The sky darkened, temperatures dropped, thunder crashed and deep blue clouds let loose in torrents. Rain fell hard, obscuring vision, slickening the narrow roads and sending cyclists painfully to the pavement. Tires punctured. Riders fell back. Hopes and dreams crumbled.
And Evelyn Stevens was having the time of her life.
"It was amazing. It was the most incredible experience of my life. I will never, ever forget riding in this race," she said after finishing 24th in Sunday's 140K women's Olympic road race. "We started and I was like, 'Oh, there are a lot of fans.' And then at 5K, there were still a lot of fans. At 15K, there were still a lot of fans. I mean, there were fans all along the course. …
"It took me about 15 or 20 kilometers to chill out and stop staring out at everything that was going on. Four years ago I never thought I would be at the Olympics."
How could she? Four years ago, Stevens was working up to 100 hours a week on Wall Street as an analyst in an investment banking program. She didn't even watch the 2008 Olympic road race on TV, let alone think about riding in it.
And then a cycling avocation became much more. Dissatisfied with Wall Street -- she says she only took the job out of college "because I didn't want to go home and live with my parents" -- Stevens changed careers, switching from the high-paying world of finance to professional cycling. The salary is far lower, but there are other rewards. Cycling along an open road against a backdrop of mountains beats counting figures in an office cubicle any day of the week.
"I think I had the same values when I was working, but this is more in tune with what I value," said Stevens, 29. "People always say that I make a lot less money, which is true, but my quality of living has improved."
For one thing, she gets to sleep more. Becoming an Olympic cyclist requires a lot of work, training and road rash, but it's still fewer hours than Wall Street.
"This is a lot more fun," she said. "I can't say I've done anything to match this. It would have been cool if I had won the race."
Oh, yes. That. It would have been great had she won, or fellow American Shelley Olds.
Olds was perfectly positioned to ride for a medal when she was in a four-woman break pulling away from the peloton after the final descent of Box Hill. Then her tire punctured with about 30 kilometers left. By the time Olds could get it replaced, she was too far back, the rain was falling too hard and the course was too technical for her to chase down the eventual medal winners, Marianne Vos of the Netherlands (gold), Elizabeth Armitstead of Great Britain (silver) and Olga Zabelinskaya of Russia (bronze). Olds, the top American, finished seventh.
"We set it up great for Shelley and it's just a shame she had a flat tire," Stevens said. "It was perfect strategy but the flat tire was not perfect."
The disappointment barely dented Stevens' thrill at racing in the Olympics. From the greed of Wall Street to the exhilaration of the Olympics in just four years. It's amazing what you can accomplish if you only get yourself on the figurative (or literal) bike.
"I grew up playing tennis," Stevens said, "and you always look up to the role models and you see the women playing, and hopefully some young girls will watch this and say, 'Hey, I should go get on my bike tomorrow and ride around.'"
Actually, Stevens' story is a better lesson for adults than kids: That it's never too late to follow a dream even if you don't know what it is.<.p>
"You just never know," Stevens said. "I was kind of in that routine of New York and life, and thinking, 'Uh, oh. Is this what life is going to be like when I'm 35, 40?'
"My opinion is, don't be afraid to try anything. You might be an amazing snowboarder or dancer or doing yoga. It doesn't matter. I never thought I'd be a good cyclist. I'm a nervous person. It's my nature. So the thought of riding 70K downhill? If you had said that four years ago, I would have said, 'I wouldn't do that.'
"But you never know what you're actually able to do."