Coryn Rivera overcomes challenging classics season
“We are really organized. The planning is super good on this team,” Coryn Rivera says. “Of course, not everything goes to plan, and then you have to adjust on the fly.”
It’s the Saturday before the 2018 Gent-Wevelgem and Rivera is on a leisurely training ride across the back roads of Flanders alongside her Sunweb teammates. Veteran classics contender Ellen van Dijk has plotted an easy route through a series of small towns. Sunweb’s team director Hans Timmermans drives the team car behind the paceline.
Today’s spin holds an important bonus: a stop at a local coffee shop that has been highly recommended for a tasty brew. As the riders sit down and place their orders (four coffees, two kombuchas), the conversation alternates between beverages, boyfriends, and, yes, bicycle racing.
Sunweb’s mellow attitude stands in contrast to the outside pressures resting on their collective shoulders. Gent-Wevelgem marks the midpoint of Belgium’s cobbled classics, a stretch of racing where the Dutch team is expected to shine. In just one week they will take on the Tour of Flanders. Rivera is the defending champ. Van Dijk won the race back in 2014.
Rivera’s victory at De Ronde in 2017 proved that Sunweb could compete with any team in the UCI Women’s WorldTour. The race also thrust Rivera into the limelight as America’s top female racer.
Thus far, Rivera’s 2018 campaign has proceeded along a different path. Heading into Gent-Wevelgem, Rivera is still trying to get back onto form after getting sick in the wake of a chilly, wet Strade Bianche.
“This year, Strade was a lot colder, with snow a few days before and then it was just pissing rain all day,” she says. “It was a lot of stress on my body and I was kind of like, ‘I’m going to be badass, it’s going to be wet anyways. I’ll just wear a vest.’ I really paid the price for that.”
The bug derailed Rivera’s training for the weeks after the Italian one-day, sapping her energy throughout the month of March. With Rivera battling bad health, Sunweb looked to van Dijk for the Flemish races. In February, the Dutchwoman won Omloop Het Hageland and entered the classics on top form.
Rivera attempted to build her way into shape at Driedaagse De Panne and Gent-Wevelgem, but ultimately rode as the team’s second option.
Within the ultra-competitive world of pro racing, such a move could lead to jealousy or, at the very least, a bruised ego. Not so for Rivera. When VeloNews shadowed her during this year’s classics season — one that saw her fight to find her form — Rivera maintained her usual upbeat attitude. Ever the Southern California girl, Rivera was talkative and quick to smile even while acknowledging her form wasn’t where she’d hoped it would be.
Credit the mellow vibes to Rivera and her Sunweb team taking the long view. At 25, Rivera knows she has a long career ahead of her. Cycling doesn’t always go to plan. Rivera and her squad believe she will have plenty of more opportunities to win.
RIVERA’S IMPRESSIVE RISE HAS been well chronicled within the cycling press. She won the first race she entered at just nine years old — by 16 she owned dozens of national titles. She dominated the domestic circuit with team UnitedHealthcare and then jumped to the WorldTour peloton in 2017 with Sunweb. Rivera exploded onto the international scene as one of the fastest sprinters in the peloton. She won the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Tour of Flanders, and Prudential RideLondon Classique, in addition to taking a stage at the Amgen Women’s Race and nabbing a bucketload of other strong results.
Rivera’s rapid success caught Sunweb by surprise.
“In the beginning, to be honest, we did not expect that she was going to be this good,” Timmermans says. “Maybe we expected that she would grow into being this good, but that fast? Already to be this good? We did not expect that.”
Early success brings confidence, which in turn can feed a young rider’s ego. Timmermans says Rivera maintained a down-to-earth perspective following her big 2017.
“She’s just stayed Coryn,” he says. “She [hasn’t changed] a bit.”
Although she is still just 25 years old, Rivera is now among the older riders on a very young Team Sunweb. Considering Rivera’s palmares and her personality, Timmermans sees team leadership as an obvious next step in her development as a pro.
“She’s naturally a real leader, and that’s something that we work on now; we want to create more awareness that she is,” he says. “I think she doesn’t know that much about how she can be in a group. She is really charismatic. Other girls are like, ‘Okay, when you’re talking, we’re listening.’”
Rivera’s modesty is so strong that Timmermans must occasionally remind her of her otherworldly talents. Rivera’s long-time boyfriend, Nate Labecki, echoes Timmermans’s perspective. Rivera’s brilliant 2017 campaign may have raised expectations, but it did little to change Rivera.
“She definitely gained confidence, but it didn’t go to her head. It’s not like it changed her as a person,” Labecki says. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m too cool to talk to you now, I won the Tour of Flanders.’”
“In the beginning, to be honest, we did not expect that she was going to be this good. Maybe we expected that she would grow into being this good, but that fast? Already to be this good? We did not expect that.”
OF COURSE, FEW ATHLETES CAN dominate year after year, which Rivera discovered in 2018.
The day after Sunweb’s training ride, Gent-Wevelgem did not produce the desired result. In the waning kilometers, Rivera rode in the front group and looked primed to battle for the sprint win. Instead, she jumped clear with a solo move inside the final 10 kilometers. After Rivera was caught, van Dijk made a move of her own. Unfortunately, the peloton reeled her in as well. In the final sprint, won by Marta Bastianelli (Alé Cipollini), Floortje Mackaij scored Sunweb’s top finish in eighth.
At the finish line, Rivera acknowledged that she had ridden in a support role, attacking to set up van Dijk rather than holding out for a sprint.
“Ellen is in really top shape right now and that was our best card to play today,” she said after the race. “We went all in with Ellen to make it a really hard race, and I got a little bit of form out of that too.”
