Megan Guarnier does not have an actual ‘Olympic dream.’ When she dreams of bike racing it is a classic anxiety dream. She’s at the start line and doesn’t have her shoes, or the other one where she misses the start and has to ride through the race caravan to catch the peloton. It’s not a big sweeping dream where she’s winning gold or getting cut from the team. They are dreams of details overlooked and procedures gone wrong. The dreams keep her vigilant. They highlight how Guarnier must never let her attention drift far from the puzzle in front of her.
2011 Key Stats
- UCI Rider Ranking 34
- UCI Team Ranking 12 (TIBCO - To the Top)
2012 Key Stats
- UCI Rider Ranking 36
- UCI Team Ranking 13 (TIBCO - To the Top)
- UCI Team Ranking 1 (Rabobank)
After being left off the London squad Guarnier had three years to figure out how to get a ticket to the Rio Olympics. Why only three years? The Olympic selection process is a difficult equation that starts with getting named to the USA Cycling’s Olympic long team. The long team is a pool of riders, between 10-15 women, from which the final roster for the Olympics will be comprised. Elements in consideration include performances at nationals, UCI race results, and overall UCI rankings.
Oh, and if you medal at World Championships then you pretty much get an automatic qualification. If a rider does not get a medal at Worlds then they need to fight for a discretionary spot. Nobody wants that. It means one’s Olympic fate is left to a selection committee. Nothing good ever came out of a meeting so the best solution is to try and remove all doubt out of the equation.
Three years to get this right. Where do you start?
Step 1: Move where the points are (2013)
UCI points are important. They determine the UCI rankings for both individual riders and teams. They determine race invites, they impact a country's roster size for events like World Championships and the Olympics, and they can impact how much a rider is paid. Everybody; teams, riders, and national federations all want more UCI points.
In 2013 roughly 75% of the major races on the calendar were in Europe that included the following:
- 7 out of 8 World Cups
- 21 out of 27 one day races categorized as 1.1 or 1.2
- 18 out of 24 categorized stage races
The obvious solution if you want to collect UCI points, and go to Rio, is to move to Europe. So Guarnier makes the logical decision and moves to Europe.
Guarnier takes on a contract with Rabobank, and moves with her husband to Sittard, Netherlands. It is not an easy decision. Guarnier is close with her family and friends in the US. To help facilitate the move her husband Billy Crane gives up a Silicon Valley technology job for a position organizing part of USA Cycling’s Junior program in Europe. Living in Europe may sound idyllic, but grey weather and the cultural differences of daily life are a far cry from the Parisian museums and hills of Tuscany that most people dream about.
But the team! The team is the best in the world. Rabobank is home to Marianne Vos, perhaps the best most versatile cyclist in the history of the sport. Under Vos’ leadership Rabobank finished 2012 as the number one ranked team in the UCI standings. And therein lies the catch. On Rabobank you are working for Vos.
Midway through 2013 Guarnier reflected on her time working for Vos.
2013 Key Stats
- Guarnier joins Rabobank
- 2nd Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
- 9th Drentse 8 van Dwingeloo
- 7th Emakumeen Euskal Bira
- 2nd Trophée d'Or Féminin Stage 5 RR
- 9th GC Boels Ladies Tour
- 3rd Stage 2 ITT
- UCI Rider Ranking 52
- UCI Team Ranking 2 (Rabobank)
- UCI Team Ranking 11 (Boels)
“I hope I'm contributing, Sometimes I wonder if she should just do all this on her own,” Guarnier said laughing. “This year I've seen that even the best need teammates, and I came onto the team knowing I wanted to be the best teammate I could possibly be. And riding for, arguably, the best team in the world, I need to be the best teammate in the world. It makes me take my domestique game up another level.”
Despite limited opportunities to ride for herself, Guarnier put in several strong performances and a quick view of her results reveals a season filled with top 10 and top 20 finishes. Vos on the other hand won over a dozen races, including five UCI World Cups and the overall World Cup title.
Step 2: Find the Magic(2014)
Not everybody is made to be a leader. There is a lot of pressure that goes along with the responsibility. Many riders prefer to work behind the scenes in support of a team leaders, while some accept the role hoping to one day graduate to the top position. Guarnier definitely wanted to be a leader. She had respect for the system that rewarded domestiques by eventually moving them into leaderships positions, but Vos was two years younger than Guarnier and not going anywhere. Guarnier had proved she was willing to ride in a support role and win big races. So she left for greener pastures where both facets of her ethos could be utilized.
