When Evelyn Stevens (Boels-Dolmans) missed out on the La Flèche Wallonne win in late April by four seconds to defending champion Anna van der Breggen (Rabo Liv), one of the first things Stevens said beyond the finish line was: “If I had won today, I would be going to Rio.”
Turns out that’s not quite true.
Had Stevens won and been ranked in the top 10 of the UCI Women’s WorldTour rankings, she would have earned automatic selection to the 2016 Rio Olympics with the US team, but Stevens is currently ranked 15th, the second highest-placed American behind Megan Guarnier, who sits in third and has already earned an automatic spot for the road race. While a win at La Flèche Wallonne would have bolstered Stevens’ chances of discretionary selection, the win would not have been an auto-qualifier.
“A lot of countries have far more good candidates than they have spots at Rio,” Stevens told Cyclingnews. “We’re not the only ones where the competition is fierce. No other American has finished on the podium at a Women’s WorldTour race this season except for Megan, so I’m hopeful that second place on a hilly course matters.”
Guarnier, like Stevens, rides for the Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team. The Dutch-registered squad put two on the podium at La Flèche Wallonne with Guarnier in third place. The American road champion has had a stellar spring that includes second place at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, another hilly Women’s WorldTour one-day race, fourth place at Tour of Flanders, won by her teammate Lizzie Armitstead, and two wins in hilly Basque Country.
Unlike Stevens, Guarnier rides without the pressure of securing an Olympic berth. Her ticket was stamped last September when she earned the bronze medal at the 2015 UCI Road World Championships in Richmond, Virginia.
The pair is at the forefront of a crop of strong American talent. The US has earned the maximum allotment of four spots for the road race and two for the individual time trial. Per Olympic regulations, two of these road spots are earmarked for the riders selected to race the individual time trial – one of which whom could be Stevens, who holds the UCI Hour Record, won the US time trial title in 2010 and 2011, and earned a bronze in the time trial at the UCI Road World Championships in 2014.
With Guarnier’s automatic selection and two spots designated for the riders racing the individual time trial, this essentially leaves only one road race spot up for grabs. The US is one of few nations in which that spot could have been decided by automatic qualification rather than discretionary selection.
“To get an automatic qualification this season, you have to win a WorldTour race and be ranked in the top ten in the UCI rankings, which is a very hard thing to do,” said Tayler Wiles (Orica-AIS). “If you’re able to do that, I believe you deserve an Olympic spot.”
Wiles, like Stevens and Guarnier, has been named by USA Cycling to the women’s road long team. The list encompasses all ten athletes from which the final 2016 women’s Olympic road team will be named. In addition to Wiles, Stevens and Guarnier, the long list includes two-time Giro Rosa winner Mara Abbott (Wiggle High5), US time trial champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist Kristin Armstrong, who came out of retirement specifically to target a third Olympic gold medal in the individual time trial, Amber Neben, Shelley Olds (Cylance), Coryn Rivera (UnitedHealthcare), Carmen Small (Cervélo-Bigla) and Lauren Stephens (Team Tibco-SVB).
“The girls on the long list that are good time trialists will focus their energy there, but you still have to prove yourself on the road as well – especially on the course similar to the Olympic course,” Wiles explained. “This year, if you are a time trialist that can also climb, it’s a big advantage, and you have to do everything you can to prove in competition that you can do both of those things at the top level against the top competition.”
Small is one of the riders that Wiles references. She won the bronze medal in the time trial at the UCI Road World Championships in 2013, the same year she won the national time trial title and was part of Specialized-lululemon’s gold-medal ride at Worlds in the team time trial. Small’s made no secret of her aim to put in a strong performance in the time trial at the USA Professional Road Championships later this month.
“There are always politics when it comes to selection for every country, so I don’t know if it’s good or bad that we have automatic qualification,” Carmen Small said to Cyclingnews. “There is not one country that does it the ‘best’ way. I hope it’s a fair selection and that they take the best athletes for the Olympic Games.”
Small rides for Cérvelo-Bigla and was on the attack in the La Flèche Wallonne finale. The move was bold and commanded attention. Although the attack didn’t have staying power, Small did. She hung with the main bunch the final time up the Mur de Huy to finish in 12th place, 53 seconds down on Van der Breggen. She was the third-best placed American behind Stevens and Guarnier, and she’s currently the third best ranked American in 17th place in the UCI Women’s WorldTour rankings.
“I’m trying not to think so much about that,” said Small, when asked about the inherent competition amongst the Americans. “My outlook on the races is that I want to be consistent and show up with a positive mindset. I don’t want any gifts, and I want to be deserving of an Olympic spot. I feel like if you’re the best athlete for the job, they will take you, so whether that’s trying for a result myself or helping a teammate get a result, both are important.
“I can only control the things that I can control, so I focus on those things.”
Wiles approaches the competition amongst those on the long list a bit differently.
“I use it to help me suffer a little bit more to achieve my goals,” she said. “I’ve found I go much deeper in training, pushing myself until I fall off my bike, with the thought in my head that every little bit helps and to get to the Olympics, you really have to give it everything you have, every ounce of effort in training and racing.”
Chloe Hoksing (Wiggle High5) won the seventh round of the Women's WorldTour at the Tour of Chongming Island in China. There are three more UCI Women’s WorldTour races between now and the end of the selection period - the Amgen Women’s Tour of California, the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic and the Aviva Women’s Tour.
Although the qualification period runs through June 20, May 1 marked the final date by which an athlete could automatically qualify to the team by virtue of a UCI Women’s WorldTour win and a top 10 UCI Women’s Women’s WorldTour ranking. It’s unclear how a win at any of the remaining events can or will impact selection. The USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial Championships held at the end of May will likely prove decisive in terms of time trial selection.