Lauren Stephens is heading to the Tour of California Invitational Time Trial as an underdog. In 2014, Stephens emerged as TIBCO-SVB's main GC rider, and has spent time this season improving her time trialling ability.
Friday’s time trial, now scheduled for the Six Flags in Santa Clarita, is an important test to see where Stephens stacks up against the heavy hitters. Stephens has aspirations to ride with the national team at Tour of Britain, and at the World Championships in Richmond. Thus, having good performances at the Tour of California and Nationals are important for the Texan.
"I want to make the Worlds team," Stephens said. "My team doesn’t do a lot of racing over in Europe, we will go over there late summer. Since I don’t do a lot of racing over there to make the Worlds team... it is pretty difficult. To win Nationals time trial would be a way I could make it. So the time trial is something you can really focus your training on."
In 2014, Stephens surprised many when she won the individual National Racing Calendar title. It was a goal she had set earlier in the season with her coach and husband Mat Stephens.
"Last year, me and my husband sat down and made goals," Stephens said. "We said to win NRC last year. I really didn’t feel like we made extreme efforts, but we verbalized that. This year I have more international goals."
Stephens was an endurance athlete in college and high school. She ran cross country for a year at Southern Methodist University (SMU) before transferring to the University of North Texas. After college she bought a bike from her sister and started riding. Unaware she could change her own flats, she kept taking her bike into her local bike store. Stephens met her future husband Mat during one of the visits and the pair started riding together. Stephens started joining group rides, and it was not long before Mat introduced her to racing.
In 2013 Stephens made a splash with a surprise win at the Charlotte Presbyterian Hospital Invitational Criterium. Several weeks later she placed third overall at the Joe Martin Stage Race. Tibco-SVB picked up Stephens later that June, enabling her to attend more races.
Stephens displays a strong tactical ability in addition to her natural talent. She has shown a facility for all kinds of races including time trials, criteriums, and road races.
"I’m a math major so I feel like the tactical side is intriguing to me," Stephens said. "I’m always trying to figure out puzzles. That is really what road racing is. There are so many different ways you can get to the same solution of winning the race."
Last year, Tibco-SVB lost several key riders including Shelley Olds, Claudia Haussler [Lichtenberg], and Chantal Blaak. Nobody on the team was sure how the year would play out. Stephens showed up ready to go. At the 2014 Redlands Bicycle Classic Stephens won the first stage and set the bar for the rest of the season.
Growing into the role of leader hasn't been without its challenges. Stephens is a self-proclaimed loner and has needed to step out of her comfort zone. She has leaned on teammates like Joanne Kiesanowski to help find her way.
"Last year it was kind of difficult. I wasn’t expecting to be the team leader last year," Stephens said. "So I didn’t come into it with that idea. That I need to build these relationships with the girls, that I needed to make them believe in me, that I need to make them want to work for me. Where this year I came in with a completely different approach. Whether you are the strongest rider or not, you need your teammates and you need your teammates to want to work for you."
Lauren Stephens is not a household name yet, but she is planning to change that in the coming weeks.