The following year Guarnier made the jump to Boels-Dolmans which had finished the 2013 season ranked 11th in the UCI standings. Boels was a strong Dutch squad, but played second fiddle to Rabobank. It was a small step down in terms of prestige but the Boels’ roster had a lot of potential. The line-up included several big names like Lizzie Armitstead and Ellen van Dijk, and offered opportunity to free Guarnier up to ride for herself.
2014 Key Stats
- Guarnier joins Boels-Dolmans
- 7th Cholet Pays de Loire Dames
- 8th Ronde van Vlaanderen
- 9th GC Festival Luxembourgeois
- 3rd Panamerican Championship Individual Time Trial
- 2nd Panamerican Championship Road Race
- 6th US National Championships ITT
- 2nd US National Championships Road Race
- 6th GC Emakumeen Euskal Bira
- 7th GC Giro d'Italia Internazionale Femminile
- 5th GC BeNe Ladies Tour
- 10th GC Boels Rental Ladies Tour
- UCI Rider Ranking 26
- UCI Team Ranking 3 (Boels)
The team suited her. In a 2015 video interview Guarnier tried to describe the profound effect of finding a team she felt at peace with.
“It was better than I ever could have imagined,” Guarnier said “The team Danny [Danny Stamm - Team Director] put together was incredible. On and off the bike we were a real team, and it spoke for itself in the results starting at the Drenthe World Cup.
“The chemistry within the team was really important. It always is, and you always say that but then once you find that niche, and find that chemistry you are are like ‘Wow, there is nothing like this.’ I’ve never experienced this on a team. I didn’t know it existed.”
Guarnier found camaraderie and harmony on Boels-Dolmans, where her teammates nicknamed her after a cartoon bird ‘Calimero.’ While she didn’t achieve the results she would have liked the team’s results and the atmosphere made up for it. Despite a lack of wins Guarnier’s results were still notable. She rode herself onto the podium at both the Pan-American Championship road race and time trial. She placed second at US National Championship road race and grabbed several top 10 general classification finishes. Guarnier moved up to 26th in the UCI Rankings. Things were coming together.
Step 3: Learning the Art of Winning (2015)
Cycling is a cruel sport. Riders can thank their team till the cows come home but only one person gets the credit. A director will sometimes pop up and get credit for their tactical brilliance but their contribution is inevitably lost to history. Sure there is a team classification, but let’s be honest - it’s a third tier consolation prize. This is an individualists sport. If you want to earn glory in cycling that means you need to learn to be hard. You will need to drain your team of every resource they can provide, you must use your teammates like pack animals until they collapse, and it is necessary befriend enemies and betray teammates to cross the finish line first.
The fact is, unless you are a complete narcissist, one must work hard to learn the art of winning. Some riders, like Marianne Vos, learn to win at an early age so when they hit the full height of their power they are primed and ready to go. Other riders need to take the process in steps. They can get stuck in an endless rut of finishing just off the podium in 2nd, 3rd, or 4th place, never quite able to close the gap to the top step. It is a game of chance, strategy, and talent. Guarnier had proved she could win - but some saw her victories at Nationals and Toscana like blips on a radar. Her understated nature meant she wasn’t demanding attention from the federation or media. Guarnier needed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt these performances were replicable.
The big win, the one that set events in motion, was at the Strade Bianche. It was a new event, and while it didn’t have World Cup status it had gravitas. The race, started in 2007 for the men’s field, was an instant classic with its 57 km of white dirt roads and a picturesque finish in Siena. Guarnier’s loyalty was rewarded when her team’s tactics enabled her to ride away from her breakaway companions, teammate Lizzie Armitstead and Elisa Longo Borghini, to win the first edition.
It felt big. It was an emphatic win at a one day classic. All the big kids were there and Guarnier was the best.
