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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — Last year ended with on and off-road drama for two-time world time trial champion and 2008 Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong. After a bitter disappointment in Denmark, Armstrong has barreled through early 2012 in pursuit of a bid for the London Olympics.
In September, after flying from her home in Idaho to Copenhagen, Denmark, for the world championships, Armstrong deplaned and was welcomed by a text message informing her that, due to a grievance filed with USA Cycling over the team selection process, she had been removed from the time trial and replaced by Amber Neben.
The following month she went to France and placed second to Neben in the Chrono des Nations time trial. And on top of all this, she was learning the ropes of motherhood while caring for her first child, then only just over a year old.
While such tumult might shake the confidence of most riders — both in themselves and their country’s cycling federation — it seems to have tempered Armstrong with steelier than usual resolve. So far in 2012, in addition to winning both the Merco Classic and San Dimas stage races stateside with her Exergy Twenty12 team, Armstrong finished second to Judith Arndt (GreenEdge) at Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.
VeloNews correspondent Mark Johnson spent time with Armstrong in Belgium the day before Flanders and again after the finish. Here are highlights from those conversations.
VeloNews: You’ve said that making the Olympic team and defending your gold medal in London is the big goal for you this year. How does the Tour of Flanders fit with that plan?
Kristin Armstrong: In order to get to that level, I know that international racing is important. Also, being here shows people that I’m serious. I picked a European block where I thought I could help USA Cycling as well in the nations rankings. I’ve always said that this is my favorite one-day race. It’s epic. I just think that there is so much variability in the terrain and what happens. (Laughing) I don’t know, I think it’s tough girls’ day! You can’t hide. You can’t fake your fitness on this course.
VN: How does not knowing whether you will make the Olympic team affect your preparation for races like this?
KA: I always feel that the reason America has such great time trialists is because for years now we’ve had this depth because we keep pushing each other. There’s always one or two extra people that won’t make the Olympic selection. But if we weren’t all there for each other, to make each other stronger as a whole, I think that we would decline. It seems like in ’04, in ’08, the same pattern happens where there’s always one or two people on the cusp of just making that team. What that does for all of us is it makes us wake up every morning and say, ‘Do you really want it?’ Because that extra one percent is going to be what makes or breaks you. It keeps you on your toes. You can’t just sit back and say, ‘I made the team.’
VN: After being replaced by Amber Neben on the World’s TT team last September, you went to France’s Chrono des Nations time trial in October, where Amber won and you got second. How did that chain of events affect you?
KA: I think that was the turning point for me, and it was the best thing that could happen for me. I had no control over what was decided for worlds. No control. I always tell people, you have to control your controllables and let everything else happen, because you can’t control it. And if you try to control it, it becomes very stressful. So I took matters into my own hands, and decided, ‘Ok, I’m going to go race the important time trials,’ and this (Chrono des Nations) was important. And what that time trial showed me was a lot. There was something that was missing that was there in ’09.
And of course, I’m a different person, I’m a mom. I think we figured a few things out. My favorite quote is you learn to win by learning to lose. Every once in a while you need to have someone sneak in and put you back in your place. That race, I think, was a turning point for me moving into 2012. I got laser-focused. When I show up to a time trial at Merco, it’s not Merco; it’s the California world championships for me. When I show up to San Dimas, it’s not just the San Dimas uphill time trial; it’s fully the same way I prepare for any big, huge race. Every time I start on the line, I have to do 110 percent.
VN: Talk about your escape today at Flanders with Judith Arndt.
KA: The plan today was to go at the bottom of the Oude Kwaremont and make it as hard as possible. Not necessarily to go away solo, because I knew I wouldn’t make it to the line solo, but just to try and make the last selection. I figured there would be more people with us, but at the top it was just Judith and me.
VN: Did the two of you start playing cat and mouse as the finish approached?
KA: Not too much cat and mouse. I think we both just wanted to get to the finish line.
VN: What does being an American on the Tour of Flanders podium — the second time for you, as you also placed second to Arndt in 2008 — mean for women’s cycling in the U.S.?
KA: I was on a trade team (Cervélo) at Flanders in 2008. To come here and honestly say that every girl worked and had a role today and they actually executed, is huge for the U.S. National Team. I think it’s really big for North America, and I’m really psyched for the USA. Yesterday, when we made our race plan, we made it very clear that it wasn’t about getting top 20.
Carmen (Small), before the Oude Kwaremont, she came up to me and said, ‘Let’s go. You have to get on my wheel, now.’ And she brought me, I don’t know, it was second or third into the Kwaremont. And I’m thinking, ‘This is my part, and all these girls have just sold out for me and now I am supposed to go hard on this Kwaremont? This is what we told the girls that we were going to do,’ so I went as hard as possible.
And I said, ‘Kristin, you have to take a little bit of your own advice. If you don’t give it everything it’s not going to work. And if you give it everything, you can’t have any regrets.’ So I said, ‘Ok, if I get to the top and I have 40 people with me, I did everything I could.’ And I got to the top and I had one. But it helped that the girls, non-stop, made these other trade teams chase, and chase, and chase. It was good.