Interview by Jen See.
Coryn Rivera is the fastest bike racer you’ve never heard of. She rides for Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12 and during her years in the junior ranks, she won thirty-two national titles racing road, track, and cyclocross. Rivera won her first bike race at age 11 and had her first personal sponsor, Oakley, at age 13. Last season, in her final appearance at junior nationals, she won both the road race and the time trial. She also took home two bronze medals from the junior World Championships.
This year marks Rivera’s first season in cycling’s senior ranks. The transition has not gone entirely smoothly, thanks to an early season crash at the Tour of Qatar. The crash required a lengthy recovery period, and only recently has Rivera felt her form return. Currently, Rivera is racing the Nature Valley Grand Prix with her Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12 team. Then, she heads to the U.S. National Championship races, where she should be among the favorites for an U23 title. Looking further down the road, Rivera is among the U.S. riders with a shot at racing the London Olympics, though the 2012 games may come too quickly for the eighteen year old.
Last week, I had a chance to chat with Rivera. Here’s your chance to learn what it’s like to be eighteen and really fast on a bicycle. We also talked about her first season in the senior ranks and how it has not totally gone according to plan, and we looked ahead at Rivera’s plans for the future. After this, you will know Rivera’s name. You might even want to write it down. Coryn Rivera: File under, Fast Girls.
Rivera grew up on two wheels. Her father grew up racing motocross in his native Phillipines. When he moved to the United States, he continued racing motorbikes, then turned to mountain bike downhill races. Injuries led him to road riding. Rivera rode group rides and centuries around Southern California on the back of her father’s tandem. Before long, she had a bike of her own. "Eventually, I grew big enough to have my own 650 bike," she recounted.
At eleven, Rivera started and won her first bike race. The California native attacked from the start at the Redlands Classic Kids’ Race, and never looked back. "I was really stoked at that," Rivera said. The next year, she went back to Redlands and won again. "I was super stoked, but I didn’t want to wait all year for that one race," she explained, and soon Rivera had a racing license and junior gears. "It went from there" is how she described her rapid embrace of bike racing. The Redlands Classics is a rite of passage for bike racers in California, and Rivera rode her first Redlands stage race in the category races at fifteen or sixteen. "I’m kind of an old-timer at Redlands now," she laughed.
Nicknamed "The G" after her middle initial, Rivera has a fast finish. Her first professional win came last season at the Sacramento GP, the women’s criterium that ran during the Amgen Tour of California. Still, she hesitates to embrace the sprinter label. "I don’t like to label myself. I’m a bike racer," Rivera asserted.
It is early days yet to know for certain which races will suit Rivera best. "Anything can happen." She is not afraid of climbing. "If there’s a climb, I’ll get over it. I’m totally not afraid of climbs or time trials," she said. She did admit that the mountainous Tour of Gila is not her favorite race. "The climbing plus the wind plus the altitude, I mean, it’s a great time with the team and everything, but when you’re there in the moment, it’s so dreadful, you just want it to be over," she admitted, laughing.
Despite her talent, Rivera has endured a rough transition to the senior ranks this season. Back in January, Rivera traveled to the Tour of Qatar with the national team. The trip marked the beginning of a master plan that would have sent Rivera to Europe for her first look at the spring classics, including the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Flèche Wallonne. Instead, Rivera suffered a heavy crash in Qatar that derailed the early part of her season. "That put a pretty big damper on my season," she said of the accident.
Rivera tried to get back on track at the Redlands Classic, but it proved too much too soon. "I hit the first climb and I just went backwards," she said. Her job for her team was to nail the intermediate sprints. She managed to chase back to the field in time to win the first one. "I zoomed up the gutter" is how she described her trip back to the front. She also made it to the front in time to win the second sprint, but it was one too many for Rivera. She went straight out the back where a mechanical put a definitive end to her day. Rivera spent the rest of the weekend helping out with feeds and doing support work for the team. She is still looking forward to adding an elite stage win to her collection of Redlands successes.
