Armstrong pleased with Solvang showing

Peanut Butter & Co/Twenty12’s Kristin Armstrong won the International Women’s Time Trial Challenge in Solvang on Friday, and confirmed her return to the highest level of women’s cycling. Armstrong beat a field that included U.S. National Champion Evelyn Stevens of HTC-Highroad and World Champion Emma Pooley of Garmin-Cervélo. An Olympic gold medallist in Beijing and a two-time world champion, Armstrong left the sport after the 2009 season to have a baby. Now, eight months after the birth of her son, she is back.

Though Armstrong has ridden several high-level races in the United States this season, Friday marked her first victory since her return. Armstrong rode 48 seconds faster than current World Champion Pooley, which is a significant gap over the relatively short 24.1 kilometer course. Pooley finished fifth. Another former world champion and US national champion Amber Neben finished 13 seconds behind Armstrong, while current US national champion Stevens rode 39 seconds slower. Armstrong made a commanding statement in the invitation-only event.

“It hurt really bad but I always tell people that if you’re hurting so is everyone else, and you just have to keep digging through and don’t get discouraged,” Armstrong said. “I took my own advice today. I just kept on digging and digging and digging.” The up and down course suited her strengths which include not only strong legs, but also fearless bike handling.

The Solvang course runs uphill for the first half then downhill to the finish over curving roads. “A lot of people said that the race was to the top of the climb, because you can’t gain time downhill, but with my strengths, I took every corner with 110 percent risk, took chances today and that’s why I’m here,” she said. The wind added to the difficulty of the course. “It was really windy, pretty much a head or cross wind the whole day today,” she commented.

She also sought out advice from three-time course winner Levi Leipheimer, who placed second in stage six of the pro men’s Amgen Tour of California, and Rory Sutherland, who had also previously raced on the Solvang course.

“I contacted them because they are two of the best time triallists in the country. I got advice from both of them. Levi had a lot of great focusing tips for today and Rory had a lot of great tips as well. They are two completely different riders but I took both of their tips and used it to my advantage today,” said Armstrong after the race. Both Leipheimer and Sutherland finished in the top ten in the Amgen Tour of California stage that ran after the women’s race in Solvang.

Armstrong’s son, Lucas, is eight months old, and she now juggles the demands of motherhood with those of competitive cycling. “It is a great feeing to come back. It’s given me a lot of balance and there is nothing more important. I am a mother number one and a cyclist number two and that balance has kept me happy and psyched about the sport,” she explained.

She currently races for the Peanut Butter & Co./Twenty12 team, whose aim is to develop riders for the next Olympic Games. “I have a great team behind me. Peanut Butter & Co./Twenty12 is like a family and that is why I chose to race with them,” said Armstrong. She views the coming Olympics as a team effort. “Everyone is a part of this mission to go to London.”

For the American riders, the Solvang time trial holds extra significance, because it may help decide the selection for the 2012 London Olympics. Friday’s time trial offered one of two chances for the women to race head-to-head this year. The second occasion will come in June at the U.S. National Championship in Augusta, Georgia.

According to the rules, the winner of the national championship automatically receives her Olympic berth. A panel at USA Cycling, which will make its choice based on recent results from the athletes, will decide the second slot. If she does not win the national championship, Armstrong’s strong ride on Friday in Solvang may help speed her way to her third Olympic Games and a shot at a second gold medal.

For her part, Armstrong is not looking too far ahead. “I can only take it one step at a time. I still have five months until the world championships and I think I’m right on track and working on my fitness,” she said. Her next challenge comes on Sunday, June 26, in Augusta, Georgia, where she will compete in the U.S. Elite National Championship time trial.

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