Kristin Armstrong didn't know where she stood against her competition as she crested the long hill in the middle of the 15-mile Tour of California time trial course in Solvang a couple of weeks ago. Then an isolated scrap of commentary provided a context clue.
"She's wearing No. 1 for a reason," she heard the race announcer's voice blare. It broke Armstrong's concentration momentarily, and her mind veered down a side path.
"I thought, 'Yeah, there is a reason,'" Armstrong said Thursday. "'Either it's because I'm a former world and Olympic champion, or I'm in the lead. And if I'm in the lead, I better hurry.' I used that all the way down as an incentive to go as fast as I could."
That was fast enough to crush the other 12 women in the field for the special one-day event. The only rider within real hailing distance of Armstrong was fellow U.S. rider Amber Neben, 13 seconds behind. Armstrong logged her most important win since returning from her son's birth eight months ago and, as she put it, "one more check mark" in her quest to defend her 2008 Olympic title next year.
"I'm very clear and open about my goals," said the 37-year-old Armstrong. "I'm not doing this because I'm a mom and I want to go to the Olympics. I'm doing it because I want to medal."
Another item on the to-do list looms Saturday, when Armstrong will roll down the start ramp for Stage 2 of the four-day Mt. Hood Classic in Oregon, a 10.6-mile time trial. Most of the top women's teams are racing in Philadelphia this weekend, thinning the competition. But Armstrong elected to enter Mt. Hood to put more miles on her legs and to measure herself against Canada's veteran Clara Hughes, the multiple Olympic speedskating and cycling medalist. "Regardless of the results, I'm looking forward to seeing where I am," Armstrong said.
Armstrong won Thursday's 3-mile prologue -- a distance she didn't expect to excel at -- while Hughes finished second, 8 seconds behind.
Armstrong considered coming back while she was still pregnant, and made it official mere weeks after son Lucas was born last September. She elected to ride for Peanut Butter & Co., where she was a part-time director last year, in exchange for greater flexibility and less travel compared to the 160 days she spent on the road in her prime with the Cervelo team. But total clarity about her endeavors took months to achieve.
"I struggled the whole winter," Armstrong said. "I'd do well for three or four weeks and then have a setback. I kept telling my husband, 'I can't do this any more. I can't train consistently like I used to. For me to win before took me doing everything right.'"
Her fitness came back faster than her mindset, which had to shift to accept that every training day wasn't going to be perfect and more than a few nights of sleep were going to be interrupted by a hungry baby. "We as athletes are so driven and Type A, it's important to keep things in perspective," she said.
Armstrong started the season strong, dominating the Sea Otter Classic in March, yet churned with unaccustomed anxiety at the start of every stage. She got food poisoning at the Tour of the Gila in April and had to abandon. Armstrong said she entered California still unsure of whether she could be the athlete she had once been. She's more convinced now.
Working backwards, there are precious few opportunities for elite women to secure one of the two U.S. slots in the time trial event in London. The first winnowing-out will occur at the world championships in Denmark this September, where the U.S. will also send two riders; finishing in the top three at worlds guarantees an Olympic berth.
Armstrong's easiest route to the world team would be to win the national time trial championship in Augusta, Ga., on June 23. The second slot is filled at the USA Cycling coaches' discretion, and is generally based on head-to-head results. The catch is that there aren't very many long time trials on the women's calendar for the top Americans to test each other. California was one of them, hence Armstrong's focus on the event. After Mt. Hood, Armstrong and her team will race at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in Minnesota. Then it's on to nationals.
Some people have expressed bewilderment to Armstrong about her comeback, wondering why she isn't content with a gold medal and a baby boy. Others have told her she's inspiring. She can't shake the vision of herself on the Olympic podium holding her by-then almost two-year-old son. "I take the positive, and the negative I throw out," Armstrong said. "If this doesn't work out, it's been an experience. If I have to stop tomorrow, I already have the best thing that's ever happened to me. This is our family's adventure."