Cycling’s One-in-a-Million Story | Evelyn Stevens

Little more than a year ago, Evelyn Stevens was just another associate on Wall Street, working 50-hour weeks with an investment fund and trying to stay in shape by sneaking the occasional jog.

Then she bought a bike.

On Sunday, the 26-year-old former college tennis player will compete in the Route de France, a six-day race that draws some of the world’s top female cyclists. And here’s the part nobody, not even Ms. Stevens, could have imagined just a few months ago: She might just win.

The story behind Ms. Stevens’s dramatic rise from nowhere to the top echelon of an international sport isn’t the usual cliché of hard work, sacrifice and perseverance. In fact, if there’s a lesson aspiring athletes can take from this, it’s that it helps to be blessed with very good genes. The truth is that Ms. Stevens is one in a million: She was lucky enough to stumble into the exact pursuit she was born for.

“She’s the most complete rider I’ve ever come across,” says her coach, Matt Koschara, who has raced against the likes of Lance Armstrong. “I imagine she’s going to some day be world champion.”

Exactly what makes Ms. Stevens so physiologically different is still somewhat of a mystery. Football players have big biceps, and baseball players have incredibly fast reflexes. The exceptional attributes of cyclists and other endurance athletes are less obvious—they’re hidden in their blood and their lungs. For this reason, it’s not uncommon, especially in women’s cycling, for athletes to discover their hidden talents late in life, after leaving other sports like soccer or swimming. “You can have this mild-mannered kind of Clark Kent with glasses working 45 hours a week, and they get on the bike and find they have this tremendous engine,” says Mr. Koschara, who also coaches other cyclists in the New York area.

Ms. Stevens still has not gone through the complete battery of tests that gauge athletic potential, but the tests that have been conducted on her show remarkable results. She is capable of producing a huge amount of leg power—measured in watts—for someone her weight and with her training history. With less than a year on the bike, Ms. Stevens could put out 310 watts of power for five minutes when she was tested by Mr. Koschara this past spring. Most women at her weight of 120-pounds can put out only about 220 watts, he says, while the elite professionals can produce around 350.

Her light weight and high power output allow her to climb uphill faster than anyone she’s faced so far. “That is what makes her the star she is,” says Mr. Koschara.

After playing college tennis at Dartmouth and landing a job at investment bank Lehman Brothers in New York, Ms. Stevens says she was content to leave sports behind. Her exhausting schedule left her with barely enough time for jogging. “That was about the extent of my athletic life,” she says.

On a Thanksgiving visit to Northern California in 2007, Ms. Stevens’s sister and brother-in-law persuaded her to try a cyclocross race, an often-muddy hybrid between mountain and road biking. After numerous falls, she ended the race dirty and sore. “But I had so much fun,” she says.

For the next four months, Ms. Stevens contemplated buying a bike, finally settling on a low-end Cannondale with an extra “granny” gear to help beginners push themselves uphill.

After a few rides, Ms. Stevens realized she wasn’t going to need the granny gear. On a spring bike ride in 2008, she says, a couple of male friends who were bike racers timed her up a hill climb in New Jersey that rises about a mile and a half from the Hudson River to the top of a bluff. A strong male cyclist can do this in just over six minutes. Without any serious training, Ms. Stevens clocked it somewhere in the high fives.

At the end of May, she got her first taste of racing at a clinic in Central Park organized by the Century Road Club Association. There, she found the experience “addictive.” Within a month, she’d won the Union Vale road race, a gruelingly hilly jaunt in upstate New York. She capped the season with a victory over some of the top amateurs in the Northeast at the four-day Green Mountain Stage Race in Vermont.

This April, after hiring Mr. Koschara and training hard all winter, she won the country’s largest sanctioned one-day bike race (in participation), the Tour of the Battenkill in upstate New York. Last month, she won her biggest race yet—the Cascade Cycling Classic stage race in Oregon—by a healthy margin.

At the office—investment fund Gleacher Mezzanine, where she worked until last month—Ms. Stevens’s co-workers have been following the action on cycling Web sites. Phil Krall, a managing director at Gleacher who happens to be an avid cyclist, was shocked when she won at Battenkill. And as she kept winning bigger and bigger races, he became more and more shocked. “Everyone is, like, ‘She won again?’ ” says Mr. Krall.

Jim Miller, head of athletics for USA Cycling, says Ms. Stevens’s numbers are impressive when weighed against her limited training background. He estimates that when she climbed up Mt. Bachelor in Oregon, solidifying her win in the Cascade Cycling Classic, she was averaging somewhere around 260 watts for just under a half hour. “It’s good for a girl who’s been riding a bike for a year,” says Mr. Miller.

Karen Brems, manager of the Webcor professional cycling team, which brought Ms. Stevens on as a guest rider for the Cascade race, says the wins have boosted her profile. “I’m sure all the teams are courting her,” she says.

In women’s cycling, where the talent isn’t as deep as it is on the men’s side, women with natural talent can sometimes stand out without much training. Christine Thorburn was a physician at the time she won the national time trial championships in 2004. Mara Abbott was a swimmer at Whitman College when she discovered cycling, and would later win the national road race championships.

A bigger obstacle is the pay: Top women’s professionals make about $30,000 a year, a figure that makes it tempting to try to keep working. Dr. Thorburn continued to practice medicine while cycling competitively.

Most people agree Ms. Stevens could be one of the next great American women cyclists, but there’s no guarantee that she will conquer the world. Connie Carpenter, an Olympic gold medalist in cycling in 1984, calls her ascent “remarkable,” but adds she still has work to do. “The difficult part will be to go from being good to being great,” she says. To become world-class, Mr. Miller says, Ms. Stevens will have to bump up her power anywhere from 6% to 13%.

Working in Ms. Stevens’s favor is her natural ability to grasp tactics. She says her years of playing tennis have helped. “Cycling is a tactical sport and she has good instincts,” says Ms. Brems of Webcor. “When she makes attacks, they are at good times,” she says.

At the end of June, Ms. Stevens left Wall Street and devoted herself to cycling full-time. The sport’s governing body, USA Cycling, sent her to do training sessions on a velodrome with competitors who are almost 10 years younger.

She’s now in Italy, training with the U.S.A. Cycling National Development Team, and enjoying the perks of a professional athlete—or a “wannabe” one, as she put it—like the ability to let her legs recover between workouts. “I just feel fresher when I get on the bike,” she says. Instead of going to the office, she says, “Today, I came back from a ride, ate, surfed the Web, wrote emails, read books, hung out. It’s really nice, actually.”