As the women’s peloton readies itself for an historic first ascent of the iconic Koppenberg climb in this weekend’s Tour of Flanders, we sat down with former winner, Coryn Labecki (née Rivera), to talk about finding her place in the Jumbo-Visma squad, her new outlook on life, racing with the GOAT — Marianne Vos — and the potential of a formidable Vos-Labecki double punch.
Labecki won the Tour of Flanders in 2017 and remains the only American, male or female, to have done so. Whether she’ll get a chance to repeat this accomplishment this Sunday or will be racing in support of her new teammate Marianne Vos, remains to be seen.
“I approach each race with a mindset to win for the team, whether it's for me or Marianne or someone else. If the circumstances play in my favor, then that's my day. A win is a win, and that's what we work hard for every single day,” said the 29-year-old Californian.
“But I think it’s harder to win a race twice. Flanders is a beautiful race and to have won it once is already incredible, to win it again would be pretty unreal.”
The Vos - Labecki double threat
After leaving her mark on bike races all across North America, and netting some 70 junior and collegiate national titles in the process, the five-foot-nothing (1.55cm) “pocket rocket” joined her first European team in 2017.
Riding for team DSM (then Sunweb), Labecki saw a lot of success right off the bat. She achieved a career-best with a win at Trofeo Binda, and then followed it up just weeks later with her historic win at the Tour of Flanders.
Her palmarès has since grown to include winning women’s cycling’s biggest prize purse at the 2017 Prudential RideLondon Classique, the overall at the Women's Tour of Britain, and several stage wins at the Lotto Belgium Tour, Thuringer Ladies Tour and the Giro.
Labecki signed a two-year contract with Jumbo-Visma last fall in search of a new chapter and new challenges.
At the yellow-and-black squad, which made its debut in women's racing only last season, Labecki gets to co-captain alongside none other than Marianne Vos. The shared leadership is not something we’ve seen often with Vos. Previously, Vos has tended to be the sole centerpoint of her team, but this year, with two strong sprinters in the line-up, the Vos-Labecki combo could be an exciting double threat.
“To be frank, it doesn't really feel like it’s ‘Marianne's team’,” said Labecki. “I mean, I'm new here and so I'm still learning a lot and kind of figuring things out. But I think that they're really sticking to the core values of their team and everybody fits into that framework. Two sprinters just gives the team more cards to play with.”
With Labecki entering her 10th season as a pro, and Vos her 18th, both riders are veterans in their own right. They can also both deliver a wicked fast punch and have similar racing styles. Yet, Labecki said that she and Vos are actually opposites in many ways. For one, Labecki doesn’t feel like a WorldTour veteran and hopes to learn as much as she can from the ‘living legend.’
“I think Vos is really, really prepared and on top of things. Everything is dialled and planned out. That’s opposite for me, I'm a little bit more easygoing, and I just like going with the flow,” Labecki said with a laugh.
“She's been doing this for a long time and knows the races really well, and how to react in certain situations. If I could say it in a few words, she's just really prepared and detail-oriented.”
The two got to know each other a little better during altitude camp in Tenerife in February. Vos was fresh off her eighth win at the UCI Cyclocross World Championships, looking for road miles. Labecki was preparing for her Jumbo-Visma debut.
“It was nice. We weren't staying in the same place, but we had a few training rides together and got to talk about non-racing stuff,” said Labecki.
The main topics? Family and Netflix.
Both riders have a close bond with their families, and Vos, apparently, was in need of something new to watch. Labecki, a fan of television shows about crime, drugs and suspense, recommended the Flemish crime series, Undercover, as well as Ozark. For motivation, the documentary 14 Peaks.
“I gave her a wide range, I didn’t know what they watch,” she said laughing.
Coming out of the pandemic a new person
It’s good to hear Labecki laugh so freely, as the last two years were far from kind.
A concussion and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic led to a very short and disappointing season for Labecki — perhaps the only season yet without a single win.
And things only got worse at the start of 2021. While attending her team’s annual training camp in February, Labecki learned that her whole family had contracted the COVID-19 virus, and her father, Wally Rivera, was hospitalized.
She flew home to be with her family as they waited for Wally to awake from sedation. But that moment never came, and Wally passed away in March 2021.
It was an unimaginable loss for Labecki, whose relationship with her father was close knit. He’s the one who got her into cycling, coached her through her early years and to dozens of junior national titles. Wally and Labecki’s mother cruised all over the state and country in their motorhome in support of their daughter. So much so that Wally himself became a bit of a fixture in the American cycling scene.
Labecki sat out the first three months of the 2021 season to be with her family. She then pulled herself together to fulfil her and Wally’s common dream: for Labecki to make it to the Olympics.
And Labecki did just that. Turning the tide in the second half of the season, she qualified for her first Olympics where she finished seventh. She also spinted to a Giro stage win and netted podiums at the US National Championships, and stages at the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta and Ladies Tour of Norway. In the fall, she married her college boyfriend.
Labecki said that losing her dad was and continues to be the hardest thing she’s yet had to cope with, but that it gave her a new perspective, too.
“I think it's just given me a greater appreciation for what I do and how I’ve gotten here thanks to my dad. It still sucks that he's gone and I can't share things with him, but, if it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't be in cycling,” she said.
“My life feels more balanced and I’m seeing life from a lot of different ways. At the end of the day, if I can have another day, start another race, I'm really grateful for that. In that respect, I definitely have a different outlook on life.”
Looking at the races ahead, Labecki said the team has been conservative in the number of races they’re attending and taking a more targeted approach. She speaks of Flanders, the Amstel Gold Race and the Women’s Tour as being some of those team targets.
On a personal level, Labecki would very much like to end her silver streak at the US National Championships, and put the stars-and-stripes jersey back on.
She’s finished second every year since 2015, except for 2018 when she did win the title, and 2020 when the race was cancelled due to the COVID pandemic.
“My goal is to just have a good season, but yeah, Nats is a goal every year. I'm pretty good at getting second place there and I want to get those stars and stripes back,” she said.
The depth of the women’s peloton is growing, and the competition among sprinters is becoming increasingly more fierce with emerging star riders like Elisa Balsamo (Trek-Segafredo), Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx), Emma Norsgaard (Movistar) and Lorena Wiebes (DSM). Labecki finds this nothing but motivating.
“I think It's really exciting. It's good for the sport to see new faces and see these young girls step it up. I’m in it to win it and it only fires me up,” she said.
“It makes for really good racing and I hope that the experience of Marianne and I can outsmart the young guns and the whippersnappers in these upcoming races.”
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