Meet Cycling's Greatest Olympic Time Trialist: Kristin Armstrong
The Olympic Games are considered by many to be the pinnacle of athletic competition. And to win a gold medal is to stamp one’s name firmly in the pages of history. But what of those athletes who win more than one gold medal? Past greats like swimmer Mark Spitz, gymnast Nadia Comaneci, and runner Carl Lewis have become part of the global athletic cultural zeitgeist, their exploits are the stuff of legend and their names synonymous with individual achievement.
From the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil, there emerged new record-breaking performance, the resurgence of recent champions, and newly crowned legends of sport. American gymnast Simone Biles won four gold medals and one bronze in an Olympic performance that had many experts proclaiming her the greatest gymnast of all time. American swimmer Michael Phelps became with the most decorated Olympian of all time, bringing his career medal haul to a staggering 28 pieces of hardware. Jamaican track and field sprinter Usain Bolt completed the heretofore improbable “triple-triple,” wherein he captured a gold medal in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 4×100-meter relay for the third Olympic Games in a row.
To take nothing away from the accomplishments of Biles, Phelps and Bolt, the nature of the Olympic format for road cycling events makes it significantly more difficult to achieve the quantitative success that is possible in gymnastics, swimming or track and field, where the world’s top athletes have the potential to rack up several more medals in various events. While track cycling athletes have the similar potential for competing in several different events such as the individual pursuit, team pursuit, omnium, sprint, team sprint and so forth, road cyclists have but two Olympic events in which to claim a medal: the road race and the time trial.
It’s a common debate, therefore, among sports broadcasters, pundits and columnists as to how to effectively compare the achievements of athletes across different sports, competitions and events. Michael Phelps is assuredly the most decorated Olympian of all time, but does his 12-year-long dominance in the pool surpass Usain Bolt’s stranglehold on track and field’s sprint events for three Olympic cycles? Perhaps, therefore, it is not fair to compare such monumental achievements, but instead ensure that athletes of such caliber are properly recognized across all disciplines and competitive arenas.
It’s quite obvious, therefore, to proclaim that among those greatest athletes of all time is Kristin Armstrong. At the 2016 Rio Games, the 42-year-old who’s laid her roots in Boise, Idaho, won the individual time trial. It was a feat she had accomplished twice before, having defeated all comers in Beijing in 2008 and in London in 2012. Like Phelps and Bolt, Kristin Armstrong asserted a level of dominance for three Olympic Games in a row. This, in addition to her two World Championship titles in the time trial, along with multiple national time trial championships and countless road racing victories, makes her palmares the stuff of childhood dreams and the awe of anyone who has ever raced a bicycle. Felt Bicycles caught up with Kristin Armstrong in the weeks following her win in Rio to see what a short period of reflection time has done for the world’s best time trialist.
FELT: Tell us about the lead-up to the Olympic Games in Rio.
KRISTIN: Success at the Olympic Games in Rio was really a 15-month goal, which pretty much began when I came back to the sport to race professionally. When you come off two gold medals in two previous Olympics, I don’t think you can have any other goal but to close it off with a third. Even to myself, the idea of winning a third gold medal seemed very unattainable, and I needed a lot of positivity from myself and from my team of supporters. When you go through the entire process of preparing for a goal like that in your mind, you think, “What are the actual chances of it happening? Things will need to perfect on that day.” I knew going into it, starting the process of going after gold in Rio, that there would be some very difficult times, and there were. From the criticism I received during the Olympic team selection process and my performance at this year’s time trial at the USPRO National Championships to plenty of self-doubt, this was definitely the most difficult Olympic campaign of my career.
FELT: What were some other factors that made this season’s preparations so difficult?
KRISTIN: Because of all the years that I’ve been competing professionally and having success in time trials, I think that there were a lot of expectations for me this year from outside sources. When I got third place at Nationals, I heard a lot of criticism that amounted to the idea of Kristin Armstrong getting third place might as well as be like her getting last place. That’s how people treated me. And even if I had won, if it had been by a small margin, I feel that there still would have been criticism from the media and fans that it wouldn’t have even been enough. So in leading up to Rio, I surrounded myself with what I call my personal team, a group of people whose unwavering support and belief in me was critical. This year was a big learning experience in having to take myself away from it all, ignoring negativity in social media and the press, and just to focus on the training and preparation.
FELT: How did you go about dialing in your equipment for Rio?
KRISTIN: One of the members of my support team was Felt Bicycles, including company founder Jim Felt. So after Nationals, my situation was basically, “Let’s get back to business as usual.” I had scheduled time with Felt to go to the wind tunnel, and to figure out what was going to make me the best and the fastest for the specific course in Rio. We wanted to verify the speed of all the equipment I was using in relation to my Felt DA time trial bike. And it was the start of an experience of learning to focus whole-heartedly on preparing over the next several weeks.
FELT: Walk us through the morning of the time trial in Rio.
KRISTIN: Before the actual time trial, I had ridden the course several times beforehand. But on the day of the event, I woke up, looked out the window and saw that it was pouring rain. And I thought, “Oh goodness, here we go!” It’s one thing to have bad weather—that’s bike racing. But to have it on the biggest race day of the year, well, that was nerve-wracking. I actually opened up several different weather apps to hopefully find a forecast that would show me clear skies. And then I began thinking that all the athletes are in the same boat as far as the weather is concerned. So if everyone else would be losing confidence, then I told myself that I’m not going to lose confidence. But even before the bad weather hit, the Rio course was already the most difficult time trial course I ever competed on.
