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Strength and Guile: An Interview with Evelyn Stevens

Evelyn Stevens of Specialized-lululemon scores her biggest win yet
at Flèche Wallonne and dreams of the London Olympics

Marianne Vos, Evelyn Stevens, Flèche Wallonne

Evelyn Stevens of Specialized-lululemon and Marianne Vos of Rabobank duel on the Mur de Huy at this year's Flèche Wallonne. Stevens crossed the line first, and celebrated her first ever World Cup win. — Photo: Patrick Verhoest.

Last December I sat across the table from Evelyn Stevens in a nondescript hotel meeting room of the sort that obliterates any sense of place. You know the type, they all have the same round tables with white tableclothes, the same stackable chairs, and the same mauve-painted walls. Outside, the rain fell fast like dusk in winter. In dry Southern California, a whole year’s rain comes in a matter of days, and this was one of those days. Around us swirled the hum of dozens of interviews.

I asked Stevens what races she would most like to win, a question I nearly always ask for what it reveals about who a rider thinks she is and who she hopes to become. Among the races Stevens listed during that December interview was Flèche Wallonne.

In April after a close-fought duel with Marianne Vos on the Mur de Huy, Stevens won Flèche Wallonne, her first ever World Cup victory. "I remember saying that in the winter. I don’t think this winter I believed I could do anything like that. You know, there’s always things you want to do. I said I wanted to win it eventually in my career, but this winter, I don’t think the idea that I could win something like that yet was definite," Stevens told me this week over the phone.

The win on the Mur de Huy came from a combination of perfect team tactics and some determined efforts by Stevens to develop her talents and learn her trade. "I think this season, my confidence has grown and I just felt stronger. And Flèche Wallonne, on the day of the race, it went perfectly," she said.

With her first big win behind her, Stevens is now looking ahead and hoping to secure one of the four spots on the U.S. Olympic team headed to London this summer.

Stevens finished last season as the national champion in the time trial, but that result was one of the few highlights in a season where Stevens fought through crashes and setbacks. Still new to the sport of cycling — she worked in a New York bank and did not even race bikes during the Beijing Olympic Games four years ago — Stevens struggled to translate her prodigious talent on the bike into top level results.

This past off-season, Stevens went to work. She began training with Neal Henderson, who also coaches Taylor Phinney, she learned to mountain bike, and she spent time riding on the track to improve her bike handling. “Really, I’ve just been trying to study the sport and how to get better, and the self-improvement has been really encouraging,” said Stevens. She also gained a mentor in 1984 Olympic gold medalist and twelve-time national champion Connie Carpenter.

As the early races of this season unfolded, Stevens began to see the results of her efforts. Her first inkling of the change came at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda World Cup held in the hilly, cycling-mad region of Varese. On the final climb of the day, World Cup leader and past World Champion Marianne Vos attacked. It was plainly the winning move. Stevens knew it and fought to follow Vos. “My thought was that was the move, and Vos, she’s amazing, so I knew that I had to go and I had to get to her wheel,” recounted Stevens. “I went 110% for it.”

Stevens made it across to Vos only to suffer a fairly spectacular mishap. Racing uphill, she hit her pedal in a corner and crashed. “I did a pretty flashy mess-up,” she said. “I went uphill and crashed.” Stevens attributed her mistake to overexcitement. “What happened was that I just got so excited when I realized that was the move,” she explained. “I love to race my bicycle. You watch me ride, I have a lot of excitement and a lot of energy on my bike, and I have to learn how to use that correctly.”

Despite her crash, Stevens came away from Varese with renewed confidence. “I was feeling so great about my move. It made me more hungry,” she said. “That was why Trofeo Binda was so exciting, because you know what, I felt awesome that whole race.” Rather than being stuck in the wrong place in the field behind a wall of other riders, Stevens put herself in position to win a top-level race. “I knew when the move was going to go.”

Stevens credits Carpenter with helping her put the crash at Trofeo Binda in perspective. “Connie Carpenter was actually at Trofeo Binda. To me, that was huge,” said Stevens. “We went over it, we watched the video, we discussed what happened.” In the past, Stevens said she might have allowed her mistake at Binda to undermine her, but thanks to Carpenter’s help, she left Italy more confident than before.

“I just shouldn’t have pedaled. I think it wasn’t the worst error out there,” said Stevens. “You try. It’s better doing that, than not being there and not trying.”

As Flèche Wallonne approached, Stevens tried to put what she had learned into practice. “I took what I did wrong at the other races - from Flanders and Binda, I learned from both of those a lot,” said Stevens. With the memory of Binda, where she had the legs to follow the winning move, Stevens strived to set herself up for success on the Mur de Huy.

“The week leading into Flèche Wallonne, I started to maybe get this feeling like if I just tried to do everything right and put everything into it, maybe I’ll have a chance,” said Stevens. “I went to bed at 9pm, I was training hard, I was recovering hard, taking ice baths, and eating really healthy.” She recalls thinking, “I’m going to do everything that I can control and see what happens.”

And Stevens had an ace card in her Specialized-lululemon team. “When we got there, we had a team plan, and it was so amazing to see the plan actually work,” she said. Emilia Fahlin and Ally Stacher had the job of controlling the race early. “I think that’s the hardest job,” said Stevens. “Everyone has fresh legs, everyone’s nervous, no one’s tired yet. It’s just chaos.” Stacher, a calm strongwoman, thrives on doing the hard work on the front for her team-mates and lives for the moments when her team wins.

