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Fred Dreier’s Olympic notebook: Type Triple-A Armstrong

A few days ago I was chatting with American Christine Thorburn about Wednesday’s individual time trial. The Californian went through a laundry list of meticulous technical and training specifications she had nailed down in preparation for the race against the clock — an event that historically rewards a rider’s attention to detail. I said something like, “wow, that sounds really Type-A.” Dr. Thorburn, the rheumatologist, cracked a smile.

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By Fred Dreier

Armstrong's preparation pays off in gold.

Armstrong’s preparation pays off in gold.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

A few days ago I was chatting with American Christine Thorburn about Wednesday’s individual time trial. The Californian went through a laundry list of meticulous technical and training specifications she had nailed down in preparation for the race against the clock — an event that historically rewards a rider’s attention to detail.

I said something like, “wow, that sounds really Type-A.”

Dr. Thorburn, the rheumatologist, cracked a smile.

“On the U.S. team we have Type-A, Type Double-A and Type Triple-A,” she said, referring to the U.S. Olympic team of Amber Neben, Krsitin Armstrong and herself. “I’m double,” she said.

Thorburn then pointed toward Armstrong, who was rattling off another interview. “She’s triple.”

In the days and weeks following Armstrong’s gold-medal ride here in Beijing, the mainstream media may likely fixate on Armstrong’s AAA ways. She used GPS data to map out a route in her hometown of Boise that was identical to Beijing’s Badaling Pass circuit. She scouted the course with her coach Jim Miller one year prior to the Games to look for an edge. She rolled into Beijing with three spare bicycles and a case full of different race wheels. She visited the wind tunnel not once but twice this year. And she geared her training away from the surge-recover-surge tempo of road racing, and more toward the constant, full-throttle tempo of time trialing.

Now, as cyclists we know that these preparations are par for the course for top-level pros. Wind tunnels? Different wheels? Duh — it’s a time trial. Every hair on your leg, goosebump on your arm and wrinkle in your skinsuit slows you down.

I think the most telling showcase of Armstrong’s personality, however, is in her thorough post-race quotes on her race strategy. After second-place rider Emma Pooley of Great Britain told of her secret to success (“I chose to focus on my own race, not anyone else’s. I just kept the focus on going as fast as possible and making up time.”), Armstrong took the stand.

“I took it from corner to corner,” Armstrong began. “I knew each section. I knew the first climb was 1k and then we went downhill and then we came across the freeway, and then we had another section, and then got on the road and when we hit the zoo we had 1k to the top. When I got to the zoo I could think about the next section. Then after we went around the chicane by the time split, I knew that point to the tunnel was a hard section so I jammed it like the finish line was at the tunnel. I was in my 54X11 just rolling it. It hurt!”

Hmm, kind of sounds like that other Armstrong.

I suppose, however, that this blend of talent and singular focus separates champions from silver medalists. Kristin Armstrong is a tremendous natural talent, whose history is rife with sporting achievements. Most women competing at the Olympic level of any sport fit that description. But I’m willing to bet it’s her dedication to the little things that has made Kristin Armstrong an Olympic champion. Sure, she rode her bike as hard as she could, just like Pooley. But for the American to be able to list off a detailed description of the course after the race leads me to believe she probably invested a bit more time in her prep than anyone else in the 25-woman field.

She acknowledged her Triple-A personality at the post-race presser, and attributed her meticulous ways to her upbringing in a military family.

“I think my personality has always been there, but as a time trialist I’ve taken it to another level,” Armstrong said. “It’s my personality, and people accept that. People know not to come around me 48 hours before a time trial. It’s the focus I have.”

So what’s it like working with Triple-A Armstrong? I tracked down her coach, Jim Miller, after the race to find out. The two have worked together since Armstrong started as a pro seven years ago. He said their relationship has grown due to their — surprise, surprise — similar personalities.

“There wasn’t a stone we didn’t turn over. We’ve gotten her drag down to a point that is just ridiculous,” Miller said. “We ran wheels that are lighter than her usual Sub-9 Zipp wheels. We’ve tested different helmets, materials, configurations of wheels and bike parts. We got her doing specific 23-minute efforts. I’ve been here three times scouting this course. I’ve ridden it no less than 30 times.”

It turns out birds of a feather really do flock together.

So now that her opponents are vanquished and the Olympic gold is won, will Kristin Armstrong continue in her undying pursuit of perfection? The 2012 Olympics will be here sooner than she knows, after all.

“Man, London is four years off. I don’t even know that course yet,” she said. “I can’t wait to go back home and just celebrate. Just be real, be myself.”

My guess is it won’t belong before Kristin Armstrong gets back into the wind tunnel, pulls out her GPS and starts plotting that new training course.