FELT: Besides the weather, what made the course in Rio so challenging?
KRISTIN: Most people think of time trial courses as having flat, undulating or rolling terrain. But what made the Rio course so difficult was the climbing and its steep pitches, some of which had over a 20% gradient. In time trials when you’re trying to be fast and aerodynamic, you’re typically looking at using equipment that’s aero and you don’t think too much about weight or even rolling resistance being as important a factor. Well, you had to take a lot of things into account on the Rio course because of its steep terrain. But knowing about the course ahead of time, I would specifically go out and train by focusing on climbing steep pitches. The course also had plenty of tight turns. And with the wet conditions, you constantly had to think in the moment about how much you were willing to risk speeding through the technical sections. The most technical areas were more on the descents of the two climbs. And when you’re climbing in a time trial, you’re also wondering how long to stay in the aero bars versus moving your hand position and standing up. At a certain point based on the steepness of the climb, you begin losing power when in an aero position. So the Rio course made for a lot of things to think about.
FELT: How did the actual time trial play out?
KRISTIN: I was the last one to start on the day because I was the reigning champion. I was in the lead at the first time check, and knowing that I was ahead early on was a huge confidence booster. But then I lost a few seconds by the next time check, and being a few seconds back made me have to dig a bit deeper. I had what I consider an out-of-body experience where you get to a place where you don’t even feel your pain anymore. It’s “being in the zone,” as some others say. A lot of times when you’re competing, sometimes you can’t get in the zone, so it was an amazing feeling to have that in Rio.
FELT: What was it like to cross the finish line knowing you had won your third gold medal?
KRISTIN: There’s no other feeling in the world when it comes to immediately crossing the finish line and realizing that you had won. When people ask me why I come back to racing, I answer that it’s because of that feeling. It’s so amazing knowing that you get to go up on the top step of the Olympic podium and listen to the national anthem. It’s a feeling of satisfaction and success that I haven’t felt at any other time, and it’s incredible to have a sense of justification for all of the hard work you put in and the dedication of your team of supporters. The only other experiences that match winning a gold medal were my wedding day and the day that my son Lucas was born. Those were such amazing days.
FELT: You achieved this incredible success at the veteran age of 42, and you turned 43 immediately following the time trial in Rio. What advice would you give for people looking to get into sports at a relatively later stage of life?
KRISTIN: The biggest thing is that you have to look at any type of activity as you something that you get to do, instead of something you have to do. It’s critical that you enjoy the activity, whether it’s cycling, hiking or anything else. People who haven’t been engaged in recreation for some time need to reengage with the mindset that exercise is a form of freedom. And they should also know that it doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s something you can enjoy that’ll do good for your body. You don’t necessarily need to go overboard with it because you can get mentally tired of it really quick. Everything in moderation, as they say, so ease into it and enjoy it.
FELT: Beyond racing achievements, what has cycling given you as a lifestyle?
KRISTIN: What cycling, specifically, has given me, especially as a professional athlete at my age, is that it’s relatively easy on the body compared to, say, running. Cycling also offers a unique opportunity for the participant in that you can choose to make it a social activity to enjoy with friends, or you can choose to go out on your own and create a hard workout for yourself. My regular job is the Manager of Community Health for St. Luke’s Health System in Boise. We’re looking at initiating programs for our community to be proactive versus reactive in our healthcare systems. Our society’s health is largely declining and medical costs are rising, helping bring partners together within our community organizations to create better opportunities for improving the health of people in the state of Idaho. So when it comes to my work, sometimes my best ideas come when I’m on my bike, and that’s often where I can being doing my best work.
FELT: We heard that your hometown of Boise, Idaho, recently named a park after you. What was that experience like?
KRISTIN: The city of Boise has done amazing things for me due to the success I’ve had in the Olympics. Around the time of the Beijing Games in 2008, Boise’s first incredible honor was renaming a specific road after me that I used to train on a lot. It’s now called the Kristin Armstrong Byway. When I came back home after London in 2012, they named a scholarship program after me, and it’s for kids who can’t afford to participate in sports, called the Kristin Armstrong Scholarship. I’m very proud and passionate to have my name behind a program that gets kids exercising and participating in sports. This time after coming home after Rio, it involved a park and it was a huge surprise. Boise has a series of parks that follow a river called the “Ribbon of Jewels,” and the different areas are named after famous women who have contributed to the state of Idaho. The 28-acre municipal park was renamed the Kristin Armstrong Municipal Park, and it was truly a tremendous honor.
FELT: What does the rest of the racing season hold for you?
KRISTIN: Right now, I’ve just been riding on my mountain bike mostly and am actually taking my cyclocross bike to Sun Valley, Idaho, soon to participate in Rebecca Rusch’s Private Idaho mixed-surface gran fondo. After that, my TWENTY16 Ridebiker team will be coming to Boise for a team time trial camp. We’re about 5 weeks out from the UCI World Championships in Doha, Qatar. And I’m opting out of doing the road race and individual time trial for Team USA, but I will be riding in the Team Time Trial for TWENTY16 Ridebiker.
FELT: Beyond this season, what’s next?
KRISTIN: One of the promises I made to myself after returning home from London in 2012 was to enjoy everything that comes at me on a daily basis. I feel like in London I was in a hurry to get back to normal life because my son was turning two years old and I wanted to have a normal family life and a normal job and block everything else out. But now I’ve realized that there’s really nothing normal about the expectations coming my way. And I’m enjoying the unique experiences that are put in front of me. I made a promise to not make a decision on what’s next, but rather enjoy every moment of every day with my team and my family.