LONDON, England (VN) — American Kristin Armstrong will be looking to make one of the greatest comebacks in women’s cycling history on Wednesday as she attempts to return both from retirement, and more recently, a broken collarbone, to defend her Olympic time trial title.
Armstrong, who will turn 39 on August 11, won the world time trial championship first in 2006, and again in 2009. (She placed fifth in 2008, six weeks after winning Olympic gold.)
She announced her retirement shortly after that second rainbow jersey and gave birth to her first child, son Lucas, in 2010.
The call to return to competition grew too loud to ignore, however, and Armstrong came back in 2011, returning to her winning ways with a team dedicated to producing Olympic athletes, Exergy Twenty12 (then Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12).
She won the women’s time trial at the Amgen Tour of California, as well as the overall at smaller races like the Sea Otter Classic and Mount Hood Classic, but Armstrong also struggled, falling ill and abandoning the Tour of the Gila in May, crashing hard at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in June and being knocked out by a virus before the national championships the next week. She finished third at Nature Valley and seventh at the Cascade Classic, both races she’d previous dominated.
And when compatriot Amber Neben controversially replaced Armstrong on the 2011 world championship squad, it looked as though Armstrong’s chance at making the Olympic squad might be in danger — top performances at worlds are one of the biggest opportunities to meet automatic Olympic qualification.
Instead, Armstrong came out swinging in 2012, winning international time trials at the Women’s Tour of New Zealand and the Energiewacht Tour in Holland, as well as domestically at the Merco Classic, San Dimas Stage Race and Amgen Tour of Calfornia.
Everything looked to be back on track for Armstrong; in April she finished second in a two-up sprint with German Judith Arndt at the women’s Tour of Flanders World Cup event, and in May she dominated the Tour of the Gila in Silver City, New Mexico, winning three road stages, the individual time trial and the overall classification.
However, on May 24, after setting the fastest early split, she crashed and broke her collarbone at the Exergy Tour prologue in her hometown of Boise, Idaho. Devastated, her comeback looked to be in jeopardy once again.
Armstrong had her collarbone surgically repaired on May 25, and returned to competition at the July 17-22 Cascade Classic in Bend, Oregon, winning the prologue, stage 1 road race and stage 2 time trial before pulling out — though she admitted last week that she’d rushed her recovery.
On Friday she told the assembled Olympic media pool that her doctor’s advice had been “Just be careful. Don’t fall.”
Easier said than done, Armstrong crashed during Sunday’s rainy Olympic road race with several riders on the second circuit of Box Hill at around 50km remaining. She went on to ride at the front, driving the chase after teammate Shelley Olds punctured out of the winning move. Armstrong finished the race 35th, with a swollen and bloodied elbow. Her crash had been a scare, but nothing more.
“I’m looking forward to a little recovery and final preparations for the time trial,” Armstrong told The Idaho Statesman. “My elbow is a little sore, but I will be 100 percent for the time trial.”
Once again a hurdle had jumped in her path, and once again, she’d overcome.
The hurdles Armstrong will need to clear Wednesday in order to return to the top step of the Olympic podium are familiar — Arndt, Neben, Emma Pooley (Great Britain), Noemi Cantele (Italy), Clara Hughes (Canada) and Ellen van Dijk (The Netherlands) top the list of favorites with an eye on gold.
In all, 25 women will contest the women’s 29km time trial, which takes place Wednesday at 12:30 p.m., starting and finishing at Hampton Court Palace.
Along with Armstrong, Arndt, Pooley and Neben are all former world time trial champions, with Arndt the most recent woman to earn the rainbow jersey, in Copenhagen last fall.
Pooley, the 2010 world TT champ, has not won a time trial in 2012, but was very active during Sunday’s Olympic road race in setting up British teammate Lizzie Armitstead for the winning move.
Neben, who won her title in 2008, won the Pan-Am time trial title in March, won the time trial at the Vuelta el Salvador 10 days later, and won the TT at the Exergy Tour, where she finished second overall to Specialized-lululemon teammate Evelyn Stevens. In a June 18 diary on VeloNews.com, Neben, who dropped her chain in the 2008 Olympic time trial, wrote, “Since that very moment, that moment when I dropped and locked up my chain, the moment where I was standing on the side of the road while the race was going up it, I have been focused on the 2012 Games.”
Hughes, the winner of the May 19 Chrono Gatineau time trial, is the only athlete ever to have won multiple medals in the Summer and Winter Olympics (for speed skating and cycling); her last Olympics as a cyclist was in Sydney in 2000. She returned to bike racing in 2011, winning the Canadian national time trial championship en route to fifth place in the world TT championship.
However, Armstrong comes to London at the head of the pre-race favorites list. In all, she has been on the podium of the world time trial championship four times. And she is the only starter on Wednesday to know the feeling of wearing time trial gold at the Games. For Armstrong, the pressure of starting with the bib number of the defending champion is just another hurdle she must overcome in her journey back to gold.
“Whenever you’re reigning champion, there’s a little pressure,” Armstrong told Sports Illustrated on Sunday. “[There’s] a target on your back. But I feel like I’ve consistently had strong time trials this season, and I hope that I can end up on top on Wednesday.”