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Rio selection looms large for women’s peloton

American women await this week’s announcement of the Olympic road team after months — or even years — of preparation for Rio

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This week, USA Cycling will make its road squad selections for the Rio Olympics. For America’s female pro cyclists, it will be an announcement awaited with bated breath, one for which many riders have been preparing for years.

Prestige, personal goals, and even paychecks are riding on USA Cycling’s decision, because for women’s cycling, the Olympics is the top.

“I think for women’s cycling specifically, it’s the pinnacle for us,” said Cervélo – Bigla’s Carmen Small.

USA Cycling will name four riders to the team, two of which will compete in both the time trial and the road race. The long list consists of Small, Evelyn Stevens (Boels – Dolmans), Coryn Rivera (UnitedHealthcare), Kristin Armstrong (Twenty16), Mara Abbott (Wiggle – High5), Amber Neben (BePink), Shelley Olds (Cylance Pro Cycling), Lauren Stephens (TIBCO – SVB), and Tayler Wiles (Orica – AIS). The only automatic team qualifier is Megan Guarnier (Boels – Dolmans), who earned her spot by finishing third at the 2015 UCI world championships in Richmond.

The importance of the Olympics to female cyclists is tied to the sport’s structure. There is no women’s Tour de France, and the high-profile stage races exist on shaky financial ground. Female racers are accustomed to participating in a sport where one-day events, such as the Tour of Flanders and La Flèche-Wallonne carry outsized importance. The struggle for sponsorship dollars and the constant reshuffling of the racing calendar means the Olympics are a rare constant in women’s cycling. They are also an opportunity to reach a wider audience of fans.

“I think the women definitely look to the world championships and the Olympics as big, big, big goals. More so than the men,” Guarnier said. “Because the men have the bigger grand tours that I think end up overshadowing those single-day races. For the women I do think it’s a bigger deal.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Small, who also emphasized that the once-every-four-years aspect only further serves to set the Olympics apart.

But it’s about more than childhood dreams coming true. Small said an Olympics berth could impact her future occupational ambitions. The 36-year-old hopes to develop young riders and mentor other professionals in an effort to give back to the community that has given her so much. Even if she never races again as a pro, an Olympic selection can further that aspiration.

“Sponsors like being associated with Olympians,” Small said. “It can only benefit anyone that I’d be involved with after my career would be over.”

Small is among a handful of riders who are “on the bubble” for making the four-rider team, and she has personal pressure riding on the selection. Small considered retiring two years ago, but decided to stay on in an effort to make it to Rio.

“Two years ago I decided to go for it,” she said. “So it’s been a long process, trying to get here where I’m at right now.”

She says she’s confident that she’s put her best foot forward with the selection looming. A win at TT nationals is a strong selling point. Beyond that, it’s all about showing she can be a contributing teammate on what she describes as the most challenging course in Olympic history.

The other riders on the bubble have also spent the last few years proving that they belong on the Olympic team. Rivera believes she’s in “a good position” due to her success as a sprinter and support rider. For a rider who may be one of the world’s fastest in a sprint, there will still be plenty of opportunity to put a big engine to work in Rio.

“I think I’ve proved that I’m the best or second best American to Megan, who is already going,” she said. “I’ve showed my strengths, and I can be a team player like I showed at Richmond last year.”

Abbott, who is one of the world’s best climbers, seemed happy with her performances so far this year as well, and comfortable with the decision being in the hands of the selection committee. The Rio course includes one ascent of the Vista Chinesa climb, which is 8.5km long with an average gradient of 5.7 percent.

“I’ve proven exactly what my skills are, everyone knows what my talents are, and if that’s the talents they need on the Olympic team, then I’ll get the call,” Abbott said.

The presence of the Vista Chinesa climb, as well as the punchy climb up Grota Funda, will definitely create a challenge for the USA Cycling coaches assigned with choosing a team. A hopeful winner must be able to climb, sprint, and survive attacks from other strong squads, namely the Dutch and the British teams. And the team must also choose riders who are willing to sacrifice themselves for whichever rider proves to be strongest.

At the moment, that rider is Guarnier, who currently leads the UCI WorldTour, having won both the Amgen Tour of California and the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic. Guarnier, 31, said she’d love to win in Rio.

“Winning a gold at the Olympics is the pinnacle,” she said.