THE LONG ROAD

For a decade Me­gan Guarnier has been qui­etly and dili­gently work­ing her way up pro­fes­sional cy­cling’s lad­der. In 2016, as win­ner of the Giro Fem­minile and Women’s World Tour, she reached the top. Here she tells Pro­cy­cling about her jour­ney

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Me­ganGuarnier’s big­gest chal­lenge is to stop think­ing so much. This is eas­ier said than done – the first Women’s WorldTour win­ner has a de­gree in neu­ro­science from Mid­dle­bury Col­lege, Ver­mont, and she spent the first few years of her cy­cling ca­reer work­ing part­time for a risk as­sess­ment com­pany in Cal­i­for­nia which cal­cu­lated the odds on ac­ci­dents hap­pen­ing at a nu­clear power plant. Over many years she trained her brain to an­a­lyse, as­sess, think log­i­cally and weigh up ev­i­dence and op­tions. She was good at it; lives lit­er­ally de­pended on her abil­ity to do this well. But her tal­ent for anal­y­sis has been a hin­drance as well as a help in her cho­sen sport.

“The bane of my ex­is­tence in cy­cling has been over­think­ing ev­ery­thing,” she says. “Tak­ing de­ci­sions on a bike can make you hes­i­tant. I’m try­ing to race on in­stinct and use less ex­trin­sic think­ing.”

Rac­ing in­stinc­tively is eas­ier said than done. Or, rather, rac­ing in­stinc­tively and win­ning is eas­ier said than done. Guarnier’s whole ca­reer has been a case study in catch­ing up and learn­ing things that other riders take for granted.

Guarnier spent her child­hood and teenage years as a swim­mer, be­fore overuse in­juries forced her to re­con­sider her sport­ing ca­reer at uni­ver­sity.

“I had been swim­ming for far too long and pretty much ev­ery­thing was wrong with my shoul­ders,” she says. “I was tired of be­ing in pain and hav­ing numb hands. I was spend­ing an hour and a half a day in phys­i­cal ther­apy on top of train­ing all day in the pool and in the gym.”

It was too much, so she tried triathlon. “At least that way I only had to get in the pool twice a week,” she says. But the triathlon am­bi­tion lasted long enough for her to dis­cover cy­cling, af­ter some­body sug­gested she do a col­le­giate bike race.

“I didn’t like swim­ming all that much but that was all I had known up to that point. I was 18 or 19 and I’d been swim­ming for 13 years. That’s how I iden­ti­fied my­self. I was a swim­mer.

“But I was mis­er­able with it, and so goal ori­en­tated. It was just like beat­ing my head against a wall and it wasn’t fun. When I started cy­cling, I ab­so­lutely loved it. I found cy­cling to be the com­plete an­tithe­sis of swim­ming.”

When she de­cided to pur­sue the new sport se­ri­ously, she made one prom­ise to her mother: the mo­ment she stopped hav­ing fun she would stop rac­ing. She has been rac­ing ever since.

She’s also been mak­ing up for her late start. “I’ve had a lot to learn. I’m from the US and cy­cling is not in our cul­ture. Okay, I know I can push this num­ber for five min­utes or that I’m not as good a sprinter as X, Y or Z. But this is why I went to race for a French team in 2009, be­cause I had to learn the cul­ture, the tac­tics and the races. All that makes your rac­ing in­stinc­tual, rather than hes­i­tat­ing or ques­tion­ing what to do.” Of course, over­think­ing can have other con­se­quences, too: neg­a­tive thoughts, or a re­luc­tance to take risks. The other defin­ing at­tribute of Guarnier’s ca­reer, un­til the last sea­son or two, has been the fact that other peo­ple saw her po­ten­tial far more clearly than she did her­self.

