Megan Guarnier has had an incredible year. That much is undeniable. Most notably, the Boels-Dolmans rider won the inaugural Women’s World Tour by gaining victory in a string of high profile and varied races including the Giro Rosa, Tour of California and the Philadelphia Cycling Classic as well as winning her third National Road Race title.
Her achievements won her the first ever Voxwomen ‘Voxy Road Rider of the Year’ award – which was decided by a panel of journalists and experts and presented at the Rouleur Classic on Saturday. She knows she’s made quite an impression over the course of the year.
Asked if this success creates unwanted pressure ahead of the 2017 season, or simply fuels her fire to achieve more, she tells me: “I look at [having won the WWT] as giving me confidence going in to next year. It’s been a really hard season and it’s an honour to have won the World Tour. But if you always set your expectations so high, it becomes unrealistic."
Performing to a similar level next year is probably not ‘unrealistic’ – but Guarnier’s attitude to cycling has always been unmistakably modest, yet undeniably driven. Her goal is always her own self-improvement. If that happens to mean beating everyone else, and winning – that’s a bonus. She focuses on the controllable – and that is making herself better. Commenting on her ultimate career goal, she tells me: “As far as an end goal, every day I just try to go and be better. When I feel like I’ve reached the best I can be, that’s the end goal."
"There’s nothing I could have done more [at the Olympics], to get a better result, and that’s a part of the sport. But it also is the beauty of the sport, too."
Despite this refreshing approach, Guarnier did still suffer some disappointment this year when she didn’t place as she’d hoped at the Rio Olympics, coming just outside the Top 10. However, her understanding of the controllable and the uncontrollable still helped her to move on from a race that didn’t end as she’d hoped. She tells me: “[The fact that you can’t control everything] is something you learn quite quickly in bike racing. No matter how good of a day you have, anything can happen. That’s a beautiful part of our sport, but it’s also a very difficult part of our sport. Especially coming out of the Olympics, that’s a difficult thing for you to get your head around – for me to get my head around. There’s nothing I could have done more, to get a better result."
She adds, clearly having addressed the matter in her own mind carefully: “This year I was so focused on the Olympics – and with that I didn’t succeed, but I had an incredible year. And I can’t let that one race overshadow my year or my career."
Winter Training in Megan Guarnier's World
With her Women’s World Tour win, National Champion title and Voxy Rider of the year achievements confirmed, Guarnier is now enjoying a little down time in the form of a four week off-season break.
She tells me: “Normally I have four weeks completely off the bike. My coach will start me training – in the gym or just making sure that I’m doing something – about two weeks into that. But I’m generally not touching the bike for four weeks. This year’s a bit different as the Worlds were so incredibly late."
Knowing you’re in incredible form, but that you have to take time off to allow your body to recuperate before the ramp up to the next season, must be hard, right? “It can be discouraging. This year I was definitely ready for a break with it being such a long season – going to mid-October. But usually the first couple days I’m like ‘I’m going to go crazy not being on the bike’ – but then you really need the mental refresh of not having to get in your chamois. Not having to get out on the bike, being able to live a little bit. Not having to worry about the structure of a training schedule."
Getting back on the bike after that break has to be pretty tough – too: “I feel terrible. Every day I’m out there like ‘what am I doing this for? This hurts so much!’ then you get the ‘I’m never going to be good again’ feelings!"
Whilst summer is all about ‘racing and recovering’, winter for most road cyclists is all about logging hours on the bike, addressing weaknesses and building strength. It’s no different for a World Tour Champion: “I leave most of the planning training to my coach. There’s more hours [over winter], and in the winter I’m in the gym weight lifting. Definitely the weight lifting is something I’m not doing in the season – there’s just not time and it does something to my muscles that’s not conducive to going fast on the bike in season. But it’s an important aspect in the season, to help balance things. Help balance my body out and get stronger."
I love weight lifting because personally.. I’m so bad at it that I see improvement every day! How can you not like that?
That characteristic desire to improve comes through again as she adds: “I love weight lifting because personally.. I’m so bad at it that I see improvement every day! How can you not like that? There’s always something to improve on [in cycling]. The interesting part of our sport is you can always work on your climbing, you can always work on your sprinting, you can always work on your time trialling, your Vo2 max or threshold. That’s what keeps me interested and engaged in those long winter months – in the cold training. But it’s not too cold 'cos I’m in California!"
Guarnier knows, however, that this winter – like last winter – won’t make or break her. What’s made her successful is a constant upward trajectory of performance which is peaking its head above the level achieved by her rivals. She says: “I didn’t get here overnight, and I didn’t get here in one winter. It’s years of training. It’s the day in, day out, working hard. Putting in the hours, making the sacrifices and being determined, and a little bit bull headed about it."
Two tier system, and La Course
The UCI has announced the schedule for the 2017 Women’s World Tour, and that announcement was met with a resounding sense of pleasure that more dates had been added to the calendar.
Some riders and fans alike were less pleased to learn that the UCI still have not implemented a two tier system. In men’s racing, there are World Tour teams, Pro Continental and Continental teams – each have access to different races depending upon their ranking. In women’s cycling, teams are either UCI World Tour Women’s teams, or not. That means that those such as Guarnier’s heavyweight, World Champion laden Boels-Dolmans team competes against teams who are much less experienced, and receive less funding.
The result is that riders on those teams are often dropped in races – presenting challenges to lower ranked managements struggling to justify the cost of being a World Tour team with little to no chance of a win. Of course there are fewer women’s teams out there, so splitting the existing teams into tiers would mean smaller numbers at races.
Guarnier - who just so happens to have a degree in Neuroscience by the way - empathises with the young and inexperienced riders affected, but doesn’t feel the women’s peloton is ready to split its ranks to multiple tiers.
Carefully considering the question, she tells me: “Right now we need more funding for our sport in order to have a [two tier] system like that. There’s just not the depth of teams, and enough teams to fund and support a two tier system. It’s all this one thing leads to another... money comes in, depth and breadth of the sport gets bigger, we’re able to grow and naturally the two tier system will work itself out. Right now, you’ve got juniors and first time racers in some of these World Tour races. That’s just the point where our sport is at. I’d love to see it go to a higher level, but that’s what all of the media and the coverage helps with. And it’ll slowly grow, it won’t happen overnight – but we need to keep trying to get there."
She adds: “You need the experience, I needed that experience when I first started... It can be super frustrating if you show up to every race and you’re getting dropped, and you’re not getting the experience. At some point hopefully we can fill that void and hopefully make it an easier progression, into the top level – because it can be very frustrating for new riders."
"Just because [La Course is] a shorter distance, doesn’t mean it’s going to be a less interesting race. It gives other types of riders a chance to be featured in the race."
Another controversy in the UCI World Tour calendar was the movement of La Course from the Paris setting of the final day of the Tour de France to a mountain stage of just 67km long.
Many riders expressed disgust at this – but Guarnier looks upon the move more positively – saying: “It’s definitely not a step back. Just because it’s a shorter distance, doesn’t mean it’s going to be a less interesting race. It gives other types of riders a chance to be featured in the race."
She adds: "At some point I’d like to see a stage race – 3 days, 5 days and 21 days in the future. Hopefully they’re taking steps to see how this goes, so maybe they can add further days in future. I can’t predict the future, but in my optimistic world this is a trial towards the next big thing."
We hope this year's own 'next big thing' rider turns out to be right in her predictions about the future of La Course. And, of course - we wish her every bit of luck going into her winter training (not that she needs it).