Kristin Armstrong's road to Rio wasn’t without its bumps, but the American says she is prepared to win her nation a third gold medal in the women's time trial at the Olympic Games on Wednesday before hanging up her wheels for a third time in her illustrious career.
"I want a third gold medal," Armstrong said in a teleconference on the eve of the event. "I left the sport on top, twice now. Something keeps driving me back. This time around it has been the hardest for a lot of different reasons. I love the challenge. I love challenges in life. I haven't found quite the same challenge as I have in going for a third gold medal. I'm excited to do it. I think there are strong competitors out there and that the stars will have to be aligned for everyone to end up on the podium. I'm ready for the challenge, and I would love to make US history."
Armstrong is one of four women competing at the Olympic Games for Team USA in the women's road events. USA Cycling's Selection Committee chose Armstrong and Evelyn Stevens, for both the time trial and the road race, along with Megan Guarnier and Mara Abbott for just the road race.
Armstrong was a dominant factor in the road race on Sunday, seen driving the pace to bring back breakaways and entering into her own moves, allowing Guarnier, Stevens and Abbott to focus on the final climb and a medal spot. Abbott was on her way to a gold medal, solo off the front, but was caught by a chase group of three with under 300 metres to go and was forced to settle for a heartbreaking fourth place. Anna van der Breggen took the gold medal for the Netherlands.
Some wondered if her valiant team effort on Sunday might cost her some energy or strength during the upcoming time trial held three days later but Armstrong denied such questions.
"I worked really hard for my team," Armstrong said. "People might look at that and say, 'wow, she put it all out there before the time trial', but I have a different outlook on that. I feel that I need an opener. It's my style. I also feel that it gave me a lot of confidence because I felt really strong. I am really excited to go for my third medal."
'I really like the course'
The time trial course has its share of challenges. A 29.9km route that uses parts of the Grumari Park circuit featured in the road race, including the steep climbs and the now-paved cobbled section.
"Prior to the road race we did a lot of recon [on the time trial course], and we were able to ride it a couple of times during the road race," Armstrong outlined the route features. "I think the difference for the course tomorrow is that the cobbled section has been paved, and it looks like a bike path lane. That section lasted five minutes [in the road race], and it was pretty rough on the legs, jarring, and you were going straight into the climb.
"I noticed in training that the climbs feel the same; they are steep and difficult, but I think that not having the cobbles will make it a much smoother ride. As a time triallist, I like to keep things even and strong. There are a lot of undulations.
"I think this is a really great course. I think it's a lot of fun. I think you have to keep focussed. It's not often that you have to go up climbs that are 20 per cent in pitch, and so that is going to be super difficult for everyone.
"There are flat sections out there so people are going to go with a typical time trial set up with a disc wheel and such, so it's not a course where people would change much with regard to their time trial bike. But I think the course will serve as the race of truth, and that is why they call it a time trial."
Comparing Beijing, London and Rio gold-medal attempts
Armstrong won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2012 London Olympics. She says that all three Olympic time trial courses are different but that Beijing's route was the most challenging of the three. She detailed her specific preparation ahead of Rio while comparing it to the way she prepared for her winning performances in Beijing and London.
"Every one of my Olympic journeys has been approached and performed very differently," Armstrong said. "This course [difficulty] is between Beijing and London. In Beijing, there was a hill climb and a straight descent. In London, it was a relatively flat course. In Rio, the course is undulating and has a lot more spikes, and so your rhythm is going to be quite different; your heart rate is going to go up and down the entire time.
"Whenever I have a course presented to me, because of my experience, I am able to train specifically for that. And so I have been working on steeper climbing, making sure my bike is prepared. A lot of times we come into the Olympic Games physically prepared but then there is everything else. I call it the 'one per cent' that has to be on, and that one per cent also includes your equipment choices, making sure you are set up for that particular course. So, I have been set up for this particular course. I've been training for this particular course.
"As far as my lead-in goes, the only difference is that I had quite a bit more stress leading into this, but I would say that over the last period I feel super strong. Thank goodness for technology, we are able to know what our performances are – data doesn't lie – and I'm right where I was in 2012. I'm really happy for that.
"The time trial, at this point… we are all at a world-class level, and so it will be about what we bring between our ears, and making sure that you stay positive and confident.
"My mantra is that you have to be OK with leaving everything out there. If you've crossed the finish line and have left everything out there, then you did the best you can. If someone ends up in front of you, then they had a better ride. That's my commitment to myself. I want to be accountable to that, and I will give it everything I have."
The arbitration for a coveted Olympic spot on Team USA
When Armstrong speaks of additional stress heading into the Olympic Games this time around, she is referring to the arbitration launched against her spot for the time trial by compatriots US champion Carmen Small and Amber Neben, who both felt they deserved a spot on the time trial team. They were unsuccessful in overturning USA Cycling's original selection.
"That was a bump in the road," Armstrong calmly said. "I took that, and I got through it. The good news is that I had a team around me. A lot of that was organised and taken care of through my support team. I was able to continue to focus and train. I'm excited to be here with the team again."
The world will be watching as Armstrong attempts a third consecutive Olympic gold medal in the time trial in Rio. She says she is excited for the opportunity, revels in the difficult course and is prepared to give everything she has into making her country proud.
"When people ask me what the race was like or how did I feel, that part is always a blur, but I can tell you about every moment leading up to this day. I have done everything that I can to be prepared, so I will spend the rest of today relaxed, properly fuelled, and show up [tomorrow]."
What's next for Armstrong?
Armstrong has retired twice during her illustrious career, the first time in 2008 after the Beijing Olympic Games to start a family and the second time after the 2012 London Olympic Games, after which she had three hip replacement surgeries. She came back to the sport at the beginning of 2015 with a stated goal of representing the US in Rio.
Having completed that mission, Cyclingnews asked Armstrong if she plans on retiring after the Olympic Games in Rio. Although she did not wish to use the term retirement, she said she plans on focusing on her full-time job as Director of Community Health for Saint Luke's Hospital in Boise, Idaho.
"They have given me a 12-week break, which I am grateful for, but it's a dream job, and I really look forward to being back in the hospital setting and working to better the health around the state of Idaho," Armstrong said.
"I will be continually involved with team Twenty16, and that will change to Twenty20, supporting Mari [Holden] and Nikki [Cranmer] with whatever they need because it's the premier development team in America."