Take, for ex­am­ple, her sports di­rec­tor on the Terry Pre­ci­sion team Guarnier rode for in 2007. Un­til then, Guarnier thought (there’s that word again) sprints were too dan­ger­ous and gave them a wide berth. Terry Pre­ci­sion put Guarnier into the Tour of Prince Ed­ward Is­land in Canada that year and pushed her to con­test ev­ery bonus sprint. “You’re a sprinter,” they told Guarnier. Eight years later, Guarnier took bronze in the sprint at the end of the 2015 World Road Race Cham­pi­onships be­hind Lizzie Deignan (then Ar­mit­stead).

“The bane of my ex­is­tence in cy­cling has been over­think­ing ev­ery­thing. Tak­ing de­ci­sions on a bike can make you hes­i­tant. I’m try­ing to race on in­stinct and not use so much ex­trin­sic think­ing”

Or take Corey Hart, the phys­i­ol­o­gist she met and started work­ing with in 2008 at an Olympic train­ing camp. Hart saw what hap­pened to Guarnier in her first trip to Europe in the spring of 2008 – in her own words, get­ting her teeth kicked in. Hart not only saw her po­ten­tial im­prove­ment but brought it out of her and, more im­por­tantly, sold it to her as a process worth en­gag­ing in. Eight years later, this year, she won the Women’s WorldTour.

Or Danny Stam, the sports di­rec­tor of her cur­rent team, Boels-Dol­mans. Dur­ing the 2013 Giro Rosa, when Guarnier was rid­ing for Rabobank-Liv and work­ing for Mar­i­anne Vos, Stam stood by the side of the road on a climb and thought that she looked stronger than Vos, who was then at her zenith, and signed her be­cause he thought she could win the women’s Giro. Guarnier thought it was a far­fetched idea but in her first year with Boels she was sev­enth over­all. A year on, she was third and won the points com­pe­ti­tion. And in 2016 she won the pink jer­sey.

CON­STANT THREAT

The Giro d’Italia vic­tory more or less con­firmed that Guarnier would win the in­au­gu­ral Women’s WorldTour. A strong spring Clas­sics cam­paign didn’t net her a win, though there is a caveat to this: in five of the six one-day WorldTour races in March and April, one of Guarnier’s team­mates was the win­ner. The Amer­i­can was sixth in Strade Bianche, sec­ond in Tro­feo Al­fredo Binda and fourth in the Tour of Flan­ders, all won by Ar­mit­stead. Guarnier was 11th in Gent-Wevel­gem and 35th in the Ronde van Dren­the, where team­mate Chan­tal Blaak was the win­ner. The team’s only blot was at Flèche Wal­lonne, where Guarnier was third be­hind Rabo-Liv’s win­ner Anna Van der Breggen. It’s a sober­ing thought for Boels-Dol­mans’s

“It’s hard to de­fend pink. We saw that in 2015 when we lost it – it was a big pity for us to lose it in a time trial”

ri­vals in 2017 that Van Der Breggen has also sub­se­quently signed for the team.

But while Guarnier’s only early sea­son win was a stage in the Euskal Emakumeen Bira, which isn’t part of the WorldTour, she started scor­ing points very heav­ily through sum­mer. She won the Tour of Cal­i­for­nia, then won the Na­tional Road Race Cham­pi­onship for the third time en route to tak­ing the Philadel­phia In­ter­na­tional Clas­sic. The WorldTour al­ready looked safe but a per­fectly ex­e­cuted win in the Giro Fem­minile put her a long way clear of her ri­vals.

No two races are the same from year to year but there is an in­ter­est­ing com­par­i­son be­tween the 2015 and 2016 Giros. You could ar­gue that Guarnier rode the in­di­vid­ual stages bet­ter in 2015 – she won an early stage and put to­gether a string of four sec­ond places in the lat­ter half of the race, lead­ing the race for six days. But she con­ceded cru­cial time in the last two days, in the time trial and the fi­nal stage to Ver­biana, drop­ping to third over­all. A year later, the plac­ings were marginally lower – no stage wins and a string of fourths, fifths and a sev­enth – but the end re­sult was a much more solid and con­sis­tent as­sault on the pink jer­sey. And all that de­spite her train­ing for the race hav­ing been com­pro­mised by the need to peak for the Rio Olympics, less than a month af­ter the end of the Giro.

