In recent weeks Megan Guarnier has become one of the most talked about American cyclists in the world. Her victories at US Road Race Nationals, the Tour of California, Philly, and the Giro Rosa have established her, not just as a top American rider, but the top rider in the world. She’s a favorite for an Olympic medal this summer but it has not been an easy road to Rio.
In one way Megan Guarnier’s selection to the 2016 Rio Olympics seems clear. She strung together an impressive series of big results starting in 2011 when she won the Giro di Toscana. In the spring of 2012 she put together a string of top 10 finishes in Europe and won her first US National Road Race Championship. In 2013 she moved to Europe to race for Rabobank, one of the top teams in the world. A year later she joined Boels-Dolmans, another top European team.
Her racing trajectory sounds logical in retrospect, but her path has been anything but straightforward.
In 2012 Guarnier’s UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale - the governing body of the sport) points helped the US earn a fourth starting spot for the women’s road race at the London Olympics. The number of riders each country can send to the Olympic road race is determined by a mix of UCI points and rankings. The exact criteria varies each Olympic cycle but to date the maximum number of riders a women’s team can send is four.
Despite a successful European schedule leading up the Olympics, aimed at gaining the US and herself as many UCI points as possible, Guarnier was left off the squad for the London 2012 Olympics. USA Cycling took Evelyn Stevens, Kristin Armstrong, Shelley Olds, and Amber Neben instead. It was devastating. Guarnier was ready to fight, and took the matter to arbitration but lost.
Nothing seemed to come easy for Guarnier. It wasn’t just the 2012 Olympic selection. She was left off of the 2011 World Championship team and then her attempt at winning the Giro di Toscana in 2012 was thwarted when a teammate took an unexpected lead and left Guarnier in a support position for several days.
Her results improved year after year moving her ever closer to the top of the sport, but there was a noticeable lack of buzz around her. There was always another rider who got the time trial bike, who was better suited for the course, who appeared on the magazine cover. Team leadership, equipment, opportunity - it never felt like resources or respect were freely given.
It is hard to say why she never became the next big thing. There are a host of possible explanations - lack of confidence, unwillingness to overstate her talent, inability to spin prior achievements into a good story, her refusal to demand rather than ask for what she wanted.
Guarnier doesn’t have a natural rapport with the media. Until recently they did not pay much attention to her. She’s active on social media, but she’s not religiously ‘gramming' crazy photos or tweeting ironic and sarcastic insights. Maybe it’s her Upstate NY/New England upbringing but Guarnier is direct. She’s not big on subtext. She doesn’t like fake. Loyalty is important to her. She keeps her small village of supporters: her husband, friends, coach, and parents, close. What she lacks in magazine covers she makes up for in die-hard supporters at each race.
In the end it worked in her favor. Instead of becoming a media star she became a bike racer. One of the best in the world.
Setbacks can make or break an athlete. Some use them as fuel, some crumble under the weight of disappointment. Guarnier’s friends call her ‘Mega’ for a reason. She doesn’t approach any element of life half-heartedly. Each obstacle she encountered in her cycling career has made her more resolute.
In 2013 when she left the US to ride for Rabobank, the home team of the world’s best cyclist Marianne Vos, Guarnier had a plan. The selection criteria for the 2016 games would not be announced until sometime in 2015. The assumption was it would be a mix of UCI points, World Championship medals, and results at key races like national championships and World Cups (now WorldTour.) Any road she took could be the wrong one.
Nothing would be left to chance on the next go around. It was time for Megan Guarnier to see just how good she could be.