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
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.
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