Megan Guarnier: The (not so) natural

Among American bike racers, Megan Guarnier is the fastest. Her pathway to the top has been anything but.

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It was a damp day in 2004 when a collegiate peloton slowly ascended the slender road up Mt. Philo, a forested lump in the middle of Vermont. Future lawyers, doctors, and businesspeople inched their way up the steep slope that holds a thin film of slick moss and leaves almost year round. First came the Men’s A field, then the Men’s B, and the Women’s A.

Then the Women’s B field had their shot. They were new, many trying out cycling for the first or second time. A few got off and walked. One girl rode the entire way. At the top, Megan Guarnier of Middlebury College held an insurmountable gap. She didn’t dare raise both arms when she won. She couldn’t yet ride with her hands off the handlebars.

[related title=”More on Megan Guarnier” align=”right” tag=”Megan-Guarnier”]

Today, cycling fans know Guarnier by her growing list of international results, which last year included the Women’s WorldTour series overall, the Giro Rosa overall title, and the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic. Long before Guarnier became America’s best cyclist, she was just Meg from Middlebury, the girl who hitched rides to college races, the girl who won the “B” race up Mt. Philo.

Guarnier barely remembers her first victory on that soggy day in 2004. “I’m pretty sure I just tried to prove how strong I was all day,” she says. “And I remember it being rainy and cold that day, too. That gives you incentive to sit on the front, at least for me, personally. I think it was a small group into the base. And then you just go.”

A forgotten victory atop an unknown hill like Mt. Philo is how a great champion’s origin story always begins. Youthful exuberance and untapped talent combine into victory at the first opportunity. It’s a story that often repeats itself in women’s cycling, where supreme natural talent boosts a racer to the pinnacle of the sport after just a few years on the bike.

[pullquote align=”right” attrib=”Megan Guarnier”]“I’m not doing this for the money, and I think if I was doing it for the money and the attention it would be a different story. But I’ve been doing it for self-gratification, to keep being better.”[/pullquote]

That’s where Guarnier’s story diverges. Nobody on the flanks of Mt. Philo that day could have predicted that, 13 years later, the B category winner would be the best American cyclist, male or female. And as years went by, and Guarnier progressed from collegiate racer to low-level professional, her career arc seemed destined for modest heights, not otherworldly success. While more talented female racers exploded onto the pro scene, Guarnier burned like an ember, gaining strength slowly, always grasping higher. Eventually she became a world-beater — but it took time.

Cycling fans are conditioned to believe that elite athletes are born, not made. Preternatural talents rise like shooting stars, making the impossible look easy. But that story is not Guarnier’s story. She was made into one of the world’s best cyclists, not born as one. And once she became a great cyclist, she avoided the limelight that comes with success, instead embracing her introverted personality. When you talk to those who know Guarnier best, they believe it’s her personality that makes her different, and so very good.

Megan Guarnier, racing for Middlebury College at 2007 collegiate national championships. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |
Megan Guarnier, racing for Middlebury College at the 2007 collegiate national championships. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |

GUARNIER AGREES TO MEET at a coffee shop in her hometown of Glens Falls, New York, three hours north of New York City. It’s the day before Thanksgiving. She arrives with her husband Billy, a software salesman.

Guarnier describes herself as naturally shy. As the interview progresses, she reveals a charm and a full-body laugh that paints a different picture. The shyness, she explains, keeps her from pursuing media opportunities and the public spotlight. In fact, her motivation to race and win comes more from her personal desire rather than a need for adulation or outward gratification.

“I’m not doing this for the money, and I think if I was doing it for the money and the attention it would be a different story,” she says. “But I’ve been doing it for self-gratification, to keep being better. That’s what pushes me, that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. If I had wanted big money and fame I might have tried to seek out a different sport, or a different career.”

The motivation and drive has followed Guarnier her entire life as an athlete. Long before Guarnier pedaled a bicycle, she was a competitive swimmer from ages eight to 18. Her coach, John Ogden, says Guarnier was the type of athlete who performed better in practice than in races. She knew how to suffer and was stubborn, but her motivation came more from the process than the result.

“We used to have Olympians come train with us and she could train with them,” he says. “Usually, when you have a kid like that, when they can learn the process and get up at 4:30 a.m. every morning and do double [workouts], you get that kind of athlete. When she found the cycling thing, I knew it was going to be good. She can fight through the hurt.”

