Olympian Evelyn Stevens: The American (Sports) Dream

Courtesy Marco Quezada

Most Olympians have been preparing for Rio for the better part of their lives. American cyclist Evelyn Stevens graduated from Dartmouth as a tennis player, then spent almost half a decade working in finance in Manhattan before she even thought about bike racing. In her mid-20s, she picked up bike racing on a whim, after a good experience jumping into a race on a borrowed bike while visiting her sister in California. It seemed fun, so back in New York in early 2008, she started racing for a local team in Central Park. She won nearly every race there was to win in the Northeast that season. By the summer of 2009, she had quit her finance job at Gleacher Mezzanine — a decent time to quit the industry — and lined up to race in one of the world’s premier stage races for women, the Route de France. She came in second.

To many, if not most, of her fans, Stevens represents a dream. It is the dream that one day, they too could walk out of their white collar job, pick up a bicycle, and race off into the sunset. For most, it’s a pipe dream — every weekday between the hours of 5 and 7 am, Central Park is filled with hundreds of cyclists who ride themselves into the ground before heading to the office. Most of us, this reporter included, will consistently give mediocre performances at weekend races. Yet, we keep getting up and riding, with the hopes of one day getting better. The irrational part of every cyclist’s brain thinks that maybe, one day, they will discover the incredible Evie Stevens-like athlete that has been lurking inside them all along.

Being a role model is something that Stevens takes very seriously — though perhaps less for the men of Wall Street than for their daughters. In an interview, she told me that she takes being a role model for other young women who ride bikes very seriously. She said she took up tennis as a child because she could come home and watch women play tennis on the television. It’s important that her achievements are relatable. For her, the best thing about bike racing is the little girls who come out to watch her race.

“You have to figure out what your value is in cycling,” she said. “For some people it might be just to win, but that wouldn’t fulfill me.”

For Stevens, winning can be a goal, but there’s always another race. The larger point, for her, is to make sure that young women see her racing and believe that they, too, could be an athlete.

Stevens as an amateur, racing in Central Park, courtesy Marco Quezada

Less than a decade after first picking up a racing bicycle, Rio will be Stevens’ second Olympics. She placed 24th in the road race in London. She will compete in both disciplines again this year, but has the best chance in the time trial.

There isn’t much that’s sexy about a time trial: an athlete gets on their bike, heads out alone, and rides in a straight line, crouched over in an almost fetal position. I watch a lot of bike racing in my free time, and I can tell you that watching a time trial is a snooze fest. Yet, in her preparation for Rio, Stevens somehow managed to get people excited about this discipline that all but the most devout fans tend to ignore.

Last fall, after a disappointing performance at the 2015 World Time Trial Championships, Stevens decided to attempt what is known as the hour record. She would attempt to go further than any other female cyclist ever had in a single hour. In the process, says her coach Neal Henderson, she hoped to boost her chances for the 2016 Olympics.

The hour record started as a training goal. Stevens and her coach identified a major problem after worlds in 2015: she went out strong, but faded in the second half of the time trial, which happened to last just about an hour. It was as much a mental problem as a physical one, said Stevens. So while she kept training her body for the hour attempt, she also went to work training her mind to push through the pain of a full hour at max effort.

“It became a moving meditation — I tried to think about nothing,” she said. “The more I think, the slower I go on my bicycle.”

It worked. Stevens broke the hour record on a chilly Saturday last February in Colorado Springs. That she accomplished her goal wasn’t so surprising. It was surprising how many people tuned in to watch her do it. There were live blogs, and nearly ever cycling news website written in English hosted the livestream. I stopped at a café in California, midway through my own training ride, and pulled up the stream on my phone. I was glued to the stream, while alternately texting my friends about it and madly refreshing the Twitter hashtag, #evieshour.

As a fan, it was exhilarating to watch Stevens reach her goal live. As a journalist who often writes about women’s sports, it was also fantastic to see the cycling community get excited about a woman. Stevens is one of the few female racers to be well-known, even among cycling fans. This fact hasn’t escaped her. Prior to attempting the hour, Stevens noted that while she wanted to do it for her career, her secondary goal was to “help shine a light on women’s cycling.”

Women make up roughly 20 percent of the thousands of amateur bike racers in the U.S., and are even more scarce worldwide. Women’s races are often overlooked and underfunded. In Europe, where professional racing is incredibly popular, there’s a vicious cycle where women’s professional road races are very rarely televised, so they don’t have nearly as many fans as the men. Without a large fan base, networks say they can’t justify showing women’s races on television. Only a handful of female racers eek out a real living; most live on passion and the generosity of others.

In this way, too, Stevens represents a dream: the dream that one day, people will take women’s sports seriously.