2015 Key Stats
- 2nd GC Women's Tour of New Zealand
- 9th Le Samyn des Dames
- 1st Strade Bianche
- 3rd La Flèche Wallonne Féminine
- 1st US National Championships Road Race
- 3rd GC Euskal Emakumeen Bira
- 3rd GC Giro d'Italia Internazionale Femminile
- 1st GC Ladies tour of Norway
- 6th Boels Rental Ladies Tour
- 3rd World Championships Road Race
- 1st Stage 1 Euskal
- 1st Stage 2 Giro
- 1st Stage 1 Norway
- UCI Rider Ranking 8th
- UCI Team Ranking 2 (Boels)
Somewhere out on the roads of Tuscany Guarnier crossed a threshold. Her riding was confident but you can see the fear and hunger etched in her face when you look at the highlights from Strade Bianche. Something had changed, things had finally come together.
Performance improvements are not linear. An athlete can be going along, business as usual, following the same plan they have for years and things just click for them. Their bearing changes, their confidence increases. They attack their training, diet, and race preparation with a beginner’s intensity but with the knowledge of an old soul.
After a 3rd place finish at La Flèche Wallonne Guarnier returned to the US to race the Tour of California Invitational Time Trial and US Pro Road Nationals in Chattanooga. Boels Dolmans had not sent a team to the inaugural women’s stage race at the Amgen Tour of California but Guarnier and teammate Evelyn Stevens had scored invites to the invitational time trial.
California was a Tim Gunn style 'make it work' situation. Left without much in the way of support Guarnier pulled together a last minute crew led by friend James Mattis. Mattis had ridden professionally for Webcor in the early 2000’s while working as an engineer in Silicon Valley, and knew his way around big races. He took time off of work to come to LA to help Guarnier ride the race.
The race didn’t go well. Guarnier slipped coming out of the start house and then finished an uninspiring 10th place. After the race she seemed annoyed and was already looking towards Chattanooga the following week.
“Road racing is my thing,” she told me. “That is where my focus is.”
In Chattanooga Guarnier and Stevens were up against two strong teams, UnitedHealthcare and Twenty16-ShoAir. The early race tempo was set by Kristin Armstrong and Twenty16, but on the final lap Stevens set a hard pace up Lookout Mountain. By the time leaders hit the final circuits only Guarnier, Amber Neben, Tayler Wiles and Coryn Rivera could stay in contact. Stevens attacked enabling Guarnier to sit in for the final lap.
I recall listening to other journalists before the start of the final circuits. They were all making their pick. They were looking at Stevens, Wiles and Rivera to take the win. I was surprised I was the only one picking Guarnier. She could climb, she could sprint, she could hammer for a long time and then do it over again. As if according to a script Guarnier continued to remain just outside people’s consciousness.
“I kind of fly under the radar, I totally fly under the radar,” Guarnier said about her relationship to the media. “I don’t mind talking to the media. I think there are a lot of incredible women’s stories out there and we hear one or two of them occasionally, but I think the media gets stuck in their little rut of who they want to talk to.”
Coming into the final corner first Guarnier sprinted to the line head to head with Rivera. When she crossed she didn’t know if she had won. I was the first person she saw and she looked at me yelling “DID I WIN? DID I WIN?” I was relieved with her husband Billy Crane sprinted over from the team car and told her she won. She jumped into his arms in a combination of happiness and relief.
The results began piling up, 3rd at the Giro, 1st at the Tour of Norway, and then the big one… a bronze medal at the World Championship Road Race in Richmond. After the race Guarnier was unwilling to let her finish 3rd place finish stand as a satisfactory result.
“I was happy with my result because the Americans got a podium for the first time in 21 years which was a big goal,” Guarnier said. “But, when you look back it’s a little bittersweet. Of course I would liked to have won and in the future that’s what I’m going for, is the win. I just need to have the confidence to say that and do that.
“I think being a little bit more aggressive, but it’s having the confidence to be aggressive too and not be so reactive.”
Guarnier had the hunger now. She had learned to win and she wanted them. All of them.
The most important benefit of her bronze at Worlds was it automatically qualified her for the US Olympic team. Guarnier was going to Rio. It was done. She was in. Now it was time to rule the world.
Step 4: Rule the World
It is hard to underestimate the importance of an early qualification. For starters it removes the pressure of dealing with the arbitrary nature of the selection committee. It also allows a rider to focus. Instead of trying to accumulate results leading up to the final selection, a rider can target races that will help them perform in Rio. Other than Guarnier the remainder of the team would need to fight it out in the spring to obtain the three remaining discretionary picks.
But there is a rub with an automatic qualification. It is not really automatic.
