Everyone loves a sports prodigy: the 3-year-old who can sink a 40-foot putt, a seventh-grader who runs a 17-minute 5k. Then there's the story about the 26-year-old Wall Street analyst, working 60-hour weeks, who buys a bike to stay in shape. Fast-forward 15 months and she's signed with the world's best professional cycling team.
This, the story of Evelyn Stevens, began circulating through New York City's cycling community in the fall of 2008. There were whispers of a woman who seemed to have an awful lot of power for a beginner. Not just a beginner, a woman with a sedentary desk job who hadn't played sports in years.
Did you hear about that girl who's beating the elite men up that hill near Nyack? Is that the same woman who won that bike race upstate, even though her amateur start time was five minutes behind the pros?
For Stevens, investment banking had it perks, but athletic activity wasn't one. Still, in the fall of 2007, during a visit in San Francisco, she and her older sister, Angela, entered a cyclocross race -- a raucous, muddy event that falls somewhere between road and mountain biking. "I've always liked trying new things," Stevens said. Despite a couple of crashes, a few technical difficulties, getting used to the bike and finishing at the back of the field, Stevens had a blast.
Inspired, she went home and bought a $1000 road bike. Figuring she'd try another weekend race someday, she started riding in Central Park a couple of times a week.
Before long, she was participating in group rides, weekend skill clinics and training rides outside the city. On one weekend ride to Nyack, N.Y., friends timed her climb up a steep mile-and-a-half long hill. While most of the elite men took the hill in just over six minutes, Stevens came in under the six-minute mark.
It was the first sign of her natural ability for speed and endurance. By the time Stevens turned 27, the newly discovered cycling prodigy had won most of the elite/professional races in the United States, as well as some European stages. Today, just shy of 28, she's the reigning U.S. national time trial champion; she captured sixth place in the time trial at the 2010 world championships and holds a pro contract with HTC-Highroad, arguably the best female cycling team. What makes Stevens' story more remarkable is that no one -- including her -- saw it coming.
"When I was a kid, my family and I used to joke that if I made any sports team it was because I must have had tried out really well that day," said Stevens, the fourth of five children from Dennis, Mass. She was average at best in soccer and on local running teams. Her youth provided no indication she had the heart, lungs and power to be a female Lance Armstrong. "I was never that good at anything, but sometimes I was just good enough. Most of the time I was fighting for the last position, and even then I was mostly benched."
What she lacked in skill, she made up for in work ethic. "If I succeeded in sports, it was due to my endurance," Stevens said.
In high school she played tennis, showing tenacity as a pusher, a player who returns every ball. Her drive carried her through four years of varsity tennis at Dartmouth and on to her career on Wall Street. Athletics took a back seat to her work -- until she bought that bike.
"Right when I started cycling, as a category 4 beginner, I just loved competing," Stevens said, from her home in Girona, Spain, where she's based for her European races. "I didn't think that much about it."
Cyclists usually take years to develop as tacticians and experts. But in characteristic fashion, Stevens has pushed through her "weaknesses" with inimitable determination and fortitude. "I have so much work to do," she said. "Cornering, descending, positioning myself better in the peloton -- these are not in my comfort zone. It's hard, because you want to be the best at everything right away. ... I have to remind myself: little goals, little goals."
Stevens' coach, Matt Koschara, is a former pro-racer who lives and coaches in New York City. Despite the distance between them, the two communicate through online workouts, phone calls and by sending power data collected via special bicycle-mounted training devices. Koschara applauds Stevens' goals to grow within the sport. "Evelyn is both incredibly honest about her abilities -- specifically what she needs to work on -- and she's willing to dedicate and sacrifice to improve," he said.
As with most cyclists, Stevens downtime is all about recovery and rest. Reading, web-surfing, eating and sleeping are priorities during a typical day off. With HTC handling her career logistics -- race travel, accommodations, equipment, salary -- Stevens has the luxury of focusing exclusively on her performance. "I've had a good career so far because I got on HTC-Highroad and I'm well-provided for," she said. "It makes it easy for me to focus on racing my bike."
Stevens' characteristic modesty keeps her from celebrating her past results and talking much about her long-term goals. Ask her about a particular race, and she'll admit that she "did well," and that's about it. Her 2011 season has been impressive: a solo-win at the German Spring classic, Koeln-Schuld-Frechen; a second place finish at Redlands Bicycle Classic Time Trial and selection to the U.S team for Pan Am Championships next month in Medellin, Colombia.
Not surprisingly, Stevens' plan going forward is to stay in the moment, keep her head down and just work hard. "Success in anything means working hard, but you also have to be a little bit lucky," she said. "The Olympics are still a year-and-a-half away. Right now, I just follow the passion."