neben took wins in El Salvador and the PanAmerican Championships, Kristin Armstrong won stages in the Tour of New Zealand and Megan Guarnier followed up her break-out season of 2011 with a seventh place behind Stevens on the Mur de Huy.
Olds, however, was sitting on her sofa with a cast on her broken wrist, watching her compatriots' successes and seeing her own chances of making the team slipping away.
"I put my whole life into cycling this winter to qualify for the Games, and then I had a big crash in one of the best races for me - the Binda World Cup," Olds told Cyclingnews. The moment came on a descent early in the Italian World Cup when another rider crashed in front of Olds, leaving her with a fractured wrist which had to be stabilized in a full plaster cast. "I lost five weeks of my season and I had to sit in my apartment watching everyone else racing to qualify. It was very difficult mentally to stay focused and say, 'I still have a month to qualify and I have to put all of my efforts into that'."
"When I broke my wrist I wasn't able to climb for a long time because of the cast, I couldn't stand and move around. I focused all my energy on the race in China because I knew that was what I could use to qualify for the Olympics - it was completely flat. So I focused all my training on flat racing, sprints, power work on the flats."
Desperate to get back into the game, Olds defied her doctor's orders and raced just four weeks later, still with the cast, at the Festival Luxembourgeois du Cyclisme Féminin Elsy Jacobs. It was too soon. "I had another crash and my hand was OK but I hit my head pretty hard because I was protecting my hand." The incident made her doubt whether or not she could even go to China less than two weeks later for the World Cup.
"I made the decision I needed to get myself back mentally, and get back into racing. So I went to China and it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me."
Olds used the three-day stage race which precedes the Chongming Island World Cup to tune her body, mind and race strategy for her final chance at making the Olympic team - nothing short of a victory would do.
"The stage race had two stages that finished on the same circuit as the World Cup, so we got to practice the sprint two times before the World Cup. It was not a very big field, but it was a difficult race because it was raining and windy, and it was a long race. In the end it came down to a field sprint and I happened to be at the right place at the right time and sprinted to victory."
The win gave Olds the edge in the USA Cycling selection process over Guarnier, who had 20 more UCI points than Olds but no World Cup wins. "I've known Megan for a long time and I have a lot of respect for her as a rider, and I think she's done amazing things this year. In the end it was a battle of five girls for four spots, and I feel fortunate I'm going to have an opportunity to represent the USA."
After her success in China, Olds returned to her European base to train in Italy, tackling some of the toughest climbs in the world in order to prepare for the Giro Donne and Olympic Games. The hard work paid off with a sprint victory on stage 6 in Italy, where she beat a host of top riders: Marianne Vos, Giorgia Bronzini, Monia Baccaille, Judith Arndt and Emma Johansson.
That victory gave Olds the confidence that she can deliver an Olympic gold medal for Team USA if the race on Sunday should come down to a sprint. "It's not always the strongest or fastest person who wins, it's the person who has been the smartest, who has had the most luck that day and who is in the right position at the right time.
"I think Team USA is capable of winning a medal with any one of our riders. I feel that I am capable of winning in the sprint against some of these big riders," Olds said.
The race itself will be challenging not only because of the undulating, technical course but because the UCI's restrictions on team size yield a tiny peloton of just 67 riders - that is less than half the size of most World Cups.
"It's a long race, 140km, the roads are very uneven, the surface is not smooth. You're constantly battling with your bike on the surface, even on the downhills you can't recover because you're bumping around. The whole course is up and down, so it's never an easy race. I think Box Hill can be the decisive point in the race because it's coming from a big road onto a narrow road, and if the big countries and strong girls want to make a selection that's where they can make it. It's a long way to the finish, but it's a small field and once a selection is made it's hard to say who will chase and who can bring the group back together."
The summer in London has been less than ideal, with cold temperatures and heavy rains plaguing the country for months. While the sun emerged in time for the team's arrival in Surrey, and Olds and her fellow riders have enjoyed warm, sunny conditions while training this week, the forecast for Sunday is dismal. Olds remains unfazed.
"I don't mind if it rains or if it's hot or cold. that will make the race. This is going to be an epic moment, a memorable experience. If it's raining then that just adds to the experience, or if it is a beautiful day - whatever happens, happens, and that is how it's meant to be. The weather will not change how I race the race."