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Lauren Stephens cried when she got the call.
It was June 3, and Stephens saw a missed call on her phone. When she dialed the number, a representative from USA Cycling answered with heartbreaking news. Stephens had not been selected for the 2021 U.S. Olympic road team; USA Cycling chose four other riders for Tokyo.
The news hit Stephens like an emotional bomb. She had finished 2020 as the top-ranked U.S. woman on the UCI standings, and she was convinced she had earned one of the coveted Olympic spots.
“I believed I was going to be selected — I hadn’t even considered not being selected,” Stephens told VeloNews. “So yes, it was a bit of a shock.”
Unbound Gravel was just two days later, and Stephens discussed the setback with her husband, fellow bike racer Mat Stephens. Then, she phoned up her longtime friend and former boss Lee Whaley, co-owner of the DNA Cycling team. They comforted her disappointment and reminded her that the pro cycling season was going to continue. She had big races on the schedule, and each race provided an opportunity to win.
“Even at that point it was like ‘I have a bike race on Saturday, well, let’s race,'” Stephens said. “Having family around is super supportive — the ‘we love you no matter what’ attitude — but having those cycling friends who really understand a moment like that, is really huge.”
Stephens was refocused, motivated, and ready to win big bike races. And on Sunday, she won the biggest race of her career, the U.S. professional national road race. Those who know Stephens realize that the victory is the byproduct of years of success and setbacks.
“I’ve had so many ups and downs, injuries and just emotionally trying to decide if I’ve wanted to keep racing bikes or not,” Stephens said. “Then, every time I get out there on my bike, I remember the love I have for racing. And after this many years, for nationals to finally come together, in the year of the Olympics when I wasn’t selected, to be able to show them with my legs what I’m capable of, feels really good. I’m still here to race bikes.”
A stubborn approach
There have been a few overnight success stories in U.S. women’s pro cycling — Lauren Stephens’ story is not one of them. She’s been chipping away at the domestic and international peloton for the better part of the last decade. She’s battled through injuries and setbacks, and she has continually shifted her focus onto new formats of racing.
Stephens first progressed from criteriums to individual time trials and stage races. In the past few years, she has blossomed into one of the world’s top Zwift racers, as well as an accomplished gravel racer.
“She’s stubborn,” said husband Mat Stephens. “There’s all kinds of words you can use to describe Lauren. She never gives in. She’s persistent. Once she caught up to Clara [Honsinger] at nationals I knew there was no catching her from behind because she’s just going to suffer all the way to the line. That’s the way she races.”
Stephens grew up as a distance runner, and ran track at the University of North Texas, before picking up road racing in 2009. Her progression through cycling was steady — she raced the regional criterium and road racing scene and then joined the Texas pro squad FCS, which is now known as DNA Pro Cycling. For her day job, Stephens taught math at a local high school, traveling to races on the weekends. In 2010 she competed in her first elite women’s national championship, and was dropped almost immediately.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Stephens said. “I remember it being incredibly hard.”
Two years later, however, Stephens held on in the road race and finished an incredible sixth place at nationals. In 2013, Stephens broke away at the Charlotte Criterium to hold off a peloton of seasoned sprinters. That result caught the eye of Linda Jackson, owner of the Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank team, and Stephens launched her professional career the following season. She made quick progression, racing the USA scene as well as overseas. Stephens saw herself primarily as a time trialist and stage racer, and her career saw plenty of success and setbacks.
In 2018 she finished a close second at the Tour Down Under, only to crash days later at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and suffer a serious hip injury. The nagging injury took months to recover, and according to her husband, it shifted her outlook on racing. She could no longer rely solely on her time trialing and physical strengths to win.
“I think it taught her that she’s not always going to be the strongest person in the race, so you have to be savvy and smart, and not back off of corners and not back off in the group, and use these other tools that she hadn’t relied on before that,” Mat Stephens said. “I think she evolved from not just seeing herself as a time trialist.”
Heartache into headway
It’s been a few weeks since Stephens got the Olympic call, and she’s progressed to a more diplomatic viewpoint on USA Cycling’s decision. All of the women on the long team hoped to represent their country, including those chosen for the games, and Stephens acknowledged that the selection committee had a difficult decision to make. Her stellar results from 2020 — she won France’s Tour d’Laude Feminine and became the first ever winner of the Virtual Tour de France — will follow her career forever, even if they didn’t vault her onto the U.S. Olympic squad.
Still, the non-selection fueled her motivation over the coming weeks. Two days after the call Stephens smashed the field at Unbound Gravel, winning the women’s 100-mile event and beating all but six of the men in the race. Then, Stephens made a strategic decision heading into the national championships race to skip the individual time trial and focus entirely on the road race.
“I’ve always been driven to win the TT — every year that was my goal — and to [sit out the TT] was a big step, and that’s putting a lot of pressure on myself and on my team,” Stephens said. “I felt like I could balance the pressure. This was something I wanted to do but I needed to relax and race smart.”
Stephens and her Tibco-Silicon Valley teammates pre-rode the course multiple times to study the route. They also developed an aggressive pre-race strategy. They would get into the breakaway and then whittle down the main group to set up a hard finale.
Emily Newsom attacked first, and when her move was brought back, new recruit Clara Honsinger went, and Honsinger’s move eventually formed the day’s breakaway. As Honsinger rode out front with Unbound Gravel champion Lauren De Crescenzo and others, Tibco riders rode in the chase group, eventually accelerating to whittle it down to just the pre-race contenders.
Stephens made the group, and as the heat and the miles began to take their toll on the favorites, she summoned her years of experience to guide her through the event.
“There were moments when I thought I’d be gapped from the lead riders on the climb, but I stayed focused and put pressure on the pedals where I needed to, and relaxed when I knew I could, and that’s all experience,” Stephens said. “My course knowledge is my biggest strength. You’re going up that climb and knowing where to exert energy and where to back off takes years to learn. A younger less-experienced rider goes hard bottom to top.”
On the penultimate lap, just as the group of pre-race favorites descended from the climb, Stephens decided to make her move. The group’s speed lulled on a stretch of frontage road just before the feed zone, and Stephens saw the slowdown as the right moment to go. She put her head down and accelerated away from the field, and looked back to see nobody giving chase.
“I just dropped to the back, looked around, and went,” Stephens said. “When nobody followed, I knew it was a good move because I knew how much work all of those riders had been doing.”
Stephens powered up to Honsinger, and the duo gave chase, narrowing the gap to De Crescenzo on the final lap. Stephens attacked up the steep Sherrod Road climb, catching and passing De Crescenzo while pushing a huge gear.
For the next 10km, Stephens put her head down and powered into the wind, using her time trial skills to dose her energy as the pack behind got closer. It was a relentless effort and a stubborn solo move. And Stephens did what she’s done, time and again in her career.
She gutted it out.