After Gent-Wevelgem, Rivera and her Sunweb teammates headed to team headquarters in Sittard, the Netherlands, to prepare for the Tour of Flanders. Rivera skipped Dwars door Vlaanderen to continue rebuilding fitness. Van Dijk led Sunweb at the midweek semi-classic. Six kilometers from the finish, she powered away from the pack and opened up a massive gap in no time. Van Dijk won the race with a 55-second advantage over second place.
Van Dijk’s winning form bumped Rivera to a secondary role for Flanders. Although she rolled out that Sunday wearing the number one dossard, she was not the team’s primary option.
“Ellen is definitely our leader today, I’ll tell you that,” she said in Oudenaarde at the start. “We’re going to gather around her and give her all the energy that we can and put her into a good position going into the end of this race. She’s won this race before, too.”
Rivera was dropped during the final kilometers of the race. Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) soloed clear from the pack with 26 kilometers to go to take the win.
Rivera’s cobbled campaign culminated on the Oudenaarde finish line. Her results over the previous weeks were far from her pre-season expectations. Rivera had prepared herself for the disappointment. The mantra she stuck to on the final day of her cobbled program was one she had been preaching throughout the spring: “No two seasons will be the same.”
Did the mantra lessen Rivera’s frustration? Probably not, but any up-and-comer’s attempt to match lofty expectations travels a path with highs and lows. Throughout her long career, Rivera has had to learn how to lose as well as win.
“I really hate losing. I don’t like sucking at things, so I try to do the best I can at whatever I do,” she says.
RIVERA’S MANY CAREER WINS — she owns 71 national titles — obfuscate the many more losses she’s had. Like all professional racers, Rivera has had to manage disappointment throughout her career. Rivera has never won USA Cycling’s elite women’s road title. She has finished in second place for three consecutive years.
Labecki says those near misses are definitely a source of frustration for Rivera, but they aren’t something she dwells on for long.
“She is upset for the day, but then she goes to bed, wakes up, talks about the race a little bit, looks at it, and then at some point you’ve just got to look past it and look to the next one,” he says. “It doesn’t affect the next week.”
Those who know Rivera emphasize her healthy perspective on racing, and her ability to think herself out of disappointment. Instead of sulking for days after a bad result, she analyzes what went wrong and how to adjust. It’s an approach she has honed over her 14 years as a competitive cyclist, says her father, Wally Rivera.
That cool, collected vibe has come to define Rivera’s public persona. Fans of the women’s peloton know her as the laid-back American with the Southern California accent. Wally Rivera says the image belies the truth: Rivera is hyper-focused and competitive.
“People say [she’s] laid back, but it’s not really laid back,” he says. “It’s more that when she races, she doesn’t get butterflies.”
Indeed, Rivera describes herself as being obsessed with details. It’s a side of her that may come as a surprise to outsiders. Labecki describes Rivera as analytical, someone who thinks things through.
“Growing up in California, having those surfer vibes, it’s like, ‘I’m here to have fun, but I’ll kick your ass too,’” he says. “I think that’s where it comes from.”
RIVERA’S COBBLED CLASSICS CAMPAIGN did not go as planned, yet she has other targets for the season. After the Amgen Women’s Race, Rivera set her sights on debuting in Scandinavia’s stretch of WorldTour events — Sweden’s Crescent Vårgårda and the Ladies Tour of Norway — as well as GP Plouay.
“This year we chose to do more in the second half of the year,” Timmermans says. “Every race is a chance for her. That’s special. If you can say, ‘Okay, tomorrow is another chance for the win,’ every day, that’s impressive. Not a lot of riders can say that.”
Sunweb’s strategy for Rivera’s development has been to decrease the pressure on her shoulders. Timmermans emphasizes the importance of giving Rivera realistic objectives. It could be detrimental to a rider’s development, he says, setting the bar too high in a sport where so much comes down to chance. And Timmermans does not want to burn out Rivera — he believes she is capable of becoming an all-time great.
“I think she has the potential to win the WorldTour,” he says. “She needs a season like last year, that shape, but then she’s in the top 10 in every race and even close to the podium or the win. Everything needs to be aligned. It was like that last year. It’s the same with being a world champion in the future or even an Olympic champion. She has the potential.”
Timmermans and Sunweb plan to play a major role in Rivera’s future successes. In 2017 she inked a long-term deal with Sunweb that will take her through the 2020 season. That length of a contract is atypical in professional women’s cycling. It shows just how committed Sunweb is to Rivera’s talent. “I’m 100 percent confident that Coryn is going to win big races every year. She has the qualities to have like 20, 25 chances a year,” Timmermans says. “But we should not expect every year that she’s going to win Flanders.
Last year, everything was aligned that day.” As Rivera’s own confidence grows, she’s learning to set her sights high too. Labecki says Rivera wants to establish a legacy for herself in pro cycling. The remainder of this season holds countless more chances for big victories. Further down the road, the Tokyo Olympics are a major target. Beyond her palmares, Rivera also hopes to help drive continued progress in developing junior racers at home.
Expect Rivera to have a thorough plan in place that will get her to where she wants to go as a racer. Sometimes, however, things don’t go to plan — don’t be surprised to see Rivera adjusting on the fly.
“Every race is a chance for her. That’s special.”
RIVERA FINISHED THE TOUR of Flanders in 34th place, more than two minutes behind van der Breggen. After she crossed the line, the American lamented that her legs simply did not have the punch to help van Dijk in the finale.
Rivera acknowledged from the early stages of her classics campaign that it was going to be a challenge to deliver a fitting encore to her explosive breakout year. Still, she did not hide her disappointment as she talked with media while rolling towards the Sunweb team bus.
She didn’t have time to sulk either — she has too many targets on her mind to pine over the ones that got away.
“Sometimes there’s people that are better,” she said. “There’s another race in a week or two.”