"With her bronze medal result at the 2015 UCI Road World Championships, Megan Guarnier secured a nomination to the women’s road-race squad, provided she continues to demonstrate the ability to perform at a similar level in 2016 based on results from major international competitions. “ ~ Olympic Selection Criteria Primer Distributed by USA Cycling in Spring 2016
It makes sense. A rider could qualify and then get injured, have a bad year or decide the hard work was behind them and decide to take it easy. That is not Megan Guarnier. Her drive, a stubbornness that pushes her to never quit, would not allow that.
“You have to be willing to make big sacrifices, you have to be willing to not be comfortable,” Guarnier said about getting to the Olympics. “That is a huge other aspect of it, always pushing your comfort zone.
“It’s not comfortable living in Europe, I’ll go out on a limb and say it is not fun at all. It’s an adventure, and it’s hard, and it teaches you a lot about yourself, and I wouldn’t be where I am without those challenges. But it is not always fun, it is not always roses. And that is just the living aspect of it, you have to train on top of it, and stay focused, and stay focused on your goals.”
Nothing was overlooked and come spring, Guarnier was ready.
2016 (Spring) Key Stats
- 6th Strade Bianche (1.WWT)
- 2nd Trofeo Alfredo Binda - Comune di Cittiglio (1.WWT)
- 2nd Pajot Hills Classic (1.2)
- 4th Ronde van Vlaanderen / Tour des Flandres (1.WWT)
- 1st Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria (1.2)
- 2nd GC Euskal Emakumeen XXIX Bira (2.1)
- 2nd stage 2 Euskal Emakumeen XXIX Bira
- 1st stage 4 Euskal Emakumeen XXIX Bira
Guarnier charged into her spring season and her form was only overshadowed by her team’s historic winning streak. Boels-Dolmans won five out of seven Women’s WorldTour races that spring, a feat akin to the winning streaks of sports dynasties in basketball and football.
After a strong spring campaign Guarnier returned to the US. For the second year in a row the Tour of California was putting on a women’s stage race, the ‘Amgen Breakaway From Heart Disease Women's Race Empowered by SRAM.’ Despite the challenging title the race was on the Women’s WorldTour calendar and drew the biggest teams in the world. Top European and American riders including Marianne Vos (NED), Emma Johansson (SWE), Lisa Brennauer (GER), Kristin Armstrong (USA), Evelyn Stevens (USA), and Mara Abbott (USA) were all in attendance.
Race organizers brought most of the big names including Vos, Stevens, Armstrong, and Johansson to the pre-race press conference. Guarnier was noticeably absent.
“Odd," I thought. "I guess Stevens is the leader for this race."
The next day I tried to get a pre-race quote from Guarnier. She was wound up and having an issue with her bike so she apologized and scooted away abruptly. Curt, tense, factual - she seemed dialed in. The race was uneventful. Boels-Dolmans did most of the work to bring back a four minute breakaway, leaving the race to the final three kilometers up two sharp climbs, which at altitude would be painful.
On the final climb Stevens attacked followed by Emma Johansson. Guarnier jumped over the top of both of them and soloed in for the win. As she approached the finish I saw Guarnier check over her shoulder and smile, she looked surprised at her gap. After four days of racing Guarnier went on to take the overall win and the points leaders jersey. It also made her the Women’s WorldTour leader, not quite number one in the world but close.
And then it happened, Guarnier hit a hot streak.
A week later Guarnier won US National Championships in Winston Salem. The next week she won the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic. A month later she won the Giro d'Italia Internazionale Femminile, the biggest women’s stage race in the world. She wasn’t just the leader of the Women’s WorldTour she was at the top of the UCI points standings. She was undisputed #1 rider in the world.
“I’m just doing what I always do. I’m always trying to be better. I’m always putting in the hard work,” Guarnier said after winning Nationals. "The results may be better than they used to be, but I’m still the same Megan. I’m still the same Calimero. I’m just out there doing my job and loving what I do.”
Being number one in the world isn’t a goal, it just happens. Once you are there the fragility of the position becomes all too apparent. Anything can take you down, a cold, a bad race, a fall, age. But here she was. After years of trying Guarnier wasn’t just going to the Olympics; she was heading in as a favorite where she’ll face off against her old teammate Marianne Vos and current teammate, and World Champion, Lizzie Armitstead.
Time to check world domination of the checklist and head to Rio.
I wonder what an Olympian dreams before their big race…