A shoulder injury eventually torpedoed Guarnier’s swimming ambitions. That led Guarnier to triathlon, which led her to cycling. During the spring of 2004, Guarnier was training for triathlon when someone in her dorm hall convinced her to head an hour north for a bike race. The advice she received from her triathlon coach was astute. Stay hidden, he said. Save energy. Draft. Like a true triathlete, Guarnier instead rode the front. At the foot of Mt. Philo, she dropped everyone.

Had Guarnier been blessed with otherworldly talent, her career should have taken off immediately. Mara Abbott won the collegiate national title three years in a row before winning the elite Stars and Stripes jersey in her first year as a pro. Evelyn Stevens progressed so fast from newbie to national champion that her racing acumen lagged behind. (“Every time I did a race, it was overcoming that massive fear,” Stevens said. “Every race was fearful in a sense.”)

Not Guarnier. Her results from 2006 through 2010 at the USA Cycling national championships, for example, are strong, but modest. She was runner-up at collegiate nationals behind Abbott. There were a few top-five finishes in the elite time trial and a 25th place in the elite road race. In 2007, three years into her racing, she was third at the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic in the Cat. 1/2 race. She also won two tiny races in New England. One had 12 women in it.

In 2008, USA Cycling invited Guarnier to a talent camp in Colorado Springs. She huffed it up Cheyenne Canyon in her Terry Precision amateur kit and sweated in a lab on a stationary bike. Her future coach, Corey Hart, said Guarnier overcame her unimpressive training metrics with her desire.

“I don’t think that USA Cycling looked at her values and said, ‘Oh, this is the one,’” Hart says. “She’s not the girl doing 5.5 watts per kilogram up Cheyenne Canyon, with great economy. Her personality, that willingness to learn, is what has allowed her to reach her capacity and go beyond what we even predicted at the time.”

Guarnier showed that she was dedicated to improvement, Hart says. That skill proved to be her secret. That’s not unheard of in women’s amateur cycling, where the fields often lack depth and the elite racers also hold down normal careers. Athletes who stick around tend to rise over time. Guarnier, however, had another tool in her disposal: her intellect.

Photo: Specialized | Gruber Images
Photo: Specialized | Gruber Images

IT’S COMMON TO MEET a female pro cyclist with a college degree. Guarnier, however, holds a neuroscience degree, and her professional resume includes the job title “Nuclear plant risk assessor.” Guarnier was her high school valedictorian. Even her preferred reading material is uncommonly academic.

“I really, really just love textbooks,” she says. “It sounds super weird.”

When asked if she’s simply too smart for cycling, Guarnier pauses, and struggles to find an answer. Instead, her husband chimes in. He equates cycling to a game of chess, and, in that game, it’s not always the strongest rider that prevails.

“Cycling can be viewed as unintellectual because you do have the ‘strong-like-bull, dumb-like-bull’ thing,” he says. “But at the same time, you see that more in the ‘shooting star’ type rider. I don’t mean to discount that, because there are people who have a lot of talent, but when you have somebody that is working from the ground up and they need to learn everything, there is a level of intellect there.”

Of course this theory applies specifically to Guarnier. She believes her approach to racing is more analytical when compared to her teammates and competitors. Her teammates tell her to relax, to chill out, in the middle of a race because she can get worked up.

At some point in her career, however, Guarnier learned to switch her brain off and allow her reflexes to take over. “Part of the progression is racing more on instinct,” she says. “At first you’re having a dialogue in your head. ‘Can I attack now?’ And now it’s just instinct.”

But you can’t think your way from acceptable lab scores in 2007 to being one of the best bike racers in the world in 2016. You can, however, learn your way up. In 2009, the year after she began working with Hart, Guarnier started racing full seasons in France. Her results improved almost overnight.

Hart advocates sending riders overseas as soon as possible for this very reason. European racing is harder, faster, tighter, and more nuanced. The fields are deeper and the courses are trickier. It’s bike-racing school, where the lessons are learned on narrow, winding roads. A good racer needs immersion. They need to live, train, and race in Europe.

“I think a lot of the talent identification process in the U.S. is based off time trials and climbers. Those are innate abilities — if they can go fast in a straight line or up a hill,” Hart says. “You can put them into races that have those elements and they will rise to the top. But with Megan, what we really focused on is developing her as a road racer.”

