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Gravel

Is there such thing as a triple rainbow? Lauren Stephens is about to find out

The EF Education-TIBCO-SVB rider will line up at marathon MTB worlds this weekend, then fly to Australia for road worlds, and she hopes to earn a spot at gravel worlds in early October

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Lauren Stephens’ current travel schedule would make most people dizzy.

The EF Education-TIBCO-SVB pro from Texas has been in Europe for the past three weeks, racing on the road at a few one-day events and then doing the five-day Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta with her team. When we spoke Monday, she was in Germany, en route to Denmark, with her husband Mat and a brand new Cannondale Scalpel hardtail mountain bike in tow.

That bike is her race whip for the 2022 UCI Marathon Mountain Bike World Championships on Saturday, September 17. However, it’s a good thing Stephens also has her road bike with her because she’ll be flying from Denmark to down under for road worlds in Wollongong, Australia.

And, while Stephens’ SuperSixEVO SE gravel bike is back at home in Texas, she might as well have that with her, too; the 35-year-old filed a petition to race for Team USA at the inaugural gravel world championships in early October and will find out Thursday if she gets the call-up to race white roads in Italy.

Three world championships in less than a month is not a likely story for most riders, yet it’s becoming less rare with a broadening definition of what it means to be a professional cyclist.

Stephens says the frenzy is actually what keeps things interesting.

“People keep asking me about all the travel and I say, when you’re happy you can deal with the travel and run with it. Yeah, I have a lot a travel but I’m excited about every single event in a different way.”

A season of sickness and injury

Stephens’ 2022 season has been fairly topsy-turvy, which is another reason she’s so keen to race for rainbow stripes around the world in September and October.

In February, she crashed out of EF’s first race of the season, the Setmana Ciclista Volta Comunitat Valenciana. With a sprained shoulder, she was out of commission for nearly seven weeks. Then, there was a spate of Covid cases among the team and although she tested negative, Stephens felt sick, as well. So, spring was not a productive season.

After the Joe Martin Stage Race in May, Stephens was starting to feel like herself again. Then, she went to Unbound Gravel to race the 200-miler.

“I crashed 40 miles in, rode to the first checkpoint and actually ended up getting stitches there in Eureka [Kansas],” she said. “I kept riding after the crash because as athletes, we’re like, ‘I can finish.’  I got to the checkpoint, looked down at my hip, and started screaming … it was very deep.”

Stephens’ injured hip and elbow made training for the next three weeks until USA Cycling Pro Nationals difficult; she was only able to ride her mountain bike around on flat pedals.

However, the 2021 national champ was able to pull it together and raced into fourth in the time trial and third in the road race.  Her teammate Emma Langley took the stars and stripes.

Then, she actually got Covid, which set her back to a middling pace for another month or so.

“Now I’m really feeling back to normal,” she said. “It’s just really been a lot of sickness and injury that’s made for a tough year.”

The search for a triple rainbow

Another blow to Stephens’ tough year was not getting selected for the US’ road worlds team. So, she decided to do something different.

EF Education-TIBCO-SVB has long led the way in the women’s peloton when it comes to an alternative racing program, so Stephens had squad support when deciding to throw her hat in the ring for the marathon MTB race.

“It was like, ‘if I’m not gonna race road worlds, let’s pursue this alternative program,” Stephens said. “I haven’t really done any MTB racing except for local stuff, but I’ve been wanting to so it seemed like a good opportunity. I’m really excited to do something different.”

The marathon worlds course is 80 kilometers long and “not too technical,” Stephens said.

Meanwhile, she’d also filed a discretionary petition to race as a wildcard for Team USA at gravel worlds in Italy. Stephens will find out two days before marathon worlds if she’s also lining up in Veneto on October 8.

Stephens at the Ceratizit Challenge By La Vuelta 2022 (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images) (Photo: (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images))

Given her experience racing on the road for Team USA and her fairly robust gravel palmares, Stephens should get the call up. If she does, it might be her best chance at a rainbow jersey.

“I definitely think I have a chance for the podium,” she said. “It will be interesting to see what European riders show up to the event, that’s gonna make a huge difference. Any time these European racers show up, whether you have experience on gravel or not, it makes a difference.”

The road worlds call up was actually the most recent addition to Stephens’ schedule — she was only just named to the US’ squad this week after her teammate Krista Doebel-Hickok broke her collarbone at the Ceratizit Challenge. Stephens was the second alternate and lucked out with a spot after Heidi Franz, who was the first alternate, replaced an injured Coryn Labecki.

After racing in Australia on September 24, Stephens will travel back to the US for “some sponsor events,” and, of course, an unsanctioned gravel race.

On October 1, Stephens will race the inaugural Gravel Locos Pueblo in Colorado. UCI gravel worlds theoretically follows a week after.

Stephens’ “marathon” world champs tour was never meant to look so wild, but with moral and equipment support from the team, some financial help from USA Cycling for road worlds, and a helpful soigneur/husband, Stephens is making it happen. She’s incurring hefty costs herself — marathon and gravel worlds will come from out of pocket — so nothing is a cheap decision.

“But when can you say you did three world champs in one year … and in less than a month,” Stephens said.