“It was just like how I go into every race. It was my second time doing Flanders so it was still fairly new to me but I’d done a lot of homework on the race, I knew all the cobbles and everything.”
After three years at UnitedHealthcare, Coryn Rivera arrived at Sunweb in 2017. By the time she arrived at the Tour of Flanders, only her seventh race with the Dutch team, she had already won Trofeo Binda and finished third at Gent-Wevelgem. Flanders offered up a third opportunity in less than two weeks of glory for the Californian, even if winning wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of her mind.
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“It wasn’t a huge goal of mine or anything I just kind of went into it like I do with any race, to try and do my best performance, to do my best for the team.”
On the bus before the start the plan was simple enough, to have a number of riders in the front selection towards the end of the race. More riders equal more chances of victory, more matches to burn, especially in a tough race like Flanders.
“I think we definitely wanted to have more numbers towards the end of the race. Normally there’s always some sort of attack that goes before the Kwaremont and we’d missed that move, I think it was a break of four that went.”
This wasn’t just any breakaway of four riders, Anna van der Breggen attacked on the Oudestraat and took Annemiek van Vleuten, Elisa Longo-Borghini and Kasia Niewiadoma with her.
“Then we were trying to close the gap to them and have Ellen [Van Dijk] bridge across on the Kwaremont,” Rivera explains, “and I remember Lucinda [Brand] doing a great pull before the Kwaremont.”
Rivera’s team-mates pressed on ahead but after the climb she could see the plan hadn’t worked and they hadn’t made it across. “I then had to get back to that group and see what I could do,” says Rivera.
“And then at the top of the Patenberg, both Ellen and I were suffering but at that point the chances of bridging across to that group were getting slim so we made the call to go for the sprint and close down the move up ahead. So from there that was where the goal had shifted and that was what we were going to do, that was our final plan for the day.”
What goes through a rider’s head when it’s getting towards the business end of a race and such an elite quartet has disappeared off the front? Is the race pretty much over?
“You kind of have to block it out, it’s never over until it’s over but I mean, obviously, they kind of played games and that helped us close the gap. You can’t just be like, ‘oh, dang, there goes the race’ because then you end it for yourself.”
Rivera and Van Dijk kept on fighting, the perennial uncertainty of a bike race fuelling their hope. It was only in the final few kilometres that Rivera began dreaming of a result. Not of winning though, merely of a top 10 finish.
“Going into the last 5km, you know on that long stretch from the Oudenaarde, I was thinking ‘ah damn we’re pretty close, it’d be cool to do a top 10 at the Tour of Flanders!'”
Over the phone, Rivera is calm and collected, methodical in her approach to conversation, which is how it seems her approach to racing also goes. Following a plan of action but then going with the flow when it needs to be adapted. However, when the plan…goes to plan, emotion starts to creep in.
“We were getting closer and closer to catching them and Ellen was really putting a lot of work in. I was like, I really can’t mess this up! And then we went under 1km to go and caught them.
Then I was thinking, ‘ah s**t ,this is getting real, the pressure is on me now to do my job’. Ellen had just been pulling for the last 10km and I was just thinking ‘don’t mess this up’.”
Into the final 1km and Rivera is tucked safely away in the middle of the pack of 18 or so riders, her head bobbing up and down. “Then I saw that Boels were kind of doing a bit of a lead-out and I was a little further back and wanted to get in front of this little bubble,” Rivera says.
As riders peel off the front Boels-Dolmans then start to wind things up for Chantal Blaak with 300m to go. “I then jumped as well,” Rivera explains. “I think it was a little bit early, but I wanted to get ahead of that little bubble I was in and then it was like a drag race.
“Finally, I got even with Chantal and I was like, s**t, maybe I can win this and then I got ahead of her, then she got close to me and then I got ahead of her.
“Then I picked my head up and I looked where the finish line was and I was like ‘oh my God, that’s so far!’ I was thinking don’t look, just keep going and I kept pushing.
“I looked up again and there was still 100m to go and thinking ‘oh damn this thing is so far!’
“I just kept pushing and pushing and I was waiting for someone to pass me but no-one ever passed me and then I crossed the line and I was just in disbelief that I had won Flanders.”
Is that how Rivera likes to win sprints? Long drags to the line?
“It kind of just depends on the situation and what I can benefit from. I think it was good for me to go a little bit early there and I was obviously feeling strong and I could hold everyone off. But sometimes it can be a late sprint, like what I did in the RideLondon Classique in 2017 is also good for me.
“It just kind of depends on the situation in the race finish. I can adapt pretty well but normally I’m a short, punchy sprinter. When it’s crazy fast downhill I tend to struggle a little bit.”
Adaptation in pursuit of victory seems to be the name of the game for Rivera during a race, but coming to terms with the win she’d just pulled off wasn’t as simple. The overhead replay shows the then 24-year-old clutching her head in complete disbelief.
“It’s not something that I even dreamed of. It was just one of those things where everything came together that day and I just couldn’t believe it and I was flooded with emotion. My dad was there watching, my boyfriend was also there watching. So it was a really special time and I mean, everyone on the team that day put in their two cents, we all worked hard for that one. And it was just good to see everyone after the race and everyone is in tears…at least, I was in tears and freaking out. It was just a special day and I was glad I could spend it with a lot of people.”
A special day indeed as Rivera had become the first American to ever win the Tour of Flanders. The second-ever United States citizen to claim a Monument of cycling, following Tyler Hamilton’s 2003 Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory.
“It’s a cool fact about my win and it’s something I’ll hold close to me and that I can say forever. I’ll always be the first in history, the first American, male or female, so that’s pretty cool,” Rivera says.
You’d think that would be enough to send it right to the top of the most cherished wins on her palmarès, but it’s not that simple.
“It’s up there,” Rivera starts, “Binda was also emotional and later that year we won the team time trial worlds, and you know that’s a world title so that’s pretty special.”
Binda and Flanders were the start of a purple patch for the Californian as she went on to take victory in London at the end of July, continuing her success into 2018 with the overall victory at the Women’s Tour.
“When I won the Women’s Tour I never thought of myself as a stage racer, I mostly like one-day races so surprised myself there.”
But if push comes to shove, surely Flanders is up there?!
“Each one has its own respective vibe to it but for sure Flanders was special, I don’t really rank them but if I had to, maybe, Flanders would be number one.
“Each one has its own story so I can’t really like compare them yeah but for sure Flanders. My reaction, the emotion involved. Ah, yeah.”