“I needed to be not so tired com­ing off the Giro that I couldn’t train for Rio. I didn’t want to dig my­self into a hole I couldn’t get out of,” she says. “I ac­tu­ally came into the Giro, in my opin­ion, pretty flat, and my coach and I had some long con­ver­sa­tions.

“It’s hard to de­fend pink. We saw that in 2015 when we lost it – it was a big pity for me and for the team to lose it in a time trial. I couldn’t have asked for more out of my­self but I lost it in that. Again this year, there was the time trial at the end of the race and I was hes­i­tant to put all my eggs in the pink jer­sey bas­ket be­cause of that pre­vi­ous dis­ap­point­ment and I didn’t want to make the team put ev­ery­thing in that bas­ket as well.”

This time around, Guarnier timed her chal­lenge much bet­ter. Her com­pa­triot Mara Ab­bott led the race at the half­way point but in a very ex­cit­ing stage to Alas­sio, Guarnier was ini­tially the only rider able to go with an at­tack by Van der Breggen on the fi­nal climb. Then her team-mate Eve­lyn Stevens coun­ter­at­tacked from be­hind and Guarnier shad­owed her, just a hand­ful of sec­onds be­hind, all the way to the top to take pink. She con­ceded time in the TT to both Stevens and Van Der Breggen but go­ing into the fi­nal two days was in a very strong po­si­tion: lead­ing over­all, with team-mate Stevens in sec­ond, 34 sec­onds be­hind. Van Der Breggen was next, al­most two min­utes down, which all but guar­an­teed vic­tory for Boel­sDol­mans, and the team was able to de­fend Guarnier’s lead to the fin­ish of the race this time around.

There’s rarely any such thing as the ‘best cy­clist in the world’ – the sport is too var­ied, with too many over­lap­ping skills and strengths. But Guarnier’s sea­son makes a strong ar­gu­ment that a snap­shot taken of the women’s sport at this point in time would put her at the top. But what is she best at, ex­actly? She won a moun­tain­ous stage race to take

the Women’s WorldTour but she’s a good sprinter. She’s strong at the grip­pier Clas­sics, such as Flan­ders and Flèche Wal­lonne (which Danny Stam be­lieves she is very ca­pa­ble of win­ning), and she has won Strade Bianche. When the women’s Am­s­tel Gold and LiègeBas­togne-Liège join the WorldTour next year, there will be two more op­por­tu­ni­ties for her to shine.

But Guarnier her­self is no spe­cial­ist. Good at sprint­ing, climb­ing and stage rac­ing she may be, but when asked what kind of rider she is, she has a sug­ges­tion: “Let’s not put me in a box.”

MOV­ING ON UP

If you plot­ted out most cy­clists’ ca­reers on a graph, you’d of­ten find that progress con­sists of sharp im­prove­ments fol­lowed by plateaux, fol­lowed by an­other step up. Cy­cling be­ing what it is, you’d also see downs as well as ups along the way.

How­ever, the ca­reer of Me­gan Guarnier fol­lows a near per­fect lin­ear tra­jec­tory. Her im­prove­ments have been so steady and in­cre­men­tal that it’s im­pos­si­ble to be­lieve they haven’t all been mapped out in ad­vance. Yet Guarnier her­self says that at each stage of her de­vel­op­ment, she has not known whether the next im­prove­ment would be pos­si­ble.

In spring 2008, in her first year as a pro, she went to Europe to race the spring Clas­sics. She recorded three DNFs in what were then Women’s World Cup races: Tro­feo Al­fredo Binda, the Tour of Flan­ders and Ronde van Dren­the, although she is at pains to point out that she com­pleted the course each time but fin­ished out­side the time limit.

“It was eye open­ing. I was go­ing so hard, ab­so­lutely on my limit and out of the back of the pelo­ton get­ting dropped,” she says. “I said to my­self, I don’t know what those women are do­ing at the front but I want to be them.”

