Cycling’s Latest Armstrong

Times Staff Writer

When Kristin Armstrong pedaled across the finish line Saturday in front of Moore Middle School less than a full bike length ahead of Christine Thorburn at the U.S. Cycling Federation National Road Championships in Redlands to win a spot on the U.S. Olympic cycling team, it was the realization of a dream.

Nothing new there. Every athlete who competes in Athens this summer at the 2004 Games will have had the same dream. That includes Thorburn, who got her own Olympic slot by winning the elite women’s time trial Thursday. And Jason McCartney, who won Saturday’s USA selection race for the men to make the Olympic squad.

What sets Armstrong apart is that this is her third Olympic dream.

As a 7-year-old, she went back and forth, pool after pool, lap after lap, hoping to become an Olympic swimmer. By 15, however, she admitted she was “really burned out.”


A decade later, Armstrong had a new Olympic dream: to make the Games as a triathlete. Again it didn’t happen, this time because of a medical condition, arthritis in both hips.

“People had told me that I was such a strong cyclist, I should just do that,” Armstrong said. “But I always told them, ‘No way.’ I had put in too much time as a triathlete.”

When that was no longer an option, Armstrong, at 28, became a full-time cyclist two years ago and moved quickly along her new path to the Olympics.

She felt her best opportunity to reach Athens would come in Thursday’s time trial. Instead, it was the 34-year-old Thorburn who won that event in a time of 34:16.25.

Thorburn’s story is similar to that of Armstrong. She, too, started in another sport, distance running in her case, and was also hampered by an injury, a torn knee ligament.

“Cycling wasn’t even on my radar,” Thorburn said. “I didn’t know anybody in the sport.”

She became involved in cycling at Stanford where she was pursuing a medical degree. After undergoing knee surgery in 2002, Thorburn got back on her bike and won a spot on the 2003 world championship road team.


Thorburn has managed to remain on the road to Athens this year while working on a postdoctoral fellowship in rheumatology at Stanford.

Winning the time trials to give her an Olympic berth was “magical,” said Thorburn.

For Armstrong, whose winning time Saturday on the 66-mile women’s course was 3 hours 26 minutes 12 seconds, it has been more like an out-of-body experience.

“When people call me an Olympian,” she said, “it’s hard to believe they are talking about me. It still hasn’t sunk in. I’ve never been married, but I imagine it must be like the first time you call somebody your husband.”

McCartney, 30, was given so little chance of victory Saturday that the event’s organizers didn’t even have a printed biography of him available. His chances appeared even bleaker when he broke a spoke on one of his tires early in the race and later had cramps in his left leg.

But McCartney survived it all and the grueling 115-mile men’s course, which included a rise in elevation of 1,200 feet per lap for 10 laps, to finish in a time of 5 hours nine minutes and 57 seconds.

McCartney’s speed was understandable. He had a plane to catch, a 10:30 p.m. flight to New York where today he’ll celebrate Father’s Day at the senior McCartney’s wedding.


“I thought the race was over for me when the spoke broke,” said McCartney.

Instead, he earned the right to enter the biggest race of his life.


The other five members of the eight-person U.S. Olympic team -- five men and three women -- are chosen differently.

Two cyclists, Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton, made the squad by finishing in the top five of a Grand Tour event. Armstrong was first and Hamilton fourth in the 2003 Tour de France.

Two other cyclists, Bobby Julich and George Hincapie, qualified for the Olympic team by finishing in the top five of an event in a different classification. Julich was third in the Paris-Nice race, Hincapie fifth.

Finally, Dede Barry is expected to fill the final women’s slot because of her insurmountable lead in the international ranking system.