The first time up the Mur de Huy, Fahlin and Stacher kept the race in check and Stevens in position near the front. “They took us up the Mur and I’m on Emilia’s wheel, and she’s just powering through it,” recounted Stevens. “And that’s when I started to think, maybe...” During the first hour of the race, Stevens had wondered how she would feel. “I think it’s a big part of bike racing — You’re reconciling your head and your body.”

After the first trip up the race’s finishing climb, Stevens knew she had good form and a solid, even dominating team. “I had Trixi and Amber with me. Trixi is just the best road captain, she just keeps everything together” said Stevens. Stacher and Fahlin had done their early work. Then, it was time for Clara Hughes to do hers. Hughes, who went over the Mur in a chase group behind Stevens and the other race favorites, played a canny game, letting the other teams bring her back to the front. Then, she attacked.

With Hughes up the road, the other teams had to chase. And Stevens had to wait. “There’s bad luck in every race, and sometimes the luck is on your side and sometimes it’s not,” she said. “When it’s on your side, you just have to make the most of it.”

On the Côte de Villiers-le-Bouillet, not far from the finish, Marianne Vos attacked. This time, Stevens was not surprised when she could follow the Dutchwoman. “When she went, I was on her wheel. I could tell she was working really hard, and that gave me confidence,” said Stevens.

At the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Stevens had failed to eat enough, a mistake she was determined to avoid at Flèche Wallone. Specialized-lululemon soigneur Beth Duryea gave Stevens a plan to dictate when to eat. “By the time I got to the last eight kilometers of Flèche, I’d probably eaten like five gazillion gels!”

Up ahead, Hughes still rode in the break and soon Stevens and Vos made it across to the lead group. Again, it was time for Hughes to go to work. The Canadian, who has won multiple Olympic medals as a speedskater, went to the front and drove the group onward to the final climb, the Mur de Huy with its fearsome 9.3% gradients. “The whole time we were going, I was singing Kelly Clarkson's What Doesn’t Kill Me,” said Stevens. “And I was repeating over and over, I can do it, I can do it.” Stevens led into the Mur, and as she passed Hughes, the Canadian reminded her to be smart.

Winning a road race requires a perfect combination of strength and guile. One without the other rarely wins races; a rider who has both is nearly unbeatable. Stevens tried an attack at 500 meters to go in an effort test out the other riders. Vos followed her. The move locked Stevens and Vos together in a trial of strength and wit.

Stevens spent the winter studying bike racing. “I realized that Vos has won this so many times, I’m not going to drop her there,” said Stevens of her move at 500 meters to go. Surely among the lessons her mentors set in front of Stevens was the art of the bluff. For this was the tactic Stevens chose with the finish in sight and one of the strongest women in cycling on her wheel.

“That’s when I took the gamble. I let up pedaling to force her to come around. I can’t lead her in, she’s going to beat me,” explained Stevens. “So I let up pedaling, and I remember thinking, this is a gamble, but I’m going to try it.”

Vos took the bait and went to the front. For Stevens, instinct took over and even now she does not remember her sprint to the line. “When I let up, she went, I remember thinking, this is when you go. This is when you pull everything you ever wanted out of your body,” she said. “I don’t remember sprinting, it was all dark. You just get so tunnel-focused, and I didn’t hear anything, I was just trying to sprint.”

Stevens credits her team with giving her the perfect set-up and her mentors for helping her spin her physical talent into race day victory. “Such a special day, and it was so cool to have my team be part of it,” she said. “Everyone helped make it happen. It was exciting. It was just a perfect day.”

The race calendar gave Stevens little time to celebrate. Less than a week after winning Flèche Wallonne, Stevens headed to the Czech Republic for the Gracia Orlová stage race. There she won a stage and the overall classification. When a talented rider comes on form and the luck is on, the victories have a way of pouring down like a hard winter’s rain.

Currently, Stevens is training in Boulder, and next up is a trip to Canada for the Grand Prix Cycliste de Gatineau, which includes a time trial and a road race. Then Stevens heads to Boise, Idaho for the inaugural Exergy Tour. “I’m trying to continue to hone down my time trial,” she said of her aims in the coming races. Stevens hopes to build on her successes of this spring and to continue to pile on the knowledge she needs to succeed in the sport. “I just want to continue to develop. I still have a lot of work to continue to improve,” she said.

And at the end of this month, Stevens will learn if she will represent the United States at the London Olympics. Though her victory at Flèche Wallonne earned her an automatic bid to the World Championship road race in October, Stevens does not yet know if she has made the final team for the Olympics.

The U.S. selection criteria requires that Stevens combine her World Cup win with a top ten in the UCI rankings to receive an automatic trip to the Olympics. Stevens currently sits seventeenth in the world. The top-ranked U.S. woman is Amber Neben who is seventh. With four available slots, Stevens looks likely to be on the final list, but nothing is certain.

Back in December, Stevens called the Olympic Games a huge goal. Just like she said she wanted to win Flèche Wallonne someday, Stevens said that she wanted not only to go to London, but also to excel when she got there. “There are always things you want to do.” With her first World Cup victory behind her, the gap between what Stevens wants to do in cycling and what she will actually do is narrowing as fast as her tunnel-visioned sprint to the line on the Mur de Huy.