Coryn Rivera is just getting started
IN THE MOMENTS AFTER HER HISTORIC Tour of Flanders victory, Coryn Rivera thought she was dreaming. Having out- sprinted WorldTour stalwarts Gracie Elvin (Orica-Scott) and Chantal Blaak (Boels-Dolmans), Rivera stood in disbelief as her emotions took over. She smiled, she cried. She collapsed to the ground and covered her mouth. Not only was it the biggest win of her career, it was the first American victory — male or female — at the historic race.
“I don’t have a better answer for how it feels,” Rivera says days after the victory. “I think I’m still dreaming.”
The win marked an important milestone for Rivera, who has raced bicycles for the majority of her life. Just 24, Rivera already holds 71 national titles, the most of any current American cyclist. Throughout her career she has battled head injuries, career-threatening burnout, and enormous pressure. Her Olympic dreams last season were squashed by injury and bureaucratic decision-making. All the while, Rivera dreamed of becoming the best female cyclist in the world. The victory at Flanders was a major step in the realization of that dream.
The success was also confirmation of Rivera’s ambitious and risky strategy for greatness. This spring, the Southern California native uprooted her life in the U.S. and moved to the Netherlands. She also left the familiarity of the U.S. domestic racing scene with Team UnitedHealthcare and joined the Dutch WorldTour Sunweb squad.
The move to Europe is one that dozens of American cyclists have made before Rivera. America’s best men and women have looked abroad to develop their skills for decades. Traditionally, these riders spend years in the cutthroat European peloton before finding even modest success.
Rivera found the podium’s top step — in a WorldTour race, no less — in just a few months. In early March, she won the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, one of the Women’s WorldTour’s major early season races. Then came Flanders, another WorldTour event with significantly more history and grandeur. The victory thrust her into the purple WorldTour leader’s jersey, ousting Olympic bronze medalist Elisa Longo Borghini. The success caught her by surprise.
“I’m really honored to wear the jersey,” Rivera says. “That wasn’t a goal going into the season.”
With her talent and abilities confirmed, it’s not a question of if Rivera will win again, but when.
RIVERA’S STORY STANDS IN contrast to the typical tale of American women’s cycling. The country’s best professional cyclists have traditionally picked up the sport late in life. Kristin Armstrong was nearly 30 when she turned pro; Megan Guarnier took up the sport in college after a shoulder injury took her away from swimming. Even Mara Abbott didn’t start racing until her freshman year at Whitman College.
Rivera entered her first race when she was nine. A friend of her father dared her to participate in the kid’s race at the Redlands Bicycle Classic. “He said he’d give me $20 if I won,” Rivera says. “I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s kind of cool. OK, yeah, I’ll try and win this.’”
Rivera attacked from the start, pedaling frantically through the one-lap race. She won. “I came across the line first and it was super awesome and exhilarating,” she says.
She was hooked. A year later she did the same race and won again. She signed up for a racing license, purchased a racing bicycle with junior gears, and entered her first sanctioned junior race a few weeks later.
With few junior girls to race with, she often competed against 10-year-old boys. She was competitive against male racers. She joined a development team called Major Motion Junior Development. The team focused on crits, which helped Rivera hone her sprinting skills. She regularly raced against the junior boys on the team and often won.
“Most of them were primarily sprinters so when we did training rides, we’d sprint for every speed-limit sign,” she says.
RIVERA WON DOZENS OF junior national championships across multiple disciplines. When she was 16 she won the cyclocross national title and titles in five track events. As she neared graduation, Rivera wanted to pursue both a college degree and a career in pro cycling.
She finished high school a semester early, and the time off allowed her to compete in the Tour of Qatar with the U.S. national team. The decision was marred by bad luck. Rivera crashed on the final stage and suffered a concussion. “I was knocked out for two minutes, didn’t remember the next four hours,” Rivera says. “I woke up with both contacts knocked out of my eyes and I was in a CT scan.”
The crash sidelined Rivera for weeks as she fought to overcome the effects of the head injury. Hoping to return to racing, Rivera returned to training too soon. She had relapses of the concussion symptoms. The entire ordeal changed Rivera’s outlook on racing.
“I thought, ‘You know, I should go to school because if I have another bad one it could go pretty far south,’” she says. “So that was my wake-up call, choosing between full-on pro racing and going to college.”
