Armstrong sits on cycling throne
American, mother, defends her Beijing gold and retires at top of her sport
The reign of Queen Kristin continues. Four years after winning the Olympic women's time trial at the Great Wall of China, Armstrong, 38, was back on the throne Wednesday. And I mean literally on the throne.
The cycling time trial was held at Hampton Palace Court, the former residence of Henry VIII, and in an absolutely inspired bit of theatrical planning, as the 29-kilometer race went on, the organizers directed whichever cyclists were currently in the top three to take a seat on velvet-cushioned thrones in front of the palace.
What a spectacular sight. The only possible better London Olympics image would have been if the cyclists also were handed an enormous leg of mutton to nibble on the throne. Or if Jacques Rogge juggled medals in front of them while wearing a jester's costume.
"For a split-second I sat up there," said U.S. cyclist Amber Neben, who was second for all of about three minutes. "I think they were more interested in the person in the gold-medal spot than me, but just to sit there for a minute was fun."
Neben's time on the throne was brief, but it could have been worse. She could have been beheaded like Anne Boleyn. Or her reign could have lasted longer, as it did for eventual bronze medalist Olga Zabelinskaya, who sat uneasily atop the throne for almost 20 minutes.
"It wasn't something special," Zabelinskaya said. "It was a little bit cold there. Because after you race, you're a little warm and then you get cold sitting there. And I would be nervous, because I saw the TV in front of me and saw the finish times of the other girls. And every time I saw the time, it was, 'Uhhh!' Very nervous."
Hey, the royal life isn't all glamour, as William and Kate could attest.
Zabelinskaya's reign finally ended when Armstrong, the last rider of the day, sprinted across the line with a time of 37 minutes, 34.82 seconds to win by nearly 16 seconds over silver medalist Judith Arndt of Germany.
"I wish I could have had a little longer time [on the throne], but unfortunately I was the last rider and that means I didn't get much time on there," Armstrong said. "When Judith sat down on the throne next to me, she said, 'This feels pretty good.' I'm like, there's not many days you get to be queen."
Armstrong might share a common name with American cycling royalty, but she is no relation to Lance. She does, however, have an heir. She gave birth to a son, Lucas, 22 months ago before deciding to get back in the saddle and go for a second gold medal.
"It was the hardest journey leading up to this," Armstrong said. "It has not been an easy 20 months. It's been a lot of ups and downs. You think, 20 months ago I was coming back but I wasn't coming back full-on, race-ready. I was coming back the way anyone would say, 'You know, I think I need a fitness program.'"
"It seemed like a really good idea at the beginning, but last spring was really hard," said her coach, Jim Miller. "She would come home from training and have to take care of Lucas. She was breast-feeding him. She was up late. And anytime we had a good block of training, she would get sick."
Or crash, as Armstrong did in May when she broke her collarbone. Crashing and broken collarbones are a part of cycling -- "It's kind of a requirement," Miller said -- but Armstrong said they took on a different aspect as a recent mother.
"When I went out on the road, I would always look back behind me like I was going to get hit by a car. I had never done that before," she said. "I felt a lot of anxiety when I was on the road. I would ask other mothers if that was normal or whether I needed to see a psychologist. I was so nervous, I almost wanted to get one of those [helmet] mirrors. But all the mothers I spoke with said this is normal. You start fearing for your life more because you're taking care of a child and are responsible for someone."
Training while raising a child isn't easy, but Armstrong said it might have helped by focusing her and keeping cycling in perspective. It definitely helped here, where 12 relatives have been baby-sitting Lucas.
"I keep telling myself it worked in my favor," Armstrong said. "Because when people get to the Olympic village and they can't deal with all the stimulation and all this and all that and driving for an hour to a venue, I'm like, 'I'm a mom. This is the calmest moment I've had in 22 months. Bring it on.' This isn't taking any energy out of me. But I saw it sucking energy out of everyone around me."
Armstrong sat on her throne only briefly Wednesday before being led to the podium to receive her gold medal and watch the American flag be raised as the national anthem played. This is just a guess, but "The Star-Spangled Banner" probably doesn't get played at Hampton Palace very often. Armstrong didn't receive a crown or get to spend a night in the palace, but wearing the gold medal while holding Lucas in her arms was an even better reward.
There will be no diamond jubilee for Queen Kristin. Two weeks shy of her 39th birthday, Armstrong is the oldest cyclist to win an Olympic road race, and she said she is retiring. This is it for the House of Armstrong.
"This time around, I'm finishing on top," Armstrong said. "My mantra was, 'Kristin, you must live with this result, whatever it is.' Yeah, I was gold medalist in Beijing, but any athlete will tell you, you're only as good as your last ride. And this is my last ride."