A year of opportunity: Stephens on fire in 2020
In a year most of us thought of as a total wash, Lauren Stephens saw opportunity. Covid times meant a second chance for the Texas native, who assumed her Olympic prospects were over when injuries kept her searching for top form during most of the 2019 season.
Stephens' zone-like focus during lockdown paid off. After months of indoor training and virtual racing, culminating with a win in the Virtual Tour de France, Stephens proved she was back on top this past month, claiming the Tour de l'Ardeche overall. She was also selected for the Olympic long team and the World Championships time trial and road race team. The World Championships start Sept. 24 in Imola, Italy. Fans can watch Stephens live via NBC (US) and Eurosport (Europe). The TT starts 1440 CEST (0830 EST) this Thursday and the road race starts at 1235 CEST (0635 EST) this coming Saturday the 27th.
"My goal has always been to be the best rider I possibly can be," Stephens said. "Making the worlds team or Olympic team long team isn't a specific goal of mine, rather it's a result of the goal of being the best I can be. That's what I think is encouraging for myself. I know I'm doing everything I can, so I'm lucky if the result is that I make these selections."
From criteriums to the Giro
Stephens started bike racing in 2009 while studying at the University of North Texas. After graduating in the winter of 2010, she taught high school math while juggling training and racing on the weekend.
When 2013 rolled around, Stephens started seeing results. Once a mid-pack finisher in the USA CRITS Series, she began to move into the top 10 consistently. It was her first win at the Charlotte Criterium that caught the attention of bigger teams.
"I went home that week and was in shock," Stephens recalled. "I got some emails from TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank and other teams, but the following race was Joe Martin Stage Race, and I finished third on GC. That's what really put me on the radar."
Stephens first ride with TIBCO- Silicon Valley Bank was a guest spot at the Amgen Tour of California Women's Time Trial, which coincided with the annual TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank Gala. During that event, Stephens was awarded a grant from Silicon Valley Cycling Foundation, a non-profit started by team owner Linda Jackson to help promising cyclists reach their full potential.
"I think that was her way of telling me she believed in me, and that I had a future," Stephens said. "A few weeks later, I had a contract with the team to finish off the 2013 season, and my third race with them was the Giro Rosa. I knew that this was the real deal."
That's when Stephens reached a turning point. What once was just a hobby turned into a real opportunity to achieve greatness. After long talks with her husband, Mat, Stephens decided to leave her teaching job to compete with TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank full time.
"It was a pretty big decision for me to quit my job and take a chance on going to Europe," Stephens said. "Mat was willing to support and help me figure out this dream of becoming a pro bike racer—however, it's been an evolving process over the years. I wouldn't say it just clicked. Even now, every day, I'm learning something new. The fact that I know what races are on certain roads now, that didn't happen overnight. Linda's given us so much time over here, it's allowed me to develop into a rider that I need to be to race in Europe. Now I don't feel like others have a home-court advantage over me."
The challenging path ahead
In 2015, Stephens' schedule was packed. With the Olympics looming, she focused on road and track to increase her selection chances. However, a crash during a practice session at the New Zealand World Cup left her with shin splints and the unlikelihood of recovering in time for the Olympics.
Working through that injury, Stephens had an excellent year in 2017, one she considers to be her best. Things were looking up. She claimed a top ten at La Course, second at the national time trial championships, and won the UCI Winston Salem Road Race. Stephens went on to compete at the World Championships and finished eighth in the time trial.
Building on that momentum, Stephens signed with a team that offered more European racing opportunities. But after a crash on the final stage of the 2018 Santos Women's Tour that damaged her hip's soft tissue, Stephens' hopes to compete were dashed for most of the season.
"I was fortunate that Linda was willing to take a chance and bring me back to the team in 2019, even though I was still healing from the crash," Stephens said. "That was huge, and that shows how much she believes in me – even when we didn't know if I was going to get better. My injury didn't have a timeline, and she took that risk."
Early in the 2019 season, Stephens started to enjoy more good days than bad, but still wasn't the rider she knew in 2017. It wasn't until the Colorado Classic in late August when she realized her form had returned.
"After that, we went to Plouay and Ardeche, and I knew I was back," Stephens said. "I felt comfortable and confident in the pack again. But in a way, I was bummed because the form came too late to be noticed for the Olympic and Worlds teams. So when the pandemic hit earlier this year, I guess I saw it as an opportunity. It gave me that year back that I lost, and I had a chance again."
Stephens took that chance and ran with it. The upcoming world championships this week gives her another shot at her Olympic dream. After the World Championships Stephens will rejoin her teammates in Belgium for an action-packed end of the season race calendar.
In addition to pursuing her Olympic objectives, Stephens has played a significant role in mentoring newer teammates.
"Lauren has really developed into a phenomenal leader," Jackson said. "She has a clear head on her shoulders in race situations and she cares a lot about the team and her teammates. This year has obviously been an incredibly challenging year. Lauren has been very adaptable in taking charge and helping her teammates. It's been amazing to see her grow over the years."