Rivera chose Marian University, which has a successful collegiate cycling program. The school allowed her to continue racing with the U.S. national team while also competing in collegiate races.
“It was cool to be a part of the team’s support and the legacy,” she says. “It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the right decision.”
College brought new stresses. Rivera coordinated racing schedules for her three teams: her pro team, USA Cycling’s national squad, and the Marian University team. She focused on homework and classes. She also tried to have a normal college social life. Midway through her freshman year, the load became too much to bear. She suffered from stress and burnout.
The fatigue forced Rivera away from racing for eight months. She abandoned her bicycle entirely and looked to the ocean for an answer. Surfing provided clarity and the opportunity to reevaluate cycling and her future in the sport. “The step back let me think about how much I really love the bike, and that was another life lesson in college,” she says. “That was important for me to learn about myself.”
Rivera believes her bumpy years in college allowed her to mature as a person. Gone was the rocket-like progression in cycling, but Rivera felt herself maturing. She raced occasionally in Europe, but focused on other things in her life. “It was really, really a smart decision,” Rivera says. “My [racing] progression wasn’t steep, but every year I was making those baby steps.”
IN 2015, RIVERA GRADUATED from Marian University with a bachelor’s degree in marketing. For 2016, she set her sights on making the Olympic team.
Her team at the time, UnitedHealthcare, also changed up its team goals and schedule for Rivera’s run at the Olympics. They traveled to early spring races in Europe, the races that mattered in an Olympic qualifying year.
“I’m really grateful for them and their support trying to line me up as best as they could to go to Rio,” Rivera says.
Misfortunes struck in early 2016. Rivera got sick before the spring races and missed a shot at an automatic qualification for the squad. She clawed her way back toward the end of the spring season, finishing 11th at Trofeo Alfredo Binda and 16th at Flanders. But it wasn’t enough. Rivera failed to make the team.
Rivera disagreed with USA Cycling’s team choice and filed an appeal with the U.S. Olympic squad. The appeal eventually failed. Rivera declined to comment on the appeal.
While the Olympic hunt ended in defeat, it had valuable benefits for Rivera. No longer just a sprinter, Rivera had developed strong climbing legs. The results in Europe also caught the attention of the Liv-Plantur WorldTour squad, which eventually became Team Sunweb this season.
“[Sunweb] talked to me a year or two before, so it shows they believe in me, even before some of my achievements from last year,” she says. “And that meant a lot to me, and I think it’s working out well this year.”
RIVERA’S LIFETIME OF RACING experience gives her several advantages over talented female cyclists who pick up cycling comparatively later in life. Rachel Heal, who directed Rivera at UnitedHealthcare, said Rivera’s handling skills and confidence on the bicycle are far beyond those of racers who started late.
“For women that start later, they don’t learn to ‘play’ on the bike in the same way as a kid does, and so it’s harder to learn that skill. Coryn had that, and as a sprinter that kind of skill and fearlessness is important,” Heal says. “The success that she has had throughout her career in junior racing, collegiate, and U.S. domestic racing has given her self-assurance and confidence — she believes in herself and her team, and expects to win.”
As a teenager, Rivera was already attentive to small details of the racing lifestyle. When Rivera’s former coach Benjamin Sharp checked her room during a training camp in 2008 — she was 16 — he found it immaculate and clean.
“I think that developing those habits early was really important and shows her attention to detail on and particularly off the bike,” Sharp says.
At Sunweb, Rivera has brought her fast finish to the squad that traditionally excelled at windy, flat races. She has also brought her improved climbing legs, which allow her to survive steep, punchy ascents like the bergs of Belgium and Italy.
Perhaps most importantly, she brings a relaxed, laid-back attitude to the Dutch squad. “We are loving having [Rivera] on the team,” teammate Lucinda Brand said after Flanders. “She helps keep the mood light around the team. She is laid-back and it’s a lot of fun with her.”
Rivera doesn’t mince words when it comes to her objectives for the rest of 2017.
“The big goal is worlds,” she says.
She wants to win the road race in Bergen, Norway. Rivera is suited for the course’s punchy, short climbs. A victory there would make her the first American since Lance Armstrong in 1993 to win cycling’s biggest one-day race.
Just like she was as a nine-year-old chasing a $20 bribe, Rivera is focused wholly on the rainbow jersey, eager for that exhilarating feeling of crossing the line first.