Guarnier grad­u­ated in mid-2007 and rode a hand­ful of North Amer­i­can events, achiev­ing a cou­ple of top-10s. The fol­low­ing sea­son was when she went to Europe for the first time and couldn’t fin­ish the World Cup events in­side the time limit. But back home, she started get­ting top-10s in do­mes­tic races, even a third place in a stage of the Fitch­burg Longsjo Clas­sic. It wasn’t ex­actly a Women’s WorldTour-win­ning year but the im­por­tant thing was that it was demon­stra­bly and mea­sur­ably bet­ter than 2007.

In 2009, Guarnier went to France to race for the whole year, rid­ing for the Bour­gogne Cy­clisme Féminin team. Though there were chal­leng­ing is­sues around com­mu­ni­ca­tion (at that point she couldn’t speak French) and sup­port, she picked up her first win, in a small race in Bur­gundy. She com­pleted the Giro d’Italia Fem­minile, and got a top-five in the Tour Féminin en Li­mousin. She was bet­ter than she was in 2008.

In 2010, 2011 and 2012, Guarnier went back to the United States to race for the Tibco team, though she still com­peted in Europe. In 2010 she still wasn’t fin­ish­ing the World Cup events but she did win three races, in­clud­ing the GC at the Tour de Nez and the Mount Hamil­ton Clas­sic.

2011: her first fin­ishes in World Cup races. She was 46th in Tro­feo Al­fredo Binda, 26th in the Ronde van Dren­the and 28th in Flèche Wal­lonne. Just like 2010, she won a hand­ful of races in the States but also took her first win in Europe, a stage of the Giro Toscana. The fol­low­ing year saw her fi­nally give up the part-time work and com­mit to cy­cling full time. She achieved her first top-10 in a World Cup race – sev­enth in Flèche Wal­lonne – and her first top-10s in in­ter­na­tional stage races abroad, the Fes­ti­val Elsy Ja­cobs, Trophé d’Or and Giro Toscana. She also took her first na­tional road race ti­tle.

2013 was the only year when her re­sults show a de­cline in her rate of progress. “I knew that I needed to take an­other step into the Euro­pean pelo­ton,” she says. “Rabo was ranked num­ber one. To be un­der Mar­i­anne Vos, who was win­ning ev­ery­thing, and to be able to work for her and race un­der her and re­ally learn bike rac­ing in a very Euro­pean en­vi­ron­ment was the next step in my pro­gres­sion.”

How­ever, even rid­ing in a do­mes­tique’s role saw her get her first podium – sec­ond place – in a ma­jor Euro­pean one-day race, at Om­loop Het Nieuws­blad.

In 2014 she got her first top-10 at the Giro Fem­minile. In 2015 she won her first ma­jor Euro­pean one-day race at Strade Bianche and im­proved to third at Flèche Wal­lonne and the Giro Fem­minile, as well as in the World Cham­pi­onship Road Race. And fi­nally, in 2016, af­ter a steady decade of in­cre­men­tal but re­lent­less im­prove­ments in re­sults, strength and tac­tics, Me­gan Guarnier be­came the best cy­clist in the world.

And 2017? Guarnier feels she still has im­prove­ments to make.

“I love the spring Clas­sics,” she says. “I would love to win a spring Clas­sic be­cause I haven’t done that yet, although I won Strade Bianche when it wasn’t in the World Cup. I love that race. The Tour of Flan­ders and Flèche Wal­lonne are favourites. These are fun, in­ter­est­ing races and that is what keeps me en­gaged in the sport.”

Af­ter a steady decade of in­cre­men­tal but re­lent­less im­prove­ments in re­sults and tac­tics, Me­gan Guarnier be­came the best cy­clist in the world Guarnier cel­e­brated win­ning the Giro Fem­minile for the irst time this sum­mer

Guarnier won both the over­all and the points com­pe­ti­tions at the Tour of Cal­i­for­nia

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