The rough race at Redlands led Rivera to reassess her plans for the season and helped her see more clearly the consequences of her early season injury. "I wouldn’t have really realized how bad my concussion was," she said. It was frustrating to miss her chance to test herself in Europe, but Rivera has time on her side. "I don’t think the races are going anywhere, so I can do them next year," she said of the Spring Classics. Instead of traveling with the national team, she headed up the California coast to the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey. She rode in support of Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12’s Kristin Armstrong, who won all three stages and the overall.
Rivera also made an important step forward in recovering from her Qatar crash during the Sea Otter Classic races. The circuit race at Sea Otter Classic runs on the motorsports course at Laguna Seca. It is a fast circuit with sweeping corners and grippy pavement. The motorbikes and fast cars make short work of Laguna Seca’s hill, but on a bike, it’s steep and a bit of a biter. Rivera made the winning break during the circuit race.
It was all looking good until the final corner, when Rivera crashed. That is how it is with bike racing, sometimes. You can go from winning to nothing in the blink of an eye. For Rivera, the crash served as a useful reminder. "Crashing is part of the sport," she said. Her sports director Giana Roberge told her it was good she had gotten her first crash out of the way, and put Qatar a little further into the rearview.
Last month, Rivera traveled to China and competed in her first World Cup this season. The trip proved a significant step toward rebuilding her confidence. During the three-day stage race preceding the Tour of Chongming Island World Cup, "I was having a little trouble moving through the pack and not being totally afraid of the people around me," she admitted.
By the time of the World Cup, she had mostly regained her confidence and could ride near the front. "I was really mentally prepared and I did a lot better staying in the front." Rivera finished nineteenth in the bunch sprint at the Tour of Chongming Island World Cup. "I was lacking a little speed in my legs. I was up there in the mix, but I wasn’t quite up there in the front," she said. At the same time, the week of racing with the top women restored her confidence on the bike and brought her fitness up a notch. "I like to think that I’m back to where I used to be before the big crash at Qatar. That was good for my confidence," she said of the trip.
Though she missed the Philadelphia race this year, Rivera hopes to someday to win the Liberty Classic. "I haven’t done Philly before, but I know there hasn’t been an American yet to win that race. I think it might be cool to break the history and be the first American to win Philly," she said. Rivera is optimistic she can make it over the climbs at Philly and have the speed for the finish. "It’s not a totally a full sprinter course with the hills. I think that would be a good one for me," she said.
This year, the Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12 team did not make the trip to the Liberty Classic. Instead, the team did the picturesque and difficult Mount Hood Stage Race in an effort to build form and experience for the team ahead of the Nature Valley Grand Prix. Rivera, meanwhile, was at home in California celebrating her high school graduation. "I don’t even know if I like the race, because I’ve never been there. But it’s hard for me to dislike a race unless it’s Gila," said Rivera.
Rivera’s next big objective is the U.S. National Championships in Augusta, Georgia on 24-26 June. Rivera has left the junior ranks behind, and in a slightly complicated arrangement, the U23 women race with the elites in the road race. The younger women are scored separately. "I’ve never been there, never seen the course. I’ve heard it’s really really hot. The course is pretty hard, I think," she said. Though ambitious, Rivera is ready to race for her Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12 team. "We’ll see. We have a lot of cards to play," she said of her team’s plans. A result of her own will be a bonus.
This year’s sprinter-friendly World Championship course suits Rivera’s characteristics, but she is uncertain whether she will make the selection this year. "I’m on the long list, probably, but this year hasn’t gone perfectly for me," she noted. There is no U23 World Championship race for the women, so Rivera would jump straight into the elite race. The United States has a talented sprinter in Shelley Olds, and the experienced Teresa Cliff-Ryan, who races the U.S. criterium circuit, has ridden as lead-out for Olds in the past. The U.S. squad may not have space for Rivera this time around. "Maybe in the future, I’ve got plenty of time," said Rivera.
