Q&A: Kristin Armstrong helps Team USA toward gold in Tokyo 2020
Three-time time trial Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong has taken on a new role as Endurance Performance Director at USA Cycling. Along with several other performance directors, including the recently retired Greg Henderson, she will work with some of America’s best cyclists to achieve the team’s goal to garner seven gold medals in Tokyo set out by USA Cycling CEO Derek Bouchard-Hall.
VeloNews caught up with Armstrong, 44, during USA Cycling’s National Team launch in Colorado Springs to better understand her new role and how one of America’s greatest cycling Olympians plans to use her expertise to help younger talents win medals.
VeloNews: What do you bring to your new position as Endurance Performance Director at USA Cycling?
Kristin Armstrong: On one of my teams, they used to call me “Type Triple A” — not just type A. [laughs] One of my strengths is that I’m all about accountability. In this National Team program, we give a lot to the athletes, and they are in turn accountable for giving something back to USA Cycling.
One of the most crucial elements of this is the Athlete Development Plans. Now that I’m 40, I’ve been to four Olympic Games, I can look back and ask myself, “How did I make it to the podium?” And it was all because I had a plan. I had a plan! It wasn’t that I showed up to a race and I happened to have a good result, and then I hoped I’d get noticed, and then I hoped that a selection committee would choose me. My plan was deeper than that. My plan was, “What’s the course? How am I going to have the lightest bike out of all my competitors? Oh, by the way, what’s our criteria?” Because I wouldn’t even make my race schedule until I knew that criteria when it’s posted 18 months before the Games.
I know this is a cliché, but, “An athlete doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” So if they don’t know that they have to look at criteria, why would they look at criteria? They might not even know where to find it. So what I want to do at USA Cycling is make all of my athletes as knowledgeable as possible. I want to teach athletes to take ownership and control over their own destiny. I’m really hoping to help athletes set a plan. That’s number one. Establish priorities. Help them get to the wind tunnel if they need it, sure, but first understand if they’re on the best equipment, if they’ve had a good bike fit, and so on. Build a method for the progression.
VN: How have you taken to this new role?
KA: It’s been a lot more of a natural progression than I had imagined. Sometimes when you retire from sport and you’re transitioning from athlete to coach — and maybe it’s because I’ve retired a couple of times — I’m not having a difficult transition this time around. Sometimes people retire and you don’t hear from them for years because they need time to decompress. I feel like I had those times already. I never knew what closure was, and that’s why I came back.
This time around, I fully know what closure is. When I see women do a test in a lab or I’m helping a woman and they tell me their goals are to win an Olympic gold medal, in the past it would be like, “It’s not your turn to do that, that’s my gold medal to win again, right?” In the individual time trial I was very possessive of that. It would have been really hard for me to see somebody win a gold medal for America just a couple years ago. Now, a year and a half after Rio, I know I felt that way because I didn’t have closure until then. I know I’m done now.
I know I have closure because now I’m just throwing out my knowledge. Never before have I been like, “Here, here’s everything I’ve done.” I always have a vision every four years. The vision I have now is there’s nothing that could be better for myself — and it would just build on the legacy that I want — if I were to go to Tokyo and help a national team member on their journey and have them win a gold medal. I would just be elated.
VN: What other strengths do you bring to this job?
KA: Time trial knowledge. I am such a geek. My husband is such a geek. He’s an engineer. The testing we’ve done on tires, wheels, and so on. We just love to make bikes go faster. I went to Bergen worlds just to observe, and I walked around in awe. There are so many areas where people could be improving — low-hanging fruit. So I’m really looking forward to helping our current time trialists improve.
And I’m also really excited about, “How are we going to find our next time trialist?” We’ve had a real long run of given potential medalists. It’s just been this constant. And now we have Chloé [Dygert]. And we have other great time trialists too. But we need to identify people for beyond Tokyo.
I’m also intrigued by the fact that when women and men become time trialists, typically they hop into road cycling and maybe do a TT and go, “Oh, huh, I did this time trial and I’m pretty good at it.” Then they race a full road schedule, maybe do a half-dozen time trials throughout the season within stage races, and then hope to do well at worlds.
I’m intrigued by looking at it in a different way. When was the last time we had an athlete say, “I’m a time trialist — first.” I think there’s something to be said for that full focus, because I think we have a lot of women and men who are on the cusp of being really good. But in order to be your best, you’re going to have to back out on some of the road obligations. The road is really important for your time trial fitness, but when do you work on all the other aspects of the TT when you’re on the road that much?
VN: What is important about this new National Team program?
KA: I was in the sport for 14 years, from 2002 to 2016, with a couple retirements in there. What USA Cycling has brought to this program is all of the services that I, as an individual athlete, was managing on my own. None of it was managed by USA Cycling prior to right now. The riders have a chamber here where they can go to sea level, go to altitude, make it humid, make it hot. For my heat training, I was going to hot yoga classes, wearing extra clothing. I’ve chosen to lean in and support this awesome effort, and lend my expertise and help close the gaps for some of these athletes. Here I have a lot of confidence and I’m bringing a skillset that is very valuable. I can really change someone’s life, and if I only change one person’s life in Tokyo, then I feel like I’ve done my job.
VN: How has it been working with former rivals?
KA: I started September 1 and soon after went to Bergen worlds. I was on the other side, and the athletes were looking at me like, “Oh!” But barriers came down between athletes who we’d previously been competitive with one another. It was interesting sitting down with Amber Neben and going over the course with her. What a different role that is [laughs]. I appreciate the fact that athletes like her, who have been around for a long time, are accepting me in this position and opening their arms and saying they want to learn what I have to offer.
VN: What will be your greatest challenge in this role?
KA: If someone told me your goal is to win a medal, OK, I can do that. I’m controlling myself. Now my challenge is that we have this goal to win seven medals across four disciplines, and I have to help somebody else, that I’m not in control of, win a medal. “How am I going to do that? It’s not my body!” That’s the challenge that I’ve set out for myself. I operate by having that inner challenge. And so I broke it down and made certain that I can work with an athlete’s coach or team or both, in helping them design their development plan. I’ve learned in life — and it took me 40 years — that if you have continuous communication with athletes and coaches, then you’re going to succeed together.