Megan Guarnier hopes to defend stars and stripes in Chattanooga

The lone American on Marianne Vos' Rabobank-Liv Giant team, Guarnier will have to race smart in the absence of teammates

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (VN) — 2012 was a year of highs and lows for Megan Guarnier. The 28-year-old New York native narrowly missed her goal of being named to the U.S. women’s Olympic cycling team, but found glory weeks later in Augusta, Georgia, as she captured the U.S. elite women’s national road race championship.

For Guarnier the win was both a chance to shake an Olympic-sized disappointment and check off a life goal years in the making.

“Winning a national title had always been a dream,” said Guarnier, who placed winning the championship on a list of personal goals developed some six years prior.

“To be able to track your own progress and say ‘I’ve put in all these hard hours on the bike and now I’ve achieved this goal’ is remarkable. When I put [winning nationals] on that list I didn’t know when or how it would happen, but it did. Being able to wear [the champion’s] jersey is really something special.”

Guarnier achieved another goal at the end of 2012, signing as the only American rider on the Rabobank-Liv Giant team of world champion and Olympic gold medalist Marianne Vos.

Transitioning to full-time European racing was another dream come true for the rider. But that doesn’t mean it was easy.

“I can’t say I wasn’t nervous,” said Guarnier. “It was nerve-wracking because I didn’t quite know what I was signing up for. I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me. So we were both taking really big risks. But they’ve been very open to bringing me into their team and into their culture and I’ve loved it.”

In Europe this spring, Guarnier has achieved major success in the stars and stripes, placing second in the cobbled Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and helping to guide her team leader to successes of her own.

Working alongside Vos, a superstar in the world of women’s cycling, has been an eye-opener for the American.

“It’s been an adjustment to being much more in the spotlight,” Guarnier said. “Clearly not as much for me as for Marianne, but the reaction of the European fans is really incredible. It kind of gives you a taste for what the men experience at that top level of professional cycling. They want our signatures and they want our pictures. They find the sport so fascinating.”

Guarnier says her team leader has been a role model, both on and off the bike.

“I can say that being around Marianne has taught me a lot about being gracious and thankful to people. I knew coming into Rabobank that it would be all about the team. And really, whether it’s me making the podium or my teammate just doesn’t matter. Teamwork is what cycling’s all about.”

Guarnier sees this weekend’s Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial National Championships in Chattanooga as an opportunity to promote the women’s sport to a growing American fan base. The event is the first to include the elite men’s and women’s fields at the same location.

“I think it’s incredible that more people will be exposed to women’s cycling,” said Guarnier. “When we have races at the same time as the men there are fans around who might not otherwise be. It gives us more exposure and it’ll show those fans that women’s cycling is fantastic. We race just as hard as the men and often our races are even more animated because they’re shorter. We get right to the point.”

As for defending her jersey, Guarnier knows she’ll have her work cut out for her. As her team’s lone American she’ll be without teammates on the road. But that doesn’t mean her ride won’t be a team effort.

“I’ll be missing my teammates this weekend, that’s for sure. But I can’t get too hung up on the fact that I don’t have them here, because that’s not going to win the race.,” she said.

“And the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve realized that, even without them, I’m still here for the team. I have a job to do and a team to represent and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”

How this will translate to race tactics, Guarnier is not yet sure.

“There are so many factors that influence the outcome of a road race,” she said. “I’ll have to think about what the other teams’ strategies will be and be smart in my own racing, that’s for sure. But I’ve been in lots of positions where I’ve had to read a race on my own. I’ll just have to draw upon that experience.”

As for the stars and stripes, Guarnier admits the pressure to defend the jersey is real, but she is working to keep Monday’s race in perspective.

“Since I won the race last year I’ve had this thought of, ‘Oh, dear, now I’ll have to defend it.’ That can produce some anxiety, but in the end you just have to take it as another race and be proud fact that you are — that I am — the champion.

“Whatever happens Monday I can be proud that I’ve come here to defend that title.”