Carmen Small might have been an outside hope for selection to the USA team for the Olympic Games in Rio before today, but her victory in the US national championship time trial in Winston-Salem has shifted her to the top of the list.
The only rider from the 10-woman Olympic long team to have earned an automatic selection is Megan Guarnier (Boels Dolmans) - by merit of her bronze medal in the World Championship road race and her position at the top of the Women's WorldTour - leaving nine women fighting for the three other spots.
Trailing Guarnier, Evelyn Stevens, Kristin Armstrong and Coryn Rivera in the UCI WorldTour rankings, Small knew that the time trial today was important.
"I've had a solid spring, I was really happy with it. But you can only control what you can control. Today was really important with that, to be able to show that I am a strong American time trialist. That was my mind set - this is it. It was go time. I needed to come out there and prove myself, which I hope I did," Small told Cyclingnews.
To show up and beat two-time Olympic time trial champion Armstrong by over a minute was a big boon for Small's chances for the Olympic selection, but it was a painful effort.
"It was brutal. I rode it for the first time on Tuesday and I was pretty shocked," Small said. "I have to be honest, I was intimidated by it. There is no flat out there, you can't ride it like a proper time trial where it's usually flat or technical. Sometimes there are hills but not like this, where it is constantly up and down. You had to really be smart how you rode it. I was lucky to have a good team behind me. I spoke a lot with my coach Corey Hart about how tactically to ride it. I think that was pretty crucial, just to know how to ride it."
Small also credited her ride to a lucky decision by her team to skip the WorldTour race in China, which meant she arrived home in Durango a good five days sooner than expected. She was able to acclimate to the altitude and get some solid training in, although the weather in Colorado was vastly different than the warm, muggy North Carolina climate.
"I rode one day last week where it was 45 degrees. It was a huge shock to the system. But it's nice to be able to overcome that," she said. "With the conditions being so hot and humid, and the course being so difficult, it could have gone either way. I knew I had good fitness, but I was pretty crazy with anxiety this morning."
Small's ascension to the top of the American women's time trial ranks came one year too late for the London Olympics, but in 2013, she finished a surprising third in the world championships in Florence, knocking her compatriot Stevens off the podium. Since then, however, she's had a turbulent few years on and off the bike. She dabbled in training for the team pursuit for Rio, but after falling ill before the 2015 track world championships, she decided to switch her focus back on the road. However, the mixed season meant she was under-prepared for the World Championships - a key event towards Olympic selection. She finished 14th, and was third best American behind Armstrong and Stevens.
"Last year was a really turbulent season for me and it wasn't the best preparation to do well at Worlds," Small said. "That was the last race I had... so it is good to come out and to have a solid spring. I was really missing that. It was good to have consistency racing and results-wise."
After deciding to return to the road, Small watched as her former track teammates went on to win the world title in the team pursuit, but she doesn't regret her decision for a moment.
"I was super happy for the girls. It was my decision not to pursue the track. It was a tough call, obviously. But it wasn't where my heart was, and no one would benefit from me being on the team if I had continued in the program. It was a hard call, but I was so excited for them to win worlds. They worked so hard - I know how hard they worked. I was in awe. They have some talented young women on the team, and it's really good to see that team flourish.
"I really love the road, I love time trial and I missed that. So that was the call I needed to make, and I'm happy I did."
From here on out, Small will be nervously awaiting the decision of the USA Cycling selection committee while racing for Cervelo-Bigla. The US team is due to be announced on June 20.
"The rest of the season depends on the Olympic selection. I'll do the road race tomorrow, and then I go back to Durango. This was the pinnacle for me, I needed to perform in the time trial. After this, I will most likely do the Aviva Tour in a few weeks, and I look forward to supporting our sprinter. After that, I'm not sure, it depends on the Olympic selection. I'll keep plugging along until that decision is made."