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Lauren Stephens aims for US Pro ITT success to secure spot at Olympic Games

To say Lauren Stephens is an all-rounder falls short of capturing the true diversity she displays on a bicycle as this is a rider at home on the road, in a time trial, on the gravel or off-road on the mountain bike. After 11 seasons as a professional cyclist, she has won US national championships – road and gravel – a continental road championship as well as individual road stages and multi-day GC titles. 

Stephens has competed at world championships across three disciplines – road, gravel and marathon mountain bike. She’s making her debut as part of the invited field at the Life Time Grand Prix off-road series in the US and beginning the early season in Europe on the road. The pavement is a key priority this season, at least before Unbound Gravel in early June.

“My main focus this year is trying to make the Olympic team, by way of the time trial. The US has two spots so my main focus is that. So up until Nationals, all my focus is on the time trial and on the road,” Stephens told Cycling News.

“Going into this year, I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue on the road. So I really wanted to keep my options open, which was my reason to apply for the Life Time Grand Prix, but for now that’s going to be the fun side of cycling.” 

Stephens will be part of the Cynisca Cycling team at Tour de Normandie Féminin this week, March 14-17. It is important because the opening stage has a 10km hilly time trial, just what the Texan wants, especially since the US Pro Road National Championships moved from June to May this year.

“Definitely having Nationals moved up to May, it’s just gonna open me up to make some clearer decisions, quicker. I think the timing is actually good. I’ll be heading back to the US after Normandie and my next road race will be the [Tour of the] Gila,” she told Cycling News.

“I’ll be heading to altitude to get ready for Gila, and then I’ll stay at altitude for three weeks to get a good prep for Nationals. I feel like I really respond well to training at altitude.”

Stephens has not raced the Tour of the Gila in seven years, last finishing second overall in 2017. It has a time trial, so it’s in her sweet spot. She has twice won the GC at the Joe Martin Stage Race, which along with Gila are the only two UCI stage races in the US this season, but the Arkansas stage race is a week after Nationals so was not on the radar just yet.

After two seasons at the WorldTour level with EF Education-Tibco-SVB, Stephens moved back to a US-based Continental team for 2024, Cynisca Cycling. She called the move just an adjustment to “not having a guaranteed schedule”. 

There was also an unexpected schedule change when just days after her victory at Clasica de Almeria the squad made headlines again, but for the wrong reasons, which in turn took away a 19km ITT effort from Stephens. 

Cynisca Cycling recently accepted a one-race suspension for violating UCI rules in 2023 – a time when Stephens was not part of the squad –  after a contract sports director who no longer works with the team had a mechanic pose as a rider and sign a start sheet for a race. Vuelta Extremadura Féminas was the race taken off the team’s calendar as disciplinary action – no stage race and no ITT.

Still in the just two race starts so far this season Stephens already has a win. The Texan stands out for her ability to read a race and adapt to changing situations, which often sees her take advantage of climbs or splits in the field. Rarely do you see Stephens in a sprint but that is what she did for her first victory of the season.

“This is my first win that I can remember in a long time that wasn’t a solo,” she said of her February win at Clasica de Almeria, which she took in a two-way sprint against Yuliia Biriukova (Human Powered Health).

“So what I enjoy most is like just breaking down a course and tactically, figuring out what’s best for the team. What I love about racing is thinking about all the different ways and pieces that it takes to win – it’s not just one moment that defines a win, there’s lots of pieces.”

That strategic thinking has led her to another decision, what to do once she stops pinning on a number. She’s the only rider in her 30s on the Cynisca team, which she welcomes as it put her into a role as a leader and mentor.

“I came to this team to have a mentor role. I have ambition to become a DS [directeur sportif or sports director],” Stephens said. “I took the DS course two years ago, planning to do that a lot quicker than I have, and I see this as an opportunity where I can still race my bike but then I can also be in that mentor side of things and help the girls from the inside of the peloton.”

SOURCE: CyclingNews   (go to source)
AUTHOR: jackie.tyson@futurenet.com
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