A VO2 max test cannot teach a racer how to stay hidden in a pack. A time trial up a lonely mountain road cannot help a rider understand how to disrupt a chase on a narrow farm road. No amount of physiological testing can demonstrate to a racer how to be patient when an early breakaway gains two minutes on the field. Cycling’s sporting culture presents challenges to even the most naturally gifted racers.

Hart says Guarnier was a quick learner. As her physiology slowly improved, her skills and racing acumen made sizable leaps in Europe. And those skills put her on a level playing field with the best in the world, some of whom had more natural talent.

“She’s a brilliant, very intellectual person outside of the sport,” Hart says. “If you think about school, you don’t rapidly rise to a Ph.D. To be a student of sport you have to study, and each time you have to pass another level. She’s in the ‘post-doc’ career now.”

FOR MOST OF HER CAREER, Guarnier avoided setting goals. “Goal setting is scary and it’s hard,” she says. Falling short of a result leads to disappointment, so why set an arbitrary target? Instead, Guarnier found motivation through progression.

“What I’ve always wanted to get out of it is improvement,” she says. “That’s the competitive nature. It’s directed at myself. I’m competitive with myself. It’s always, ‘Could I have been better?’ Results are always a nice benchmark, but, really, I want to be better than last year. I think you see that in my career.”

Intrinsic motivation explains Guarnier’s ability to race for years without a major breakthrough, and her penchant for training faster than she raced in swimming. It explains why she never felt ready for an exam unless she knew the textbook end-to-end. The A+ was simply a byproduct of knowing the material.

“What kept me in the sport from 2008 to 2015 was that I could feel a progression,” she says. “I was always a little more of a factor. Was the progression fast enough for me? No. But I was progressing.”

In 2010 Guarnier finally forced herself to establish specific goals. She started working with sports psychologist Kristin Keim, who convinced her that those arbitrary measuring marks were indeed helpful. So in 2016 Guarnier set a big goal for herself: Win a gold medal in the Olympic road race.

The goal eluded her, and caused a mountain of disappointment.

Guarnier crossed the Olympic finish line on Copacabana Beach in 11th place. There was no expression on her face as she rode toward her “village,” as she calls her athletic support group, just past the finish line. Billy was there, as was Hart.

There weren’t many words. Guarnier spent all season finishing on the podium in every race she cared about in 2016. She won Philly, she won the Giro Rosa, and she won another national title. So how could she finish 11th in the race she really, really cared about?

“I was so confused at how it played out,” Guarnier says. “I crossed the line and I just started looking for Billy and my coach, somebody that could just center me and ground me — I just went out and raced and I gave it everything I had, and everything I had that day got me in 11th place.”

Guarnier attempts to put her disappointment into words, but struggles to finish her sentences. Why didn’t she greet the media after the race? She doesn’t really know. “To have that… It was honestly… I was sitting there, like, what do I say? What can I say?” she says. “I still don’t know what to say. In that moment it was… I don’t have anything to say because I don’t know what happened and I’m still trying to process it.”

Perhaps the most confusing part of Guarnier’s failure in Rio is that she felt strong on the bike. It was one of the first things she said after crossing the line. Hart, who has analyzed her power files from that day, agrees. “It wasn’t a bad day. It wasn’t her best day, but it wasn’t a bad day,” he says. His analysis suggests that the difference between 11th and fighting for a podium that day was perhaps 10 watts for five minutes. “It’s that minuscule,” he says.

Identifying where those missed watts went that day may take years. Perhaps the Vista Chinesa climb was simply too steep. Maybe the conditions were too hot. Perhaps the dynamics within USA Cycling’s women’s squad played a role. Tensions were high within the team before the Olympics. Some of the stress sprung from Guarnier and her relationship with Boels — Dolmans teammate Evelyn Stevens.

The two had an altercation at June’s Philadelphia International Classic. Boels came into that race working for Stevens, whose spot on the Olympic squad was precarious. Prior to Rio, both Amber Neben and Carmen Small unsuccessfully arbitrated against Stevens’s inclusion on the Olympic team. A win at Philly, a WorldTour race, would seal her trip to Rio. Guarnier already had her Olympic slot from her third place at the world championships in 2015. Her job was to get her teammate to Rio, too.

Guarnier led from the bottom of the steep Manayunk Wall, pulling what looked like a long leadout. But the leadout became a breakaway, and within seconds Guarnier dropped everyone. Stevens hadn’t made it through the chicane at the bottom of the climb on her wheel, and finished a distant fourth. Her Rio slot was still precarious.

