Armstrong goes out on top with Olympic gold

Kristin Armstrong, racing in her final event before retirement, gave the USA its first Olympic gold medal in cycling in a repeat performance of four years ago in Beijing.

The 39-year-old came back to the sport with the sole aim at earning another Olympic gold, and let out an unbridled shout of joy as she crossed the line at Hampton Court to win the 29km individual time trial. Barely containing her ear-to-ear grin, Armstrong's face portrayed pride, glee and relief at having overcome two years of turmoil in her comeback journey after giving birth to her son Lucas.

In her first year after that time, she struggled more with regaining form than anticipated. Lacking form and international racing in 2011, she was kept out of the world championship time trial after a successful protest by fellow American Amber Neben. Without a world championship result, even her selection for London was never secure, but she kept pushing forward knowing she had one chance to relive the moment on the Olympic podium.

"When I came back, everyone asked me why in the world would I come back. And the reason I came back was because the feeling I got in Beijing, nothing could top that," Armstrong said. "But I couldn't imagine being on the top step of the podium with my son, Lucas, in my arms."

Armstrong's journey to greatness grew out of her career in triathlon, which she was forced to give up after suffering chronic hip pain and ultimately being diagnosed with osteoarthritis.

She turned to bike racing in 2001, being recruited with the T-Mobile women's team, but it wasn't until the lead-up to the Athens Olympic in 2004 that she began her path to the top. That year she claimed her first national road title, she would go on to claim five in total - three in time trial, two in the road race - and was selected for the Olympic team.

Having finished eighth in Athens, she set her sights on Beijing four years hence. In 2005, she took bronze in the world championships time trial, and converted that to gold the next year. Taking silver in 2007, she collected the national title in 2008 in addition to a string of impressive results, making her the odds-on favourite for the Olympic gold medal.

"Leading up to Beijing, I had been on the podium at the world championships twice, so it was expected I'd be on podium in Beijing. I counted three or four riders I had to beat. I didn't have that clear path this time," she said.

Her path to today's shining moment, however, was a bit more challenging, a bit tinged with drama.

There was talk she had not raced much internationally, a sacrifice she made in order to be close to her family. There were doubts on whether she could come back from a broken collarbone in May. There was even talk that she might be passed over for the time trial in favour of Neben and US time trial champion Evelyn Stevens. There was even more talk after Armstrong crashed in Sunday's road race that her injuries would hamper her gold medal defense.

But as all champions do, Armstrong conquered all of those obstacles.

With a young son, she had less time to train and even less for traveling to international races. Instead, she trained harder and with more determination. It involved long hours of training on the stationary bike in her house, or on the road with a tight schedule when the nanny could mind Lucas. She also faced other, less planned challenges.

"It will be two years in September since I had Lucas, and after having him, when I would go out to ride, I felt really scared that I would get hit by a car. I never had that happen before. I was so nervous, but every mom I spoke to said it's normal. You feel more fear because you're responsible for someone now. I had a lot more fear in racing, too."

Her worst fears came true not in the high-speed, technical and often dangerous criteriums that are popular in the US, but in the prologue time trial in her home town of Boise in the inaugural Exergy Tour - the highest profile women's race in the USA this season, and one just two months ahead of the Olympic Games.

"I always think that I'm going to break my collarbone in a road race, so when I crashed in a time trial by myself, that was a first. Then crashing at base of Box Hill on Sunday, it didn't give me confidence. Today's corners were a bit grandma-like. There was no need to take risks, the corners were not where this race was going to be won. I was a little bit hesitant on the corners, just making sure I stayed upright."

Her aim accomplished, Armstrong is now absolutely, positively going to ride into her golden sunset.

"Today my focus was 'this is it'. I have to live with this result and whatever I do today, I have to look back on. No matter what athlete you are, you're only as good as your last result - and this was my last result," Armstrong said with certainty. "I am now officially retired."

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Laura Weislo
Managing Editor

Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Managing Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. As former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks. Laura's specialises in covering doping, anti-doping, UCI governance and performing data analysis.