In July, Rivera will travel to Europe with the national team. They will head to France to for a pair of stage races. The women will ride the Tour de Bretagne Féminin, which begins on 14 July, and the following week’s Tour Féminin en Limousin. The results there should give Rivera more international experience and a better idea whether she might be ready for Copenhagen. The World Championships is the race Rivera would most like to win on the international calendar, though she is also intrigued by the spring classics like Ronde van Vlaanderen and Flèche Wallonne.
The London Olympic road race should also suit a fast finisher like Rivera. "If everything works out perfectly and all the stars align, London would be a dream come true," she said. Rivera will be nineteen in 2012, and the London games may come too soon for her. "It’s coming really fast, and especially after my concussion, I’m taking it one step at a time," she said. Rivera is clear-eyed about her current place in the sport, and she is looking beyond London to 2016 in Rio de Janiero. "Realistically, Rio is the one for me for sure," she said.
Though she raced track as a junior, she has turned her focus to the road now that she has hit the senior ranks. "I’ve begun to specialize more, and I’ve become more of a roady," she said. At this point, Rivera thinks it is unlikely that she will chase Olympic glory on the track. She does live near the world class track in Los Angeles, which has hosted World Cup and World Championship races. "I still train on the track every once in a while, because I think it gives a really key element of what makes me the rider that I am. I think it’s really important that I race track here and there," she said.
Her talent on the bike is obvious, but like most women riders, Rivera is not relying on the bike to make her fortune. Next year, Rivera will attend Marian University, a liberal arts college in Indianapolis. "For now, I’m thinking business-marketing. I realized I’ve been marketing myself since I was thirteen years old. It was pretty cool for me to realize that," she said. She received her first personal sponsorship from Oakley at age 13. Marian is also a big cycling school and the opportunity to mix cycling and education certainly appealed to Rivera. "The good thing about Marian, what really appealed to me, is that they’re easy to work with. You just need to build a good relationship with the professors," she said.
Flexibility will be important for Rivera next year as she juggles racing commitments for three separate teams: her university, the U.S. National team, and her trade team, Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12. "Collegiate racing is, well I haven’t done it yet, but I would like to think that it’s not as much pressure. It’s more laid-back and helping your team-mates grow in the sport, and not winning all the time," she explained. At Marian, she will also live with one of her best bike racing friends and Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12 team-mate, Kaitlin Antonneau.
Rivera is part of a tight group of juniors who have grown up together racing bikes. "The Year of ’92, that’s what it is," said Rivera. Rivera expects big things from all of them, and named Antonneau, Jessica Prinner, and Kendall Cail Ryan as riders to watch for the future. The foursome shares a tight and competitive bond. "We competed with each other, and we hated each other at one point, but now we’ve all grown up and become more mature and we’re pretty good friends," she said of the competitive women.
Though she measures herself against her peers, she looks up to the bigs of both men’s and women’s cycling. Riders like Kristin Armstrong, Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, Fabian Cancellara, and Jens Voigt are among the riders she hopes to emulate for their combination of professionalism and passion for the sport. "I don’t idolize one certain rider. I take the great characteristics of all the riders and look up to that. I’m not one to pick one and idolize them, that’s not me," she said. Instead she admires the "champion attitude" the best riders all share.
Things are happening fast for Rivera. This week, she is racing the Nature Valley Grand Prix with her Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12 team. Then she will travel to Georgia for her first elite national championships. "Already, I can’t believe I’m not a junior anymore," she said. Fast girls, they move so fast. If you blink, you just might miss something big.
Photo Credits: Top, Coryn Rivera on the podium with Kristin Armstrong, by Joe Savola. Middle, Rivera on the Sea Otter Circuit, by Joe Savola. Bottom left, Rivera, by Wil Matthews. Thanks to Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12