In the latest installment of her improbable journey from urban worker bee to one of the queen bees of women’s cycling, Evelyn Stevens won her second straight national time trial championship Thursday in steamy Augusta, Ga., securing an automatic berth on the U.S. team for this fall’s World Championships.
The official time for Stevens — who took a 1-second penalty for starting a fraction early — was just 0.2 seconds faster than her HTC-Highroad teammate, former time trial world champion Amber Neben, over the 18.6-mile course. The pre-race favorite, 2008 Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong of Peanut Butter & Co., came in third after being absent last year due to her pregnancy, while HTC’s Amanda Miller was fourth. USA Cycling coaches will select the other rider who will compete at worlds, largely based on head-to-head results this season.
Stevens, 28, was sixth in the time trial at worlds last year.
“This was a huge, huge target for me,” she told ESPN.com after the race. “I’m thrilled. It’s bittersweet, too, to beat Amber.”
Stevens credited the team’s physiotherapist for helping riders deal with high heat and humidity on the rolling course. She plans to race with HTC in Sunday’s road race at nationals, as well.
“We really want that [national champion] jersey on our team,” Stevens said.
Armed with a Dartmouth degree, a dogged work ethic and a quick mind but still unsure of her life’s passion, Stevens worked on Wall Street for four years wearing a suit and feeling uncomfortable in her own skin. She labored for long hours under artificial light and felt herself grow pasty and restive.
“There was a vice president at Lehman Brothers, one of my favorite people I ever worked for,” the cyclist said earlier this month, sitting in the lounge of a downtown Philadelphia hotel, gesturing ardently. “He was patient with me and really helped me learn the ropes. We were talking about synergy and I asked what it was. He’s explaining it to me, ‘These two power plants join; it takes less people to do the job.’ I’m like, ‘What about their families?’ And he just looks at me and says, ‘Oh no. You’re in the wrong job.’
“I felt a lot of times like I was playing dress-up.”
Stevens moved on to another investment house and began riding a bike regularly in early 2008. She had been introduced to bike racing a little more than a year before when a sister — one of her four siblings from Acton, Mass. – coaxed her into entering a cyclocross race in the Bay Area. Within a few months, she’d sunk $1,000 into her first road bike and was daydreaming about trading her office-bound life for a different existence.
By the spring of 2009, she had progressed from winning local races to elite events and decided a skinsuit fit her better than business attire. She gave notice, gave up her Greenwich Village apartment and gave her city garb to her younger sister. She sold some of her furniture on Craig’s List and put the rest out on the corner of West 3rd Street and LaGuardia Place for the taking.
“I’ve learned I don’t need a lot of stuff,” she said. “It’s been liberating.”
After two full seasons of almost pure upside as a professional, Stevens feels a bit more like a marked woman. “It’s different this year,” she said. “People know who I am and there’s a little bit more pressure. It’s wonderful to be completely unknown.”
That was the case in 2009, when Stevens became an instant sensation on the domestic circuit, riding on “composite” teams with other unaffiliated women or as a guest on established teams.
One of Stevens’ co-workers steered her to Connie Carpenter, the Olympic champion and fulcrum of the famous American cycling family that includes husband Davis Phinney and son Taylor.
Carpenter bluntly inquired how much money Stevens had in the bank. “Women’s cycling is not a for-profit adventure, especially at the start,” Carpenter said.
Still, she encouraged Stevens to take the plunge, and has served as an informal adviser ever since.
“She clearly has the will and the physical tools,” Carpenter said. “She’s a great role model for our sport and proof that you can take up cycling later and still be incredibly successful. … She’s sitting on the cusp of greatness.”
Late in 2008, Stevens also began working with her current coach, former pro Matthew Koschara, in New York. Koschara said it was a novel experience to train someone who knew nothing about the sport going in, but downplays his own role.
“Evelyn has everything to do with her own success,” he said. “She was cut out to be a professional.”
Physiological testing showed that the 5-foot-5, 120-pound Stevens was a mighty mite.
“She has a tremendous engine,” Koschara said. “Her explosive power is still being developed, but her aerobic capacity, the level of wattage she can put out, is huge. What she’s missing is that core five to seven years [of experience] that most other riders who are as good as her have.”
The warm, gregarious Stevens was clueless about her own gifts. She played soccer as a youngster and varsity tennis at Dartmouth, a grinder who seldom hit winners but never gave up on a ball.
“I was always that person who had to fight to make the teams,” she said “I was never the star. I had to go above and beyond in everything.”
Even now, Stevens flinches slightly when someone describes her as a great athlete. “You need a lot of luck, and this sport in particular fits my personality and mindset and body type,” she said.
Ask about her first few months as a professional and she pours out a litany of rookie mistakes. There was the time she crashed into German legend Ina Teutenberg at the Redlands Classic. (Teutenberg had stopped to attend to a flat tire; Stevens barreled around a corner at the base of a descent right into her. “Anyone with any experience would have had their head up and not gone plowing into one of the best women racers in the sport,” Stevens said.) There was also the time she was leading a stage race and pinned her bib number on incorrectly.
Stevens is relentlessly self-deprecating about her bike-handling skills, and frets when she gets stuck at the back of the pack and can’t help her teammates.
“I’m hoping someday I’m going to have an a-ha moment,” she said. “Then again, I’m worried I never will. I’m happiest when it’s uphill and hard.”
Motorpacing, riding in close quarters or in the wind, or navigating a technical course can still unnerve her, although Koschara and Carpenter said Stevens has come a long way and hasn’t been shy about seeking help in her home bases of Girona, Spain and Boulder, Colo.
Stevens has already reaped very good returns on her initial investment. Her coach is bullish on her, and said one of the things he most admires is the way she conducts herself.
“I don’t know anyone who’s more charismatic than Evelyn, or more well-intentioned,” Koschara said.