Guarnier nabs bronze for U.S., earns Rio slot

American Megan Guarnier booked a ticket to the 2016 Rio Olympics with a third-place finish in the women’s road race at the world championships Saturday.

American national champion Megan Guarnier booked a ticket to the 2016 Rio Olympics with a third-place finish in the elite women’s road race at the UCI World Championships Saturday.

The result capped a career season for the 30-year-old from Mountain View, California. In addition to worlds bronze and the national championship victory, Guarnier’s 2015 season included wins at Strade Bianche, one stage and the overall at the Ladies Tour of Norway, a stage and second overall at the Women’s Tour of New Zealand, and a stage and third overall at the Giro d’Italia Femminile, where she wore the race leader’s maglia rosa for six days.

“All day it was incredible, hearing the chants of USA all over the course,” Guarnier said of the American support in Richmond. “I even heard my name being shouted out there. I don’t get that racing in Europe.”

During the 130-kilometer road race Saturday afternoon, Guarnier waited patiently with most of the pre-race favorites as a dangerous nine-rider breakaway formed late in the race and looked likely to stay away. With most of the favored teams represented in the break, there was little organization to the chase.

“We had Coryn [Rivera] in the break and knew she was a fast finisher, so we were comfortable leaving the break out there,” Guarnier said. “I just had to be patient and watch the favorites, because I had my teammates covering every attack. My job was near the end of the race.”

The lead stretched out to a minute halfway through the final lap around the 16-kilometer Richmond circuit. But they were caught on the final climb up the cobbled 23rd Street Hill about two kilometers from the finish. Eventual winner Lizzie Armitstead (Great Britain) accelerated heading into the Governor Street climb inside the final kilometer, and Guarnier was one of only eight riders who could go with her to the line.

“Anytime Lizzie attacks, it’s going to put anyone in the hurt locker,” Guarnier said of her teammate on the high-powered Boels-Dolmans trade team. “So I knew I just had to stay on that wheel … After all the work the girls did, it wasn’t much of an option not to follow.”

The podium spot continued a remarkable run for the Americans on home soil. Along with the junior women (two golds and two silvers) and junior men (one silver and one bronze), Guarnier’s bronze brings Team USA’s medal count to seven. After nine of 10 events, the Americans are second in national rankings at worlds, behind only Holland.

“I am really proud of how we rode as a team,” said American Evelyn Stevens, another member of Boels-Dolmans who animated the race. “Megan’s had an awesome season, and she was our plan. My goal was to go out there and work for her. I think we showed. I was aggressive earlier, to keep it hard. You don’t want the sprinters fresh up Governor’s. That was the tactic, and it was cool to see it work out.”

The bronze medal gives Guarnier an automatic nomination to the U.S. team for the Rio Olympics. The vague wording of USA Cycling’s selection criteria means she has a nomination, rather than an official bid, and could still be left off the team due to injury or a sudden drop in form. But USAC officials confirmed that the Olympic slot is now Guarnier’s to lose.

“I hadn’t really thought about that too much,” Guarnier said. “Today was a big challenge. I was just focusing on getting to the line. It’s very exciting to have that automatic to Rio. But right now I’ll just enjoy this.”