PHILADELPHIA — Even in the context of Evelyn Stevens’ short but remarkable career, last Friday, June 1, marked a surreal coincidence.
Four years ago to that day, Stevens, then working in investment banking for a Wall Street firm, participated in her first road cycling clinic in Central Park. She had been smitten by the bike racing bug mere months before, when her sister Angela persuaded her to enter a cyclocross event in the Bay Area.
Stevens celebrated the anniversary by returning to Central Park with a few of her Specialized-lululemon teammates. But this time, she was being filmed by NBC because she had just clinched a slot on the U.S. Olympic team.
After the shoot, Stevens hopped in a rental car and drove down the New Jersey Turnpike to Philadelphia — a trip she said was far more intimidating than any high-speed mountain descent — where she would help teammate Ina-Yoko Teutenberg of Germany win Sunday’s Liberty Classic for the fifth time.
I sat down with Stevens in the same hotel lounge where we’d spoken last year, on the same weekend. In that 2011 interview, Stevens, frank and engaging, told me many amusing anecdotes about her early days in the saddle. Like how she’d come head-down around a turn in one of her first races and plowed into Teutenberg, who was fixing a flat. Stevens feared she would never live it down.
She also gave me a brutal self-assessment. She had physiological gifts but was a mediocre bike handler, uneasy in the close quarters of the peloton. She was confident about her time trialing skills (and was about to win her second national championship in the discipline) and liked steep climbs that winnowed the field and lessened her claustrophobia. But Stevens felt guilty because she couldn’t get to the front of the pack to help her teammates, and she didn’t think she would ever shine on technical courses or the windy, cobblestone-paved roads in the European classics.
That was then.
This year, Stevens has done nothing but win on several different continents. Her bike has become a true extension of her body and, perhaps more importantly, her keen intellect.
“I think last year I hit a point where I was good, but I wasn’t consistently at the top level,” Stevens said. “I’m not in it just to be good. I want to be the best at it.”
In the offseason last year, she decided to slough her skin to reach for excellence.
She had some important help in that regard. First, former Aussie rider and longtime men’s Pro Tour press officer Kristy Scrymgeour put together the sponsorship deals that saved the former HTC-Highroad women’s team from having to disband in an Olympic year and gave riders like her, Teutenberg and 2008 time trial world champion Amber Neben of the U.S. the means to compete.
Then Stevens, who lives in Girona, Spain, during the cycling season, decided to make her U.S. base the cycling capital of Boulder, Colo., which is also home to the Carpenter-Phinney clan. Mentored from early on by Olympic gold medalist Connie Carpenter, Stevens has become a de facto member of the family, which includes two Grand Tour stage winners — Carpenter’s husband, Davis Phinney, and their soon to be 22-year-old son, Taylor.
“They’re the kindest family,” Stevens said last week. “They understand the physical and mental demands of cycling. I didn’t come from this world, so it’s easy to get lost in who to listen to.”
Stevens rented a flat with Taylor Phinney — her younger, much taller and more seasoned surrogate brother — and began working with his coach, Neal Henderson, at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. She bought a mountain bike and began following Taylor down twisting descents. She rode on an indoor track with under-23 men and junior boys, leaning into the curves, abandoning her body to centrifugal force while keeping a firm grip on the handlebars. She also hired a sports psychologist to train her between the ears.
“You kind of have to up the nervous factor,” Stevens said. “Put yourself into thinking quicker and trusting the bike more. That’s been the biggest thing: ‘I can do this, I watch everyone else do it. It’s not brain surgery.’”
Stevens’ light-bulb moment came in a small race in Italy earlier this year. “It was a circuit race, and normally I would struggle, but I found myself in and out of the corners, no problem, feeling how the flow of the peloton works,” she said.
In April, Stevens won the Fleche Wallonne classic in Belgium — one of the showcases of women’s cycling, run on the same day and same famous course as the men, with the attendant crowds and media coverage. It was her third try at the race, and another gauge of how far she’s come.
She was still cubicle-bound on Wall Street in the spring of 2009 when longtime race promoter John Eustice emailed her a photo of Dutch star Marianne Vos winning at Fleche Wallonne. “He said, ‘Study this rider. Study how she finishes the race,’” Stevens said. She stared at the photo on her computer, transfixed.
In 2010, Stevens underestimated the pitch of the uphill finish on the famous Mur de Huy and slid from second to fifth in the last excruciating 100 meters. In 2011, she launched “what I wouldn’t call the smartest solo attack” with 43 miles to go and was caught.
This year, Stevens tried to control every variable that could possibly sap her in the week leading up to Fleche — healthy food, ice baths after training and early bedtime. “I call it my monk lifestyle,” she said. “And yeah, it gave me the confidence that I was prepared.”
This time, she passed Vos on the climb and crossed the finish line first.
“It was probably the coolest day of my life,” Stevens said.
Tired of these Hollywood-type scenes yet? Got one more for you.
Stevens’ overall win in the Exergy Tour, a five-day race in Idaho in late May, clinched an Olympic berth for her via a formula of results and international ranking. But that wasn’t her favorite moment of the event. No, that came when Stevens crested a climb in the last stage of the race on a two-woman breakaway and saw her sister, Angela — yes, the sister who lured her into the sport in the first place — “screaming and running beside me like a maniac.”
Cue the string section.
At this point, Stevens is assured of a spot on the four-woman U.S. Olympic road race team only. She’ll learn whether she’s been selected as one of two time trial entrants on June 15 when rosters are announced by USA Cycling, but she would seem to be in a good position. Her presumed competition would be Neben and 2008 Olympic time trial gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, who looked to be in great form before breaking her collarbone in Idaho. (Armstrong, who is training again, has said she is capable of being fully fit by the Olympics.)
Stevens will race at the national championships later this month — the last time the men’s and women’s road nationals will be held separately — and at the Giro Donne stage race in Italy that starts June 29. And this just in: She intends to stay in the sport at least through the 2016 Rio Games.
Scrymgeour was floored at how many early-morning recreational riders and pedestrians recognized the petite figure in the black-and-white kit in Central Park last Friday. “Evie is a confidence rider,” she said. “After Fleche Wallonne, nothing can stop her.”
Last year at this time, Stevens was a feel-good story. Now, she’s become a flat-out great story, and a tangible example for anyone who has ever considered ditching the rat race for a more compelling pursuit. She has the potential to become a transformative athlete in her sport, a woman who can broaden the American fan base the way Mia Hamm did in soccer or Cammi Granato in ice hockey.
“You just can’t put caps on what you think you can do,” she said. “I think that’s the big thing I’ve learned this year. Anything is possible. Who knows what kind of race you can win and what kind of thing you can do? Maybe with cycling last year I put a cap on what I thought I could do, and then this year I just kind of let go of it.
“So often, people want to put people in boxes. Just try. If you fail, you can fail and fail and fail, and that’s how you learn to get better.”