After missing podium, Armstrong must reset Olympic goals

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) Kristin Armstrong is the two-time and defending Olympic gold medalist in the time trial, and may give the U.S. team its best chance of another cycling medal at next year’s Rio Olympics.

First, she needs to earn the opportunity.

After coming back from retirement, Armstrong finished off the podium in the time trial at the world championships this week. She was still the best-placed American rider in fifth, but by failing to medal Armstrong missed out on an automatic Olympic berth, and now must prove over the next year that she can be an asset to the U.S. team that will compete in Brazil.

”Now it goes to the coach’s selection and I always find that difficult,” said Armstrong, who has had disagreements with USA Cycling in the past. ”Not sure how that outlook will be.”

Why is there even a question she will be on the team?

Start with the fact that the 42-year-old Armstrong prefers to race almost exclusively in the U.S., allowing her to work – she is director of community outreach at a hospital near her Idaho home – and spend time with her husband and son. But by doing so, Armstrong eschews the opportunity to compete against better riders in more high-profile races of Europe.

”I’m going to continue to race in America. I don’t plan to race in Europe,” she said. ”I have a family and I don’t believe racing at the top in the time trial you have to race over there.”

It turns out not everybody necessarily agrees with her.

”I mean, all these girls are racing in Europe all year long,” U.S. teammate Carmen Small said, ”and the races in Europe are harder. They’re just harder than American races.”

Then there are the rules governing the Olympic time trial: In order to start, a rider must also compete in the road race. USA Cycling may be reluctant to use one of its four slots in that race on a rider focused on the time trial who may not offer much support on the road.

Armstrong was not part of the seven-rider road squad at this week’s world championships.

There are plenty of other time trial candidates, too. Evelyn Stevens is a former world medalist in the discipline and finished sixth this week. Small has been on the podium at worlds, while Allie Dragoo and others are considered the next generation of stars.

”At this point looking at Rio,” Armstrong said, ”there has to be an understanding – `What are my hopes and is it OK if I don’t race in Europe?”’

All of which makes it more difficult for Armstrong, who had a series of hip surgeries during her retirement, but still has proven that she is among the best in the world.

After launching her comeback in February, she finished third in the competitive time trial at the Tour of California. Then she won at the USA Pro Challenge, both the time trial and overall.

She had targeted the world championships as the next stop on the road to Rio. But after hitting a speed bump this week, Armstrong sounded ready for what could be an intense year.

One that will decide whether she gets to defend her Olympic gold medal again.

”I was almost off a bike three years. Didn’t compete. And I had three hip surgeries,” she said. ”I knew this year was my foundation year and 2016 is going to be the year I make another jump.”