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Kristin Armstrong’s transformation from world-class cyclist into an American hero began the moment she stepped off her time trial bike beneath the scenic Badaling section of China’s Great Wall. Reporters called her name, beckoning for a few short words. Television cameras swarmed the green-eyed American, as two helicopters buzzed overhead.
Sweaty and exhausted, Armstrong was greeted by hugs from USA Cycling staff and her husband of less than one year, Joe Savola. Reporters, staff, and even Armstrong herself knew the 34:51 finishing time over the mountainous 23km time trial — the new best mark — had a damn good chance of withstanding the remaining five riders.
When the day’s final rider, Germany’s Hanka Kupfernagel, fell short, Armstrong broke into tears and raised her hands in victory.
And the media machine began rolling.
A mob of reporters waited for Armstrong at the post-race press conference, armed with questions ranging from her preparation for the event, to her legendary typeA personality, to her future party plans once she arrived back in her hometown of Boise, Idaho.
A few even ventured to ask her to explain her relation to Lance Armstrong.
“It’s a dream. I’ve worked really hard the last four years for this,” Armstrong said. “I’ve been in my own world for the last six weeks. I’ve been in this little bubble. For these next two weeks I just want to sit back and relax and enjoy this moment. I want to be real — be myself. It’s time to celebrate.”
The celebration would come, but first the machine rolled on. Next on Armstrong’s plate was NBC’s “Managing Victory” team — a program that guides United States medal winners through the often-daunting crush of interviews that follow a medal-winning performance. The team van showed up in Badaling to whisk Armstrong off to meet the rights-holding NBC press. Matt Lauer and Al Roker needed a few hours to brush up on their cycling, so the “Today Show” got bumped to the following night.
Armstrong went live with NBC-affiliate morning shows in Boise, Chicago and Kansas City. Then NBC’s wire service got a crack. Non-rights holders ESPN and CNN were next, along with China Central TV, The New York Times and a host of local and national radio stations.
Not surprisingly, she fielded more Lance Armstrong questions.
“I could win a gold medal, and people on the street would still ask me about Lance,” she said. “But that’s okay. I don’t think he has a gold medal.”
The extra attention was the proverbial 15 minutes of fame that greets every newly crowned Olympic champion. But the television appearances, news and radio interviews also marked the first wave in the redefinition of Kristin Armstrong. The titles multi-time national champion and 2006 world champion no longer matter. The phrase “Olympic Champ” is the one that opens doors, drops jaws, wins over sponsors and adds zeros to paychecks.
Perhaps these thoughts splashed through Armstrong’s mind as she sat in the press conference at the Badaling time-trial course and smiled at the cameras. Just one day after her 35th birthday, Armstrong was no doubt realizing that the gamble she had taken by pursuing a career as a cyclist eight years earlier had just paid off. Big time.
“It’s the ride of my life,” Armstrong said. “It’s what I’ve dreamed about since I was a little kid. I am going to have to pinch myself right now.”
Putting the U.S. back on Top
Connie Carpenter’s victory and Rebecca Twigg’s silver at the inaugural women’s road race in Los Angeles in 1984 got the U.S. off on the right foot for Olympics road racing. But strong women from Australia and Germany, as well as France’s legendary Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli, shut the U.S. road racers out from 1988-2008.
American women fared better in the time trial, which was introduced in 1996 in Atlanta. Mari Holden took silver at the 2000 games in Sydney and Dede Demet-Barry grabbed silver in Athens in 2004. The success of American men in the time trial — Lance Armstrong took bronze in 2000 and Tyler Hamilton and Bobby Julich won gold and bronze in 2004 — stood as a testament to the nation’s overall strength in the race against the clock.
The United States did not choose Kristin Armstrong to ride the time trial in 2004 — a last-minute decision awarded the second spot to Christine Thorburn, who finished fourth. The decision, Armstrong said, fueled her fire to focus on the race of truth.
“Four years ago is when [Beijing] really became a goal; I told myself that [a medal] was attainable,” Armstrong said.
She set to work with her coach Jim Miller to mold her body into a machine capable of sustaining big-watt efforts, the kind needed to win time trials. A former triathlete, Armstrong had switched to road cycling in 2000 after osteoarthritis in her hips limited her running. But Miller found that Armstrong’s big engine — she was a former top-level swimmer — had no problem adapting.
“She was good from the get go — I just told her she had to learn how to race bikes,” Miller said. “The big step for her was just learning how to be efficient on the bike.”
Results came quickly. She stormed to the U.S. title in 2005, and then showed she had the legs to compete internationally by taking bronze at the world championships, just 37 seconds behind the world’s best, Karin Thurig of Switzerland. A year later came the result of her career — she won gold at worlds.
“After [winning bronze in 2005] I told myself I could be a medalist in Beijing,” Armstrong said. “When I won [gold] in  I knew I wanted gold.”
But first there came the wake up call. Eleven months ago Kupfernagle handily snatched Armstrong’s rainbow jersey away after pummeling the American by 23 seconds. The loss was a clear message — Armstrong and Miller needed to up their game for Beijing.
That meant addressing the minute details of time trialing. Miller headed to Beijing and scouted the time trial course, riding it 30 or so times and collecting GPS data. The two plotted a route in Boise to mimic the 23.5km course. Armstrong hit the wind tunnel twice in 2008.
She experimented with different hip angles on her bike and wheel combinations to try and squeeze every mechanical advantage. She came to Beijing toting four different bicycles and nine race wheels. Armstrong’s meticulous preparation earned her chuckles from coaches and her USA teammates. But no one doubted that addressing the little things couldn’t hurt.
“On the U.S. team we have Type-A, Type Double-A and Type Triple-A,” said Thorburn. “I’m double. She’s [Armstrong] is triple.”
Armstrong attributed her Triple-A personality to being raised in a military family. The media was there to greet Armstrong when she landed in Boise, along with a crowd of hundreds of children from the local YMCA, where she leads swim classes.
On August 16, Boise celebrated “Kristin Armstrong Day,” and Armstrong led a hundreds-strong celebration bike ride from the YMCA to City Hall, her gold medal in her back jersey pocket. Boise’s mayor awarded Armstrong the key to the city and asked for an autograph.
Armstrong’s transformation was complete.