Road

Armstrong’s road to Rio runs through Chattanooga

Kristin Armstrong hopes to earn a ticket to the Rio Olympics with a national championship title in Saturday's time trial in Chattanooga

Retirement doesn’t agree with Kristin Armstrong. The two-time Olympic gold medalist has twice stepped away from competitive cycling, “retiring” after both the Beijing and London Olympic Games. But with 2016 just around the corner, the 41-year old has again set her sights on gold in the women’s time trial.

Whether the Twenty16-Sho-Air rider takes the start in Rio could well be decided Saturday in Chattanooga, Tennessee, were she will compete in the Volkswagen USA Cycling professional road and time trial championships.

“It’s important. Very important,” admits the Boise, Idaho native.

For Armstrong there is much more at stake than the national champion’s skinsuit. That’s because Saturday’s time trial champion stands to become the last of three American women to participate in September’s UCI world time trial championships in Richmond, Virginia. A podium place in Richmond would, in turn, almost certainly nail down one of two possible spots on the Olympic team.

With a third-place finish at the 2014 world TT championships in Ponferrada, Spain, Boels-Dolmans’ Evelyn Stevens has already secured one of three American slots in Richmond. Twenty16-Sho-Air’s Carmen Small will fill a second, having won the Pan American Championships earlier this month. The third and final slot will go to Saturday’s national champion.

“That’s why there’s so much riding on this weekend,” explained Armstrong. “Carmen is super-excited [about racing in Chattanooga], but she still has a spot. The same is true for Evie. But for me the pressure is really on. Believe me, there are other great riders gunning for that spot.”

Should Stevens or Small win Saturday, the third spot will become a coaches’ selection, which may or may not favor Armstrong. So, she’s got her sights set squarely on Chattanooga.

“You’d better believe I’m looking for the win. I want to go to Richmond, and I want to go to Rio,” she told VeloNews.

After three years away from the sport, Armstrong made her return to competition at last week’s Amgen Tour of California women’s time trial, where she placed third, seven seconds behind behind Stevens. Team Tibco-SVB’s Lauren Stephens placed second at 0:04.

For the fiercely competitive Armstrong — also a two-time world champion — a lesser podium placement was not a cause for celebration.

“When you’ve been on the top step before, that’s where you want to stay,” Armstrong explains. “So I won’t pretend that I was satisfied with California. When you leave the sport on top, it’s easy to come back after three years and feel like nothing should be different — though of course it is.”

Upon reflection, however, Armstrong has come to view the result as a blessing of sorts.

“After the initial disappointment, you start thinking, ‘Okay Kristin, let’s get real here.’ I haven’t raced in almost three years. And these girls I’m racing against, Evie [Stevens] and Lauren [Stephens], they’re racing all over the world. When you look at who was in California, it was really the ‘who’s who’ of time trialing. So you can be disappointed. But you also have to be realistic. You have to take stock of where you are.”

Just where is Armstrong? Since retiring from competition in 2012, she has split her time between work as the director of community health at St. Luke’s Hospital in Boise, coaching with team Twenty16 (which she will ride for this weekend), and raising her four-year-old son. But just as the Olympian was settling into a post-cycling life, she encountered a new set of challenges.

“After London, I stopped training as much,” she explained. “I went for hikes and went for mountain bike rides and just tried to do more normal things. I made the transition from cyclist to exerciser. But the following August, I noticed that I couldn’t really ride for more than an hour or 90 minutes without my hips just killing me.”

Armstrong has since been diagnosed with a degenerative hip condition for which she has now undergone a series of surgeries. Though weight-bearing exercise brings her considerable pain, she has discovered one surefire method of relief.

“As funny as it might sound, the only thing I can really do pain-free is ride my bike. I had a procedure in December 2014 that has helped to take the edge off, but again I’m most comfortable in the saddle. Eventually I’ll need a new hip. But they suggest that I don’t get one today because the recovery can take so long.”

Whether Armstrong achieves her dream of racing for gold in Rio remains to be seen. And that’s just the way she wants it.

“If I’m not the best American, I don’t want to represent the country,” she told VeloNews. “I don’t want to go simply to participate or to race for a top-10 finish. I want to be the winner. So here I’ve got a couple chances to go head to head and just give it my everything. Hopefully it will turn out for the best. If others are stronger then they deserve it.

VeloNews’ Dan Wuori will be on-site at the Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial Championships all weekend. Saturday’s women’s time trial begins at 11 a.m. eastern time. For updates, follow Dan on Twitter at @dwuori.