What happened in the moments after is a sore subject for both athletes. Neither would comment on it. Stevens approached Guarnier at the finish line. A VeloNews photographer who was capturing the moment heard her tell Guarnier, “You f—king left me.” And when Guarnier spoke to the VeloNews reporter at the race a few minutes later, she seemed keen to deflect away from her own win, as if it was an accident. She said Stevens simply lost the wheel. Stevens disappeared without speaking to reporters.

“I know [Philadelphia] was a goal for Evie so she was probably disappointed,” Guarnier told VeloNews several weeks later. “I mean, it was another win for Boels – Dolmans.”

Guarnier and Stevens are very different racers and personalities. Stevens is the shooting star who went from Wall Street to Highroad in a single bound. Guarnier is the ember who methodically rose through the ranks until she reached the top. Stevens is outgoing, media-savvy, a darling of USA Cycling’s program. Guarnier is quiet. She disappeared to France for much of her early career, so her ties to American fans aren’t as strong. And she’s just not as good at self-promotion. “My little energy bucket is all into bike racing,” she says.

[pullquote align=”right” attrib=”Megan Guarnier”]“When you look at my story, I hope it moves these other women to believe they can do it.”[/pullquote]

The career arc of the two riders met in Philly. Stevens, months from retirement, was perhaps not the same rider she had been the previous year when she won Philly. Guarnier was still rising. With Olympic slots and pride on the line, they clashed.

To those in Stevens’s camp, Guarnier had blown her assignment and jeopardized her teammate’s ability to qualify for Rio. To those in Guarnier’s camp, Stevens should have been stronger on the Manayunk Wall. The blame game, as always, is not particularly useful. The result is the same regardless: Two Boels teammates with a personal rift between them would line up on the same team in Rio.

And they lined up next to two unfamiliar faces. Guarnier had never raced with Kristin Armstrong and had only raced with Mara Abbott once. For an individual who relies on her “village” like a protective cocoon, the new setting was a detriment. “It can be a really hard environment to navigate,” Guarnier says.

“It’s such a dynamic and hard sport to figure out as it is.”

Hart was standing at the finish line on Copacabana with Billy. He said he saw doubt in Guarnier’s eyes after she crossed the line. “It didn’t look like the same person the other 364 days of the year,” he says. “You can read the body language, and you can see that this isn’t the same person. For me, you could just see this lack of willingness to fight. I think there are many reasons behind that. But, I don’t know.”

Photo: Casey B. Gibson |
Photo: Casey B. Gibson |

GUARNIER IS 31 NOW. It took her more than a decade to learn to be the bike racer she has become, to slim down those swimming shoulders, and to understand that she needs her village to succeed. She doesn’t have 10 more years in her, she says. Guarnier doesn’t want to be racing at age 40. She may not even make it to the Tokyo games in 2020. She has other things to do. Go back to school; get a medical degree or a Ph.D. or both. Start her next career. “I take each year as it comes,” she says. There are no guarantees in this sport.

Even if she’s closer to retirement than to her win on Mt. Philo, Guarnier now holds the torch for American women’s racing. Abbott, Armstrong, and Stevens all retired after Rio. Carmen Small is dipping a toe into directing. The next generation, women like Coryn Rivera and Chloé Dygert, are still on the rise.

That makes Guarnier America’s current cycling hero, albeit an introverted one. Guarnier believes her story can inspire female athletes, especially those who have a hard time relating to freakishly talented riders who shoot to the top. Perhaps her story will appeal to the rider who believes her talents lie in determination.

“When you look at my story, I hope it moves these other women to believe they can do it,” Guarnier says. “It’s really hard for women to get over to these European teams, but I hope my story shows it’s possible. It might not take one year. I might take 10 or more years. But I hope it inspires women to take those jumps and take those challenges and take the risks. I hope they go and do it.”

Guarnier’s coffee cup is empty, and the low sun alerts her that it’s late afternoon and time to get on the road back home. It’s taken Guarnier a long time to wrap her head around her own success, maybe because it took so long to arrive. She’s the first American to have won a WorldTour or UCI series of any fashion. She’s the first American to be ranked No. 1 at the end of a season, male or female. She is America’s best bike racer, period. It just took her a lot longer to get there.

Listen to author Caley Fretz dig deeper into Guarnier’s personality, discuss her conflict with Stevens, and shed insight on his additional reporting on this week’s VeloNews Podcast, episode 11.