Coryn Rivera was wobbling on the Paterberg. She had been detached on the long bouncy grind up the Oude Kwaremont just eight minutes earlier and had to will her way back to the lead group and now, ascending the final cobbled climb in the Tour of Flanders, she was losing contact again as the grade kicked up to 20 percent. There are numerous one-day races well suited to a diminutive sprinter type and De Ronde is not one of them. Rivera’s head and shoulders were bobbing; her mouth was ajar; the gap to the elite chase group was growing.

Words: Peter Flax | Images: Yuzuru Sunada, Coryn Rivera

News reports would state that she became the first American, male or female, to win the fabled Belgian spring classic by outsprinting 18 other women in a bunch sprint in Oudenaarde—and this is true. But it’s also true that Rivera won the Tour of Flanders 12 kilometers earlier, by somehow clawing her way back into a race that had spit her out the back. “I won’t lie—that last hour was a constant struggle,” she recalls. “And at the top of the Paterberg, I knew it was all or nothing. At that point, I had to get back to that group and hang on and hope that I had one match left to burn.”

Rivera is only 24 years old but she has been hanging on and burning matches—with fiery results—for more than a decade. Rivera, who describes herself as an “American purebred Filipina” in her Twitter bio, was born and raised in California’s Orange County, and her father—who was big into motocross and downhill mountain biking—stuck his already competitive daughter on the back of a tandem for group rides when she was in third grade. “I was doing metric centuries with him when I was nine,” she laughs. “If I got tired I would just lean forward and fall asleep on his back.”

Rivera won her first race: a kids’ event at the 2003 Redlands Classic. She also won her second race. And she had a racing license by the time she was 11. “I’ve always been competitive and I like winning,” she says, almost apologetically entering into a conversation about all of the victories she’s earned on a bicycle. In the past 14 years, she has captured 71 national titles—on the road, on the track, in mountain biking and in cyclocross. Her results page on USA Cycling has the heft of a David Foster Wallace novel.

Image courtesy Coryn Rivera.

But a close look reveals a mostly blank slate in 2012, a year in which Rivera stepped away from the sport and even contemplated quitting. She was just a collegiate freshman at that point, living away from home for the first time and racing hard for three different teams—juggling more plates than she could keep in the air. “It all came crashing down one day,” she recalls. “I was all kitted up to go out for a long ride—I even had put on the chamois crème—and I suddenly asked myself: ‘Why am I doing this?’”

Rivera never clicked in for that ride and she took the better part of a year off. “It was a defining moment in my life, really,” she says. “I had spent my life up to that point just listening to my parents and my coaches—all the adults around me who were trying to guide me.” Rivera says she spent a few months surfing and hanging out with family—“having something like a normal summer”—and then made her decision. “I was ready to fall back in love with bike racing,” she says. “Everything just fell into place from there.”

Rivera spent a few years in the blue-and-white kit of UnitedHealthcare, racking up wins at domestic crits and road races at the same time she completed all her coursework for a bachelor’s degree in business marketing from Marian University. After a strong 2016 season, which arguably was her first as a full-time racer, Rivera finally got a spot to race on the European circuit (with the Liv-Plantur squad, which soon after became Sunweb). Though Rivera obviously had all the markings of a genuine talent, few observers knew how much success she’d achieve against the likes of Marianne Vos and Giorgia Bronzini. The honest truth is that many Americans who have dominated the domestic race scene have gone to Europe and not exactly ripped shit up.

But even putting Flanders aside (for a moment), the 2017 campaign has been a revelation for Rivera. She sprinted to a win at Italy’s Trofeo Alfredo Binda in March; two months later, she sprinted to a stage win at the Amgen Tour of California, and most recently she sprinted to victory to the UK’s RideLondon Classique. All three were UCI Women’s WorldTour races.

When asked to explain how these big wins have changed her life, Rivera struggles to put it into words. “I still make my own coffee and eggs every morning,” she says. “In my own head, my situation has not changed.” But she quickly admits that things have transformed, noting her shock to be named as a podium finisher at a recent fixed crit in Maastricht. Five months ago she was a mystery in Europe and now she can’t walk to a shop or go for a ride in the Netherlands without being recognized.

Now reporters are asking her when she thinks she can win an Olympic medal or a world road championship. “Yeah, those are goals of mine,” she says, moving on to discuss how she thinks this year’s worlds course in Bergen, Norway, suits her. “I’m more or less trying to sharpen my form for the world championships. Just thinking about the idea of getting to wear rainbow stripes for a year—that would be just incredible.”

With such expectations and her lengthening palmarès, Rivera is suddenly on the receiving end of serious questions about the state of women’s racing; and she has plenty to say—both about the gains the sport has made and the abyss it still needs to cross. “Awareness is growing, more people are asking for coverage, the fields are getting deeper,” she says, filling out the plus column. “But the lack of coverage can be frustrating—it’s an embarrassment that instead of watching us on TV people are following an elite race by reading a mechanic’s tweets. The women’s races are really good; it’s not like so many men’s races where the top teams just bring back the break in a calculated way with 5 or 10K to go. But there’s no minimum wage and some really good racers have to do this as a hobby or a second job.”

Coryn Rivera and Philippe Gilbert on the Tour of Flanders podium.  Image: Yuzuru Sunada. 

Rivera takes a breath and tries to summarize. “Things are changing for the better,” she says. “Hopefully things will change faster now.”

A half-hour of non-stop chatter comes to a complete halt when Rivera is asked a simple question: Why or how are you so fast? The Skype line is dead silence for at least 15 seconds, as a woman who stands 5-foot-1 and weighs 105 pounds and rides an XXS bike contemplates her ability to outsprint the best in the world. “I don’t know,” she says haltingly. “It’s puzzling.” She itemizes the possibilities—her competitive fire, the way she’s so hard to draft, her ability to suffer.

“Maybe it comes down to heart and head and soul?” she wonders aloud. “But I’ve always been pretty explosive.”

All of those qualities were on full display in the final moments of the Tour of Flanders. She had regained contact with the elite chase group and then Sunweb teammate Ellen van Dijk turned herself inside out to pull back a four-rider break with 1 kilometer to go. The Boels Doman team had four riders, while Rivera, exhausted and hoping she had one more match to burn, was without a lead-out rider. After some typical jockeying, multiple riders launched into a sprint with less than 300 meters to go. “I just went all out on instinct,” Rivera recalls.

Even now, months later, the finale is not easy to watch. Rivera appears to take the lead too soon. With 50 meters to go, sprinters are five wide—all of them somewhere beyond exhaustion. But, somehow, Rivera grinds out those last meters without getting caught. “I just kept fighting for the line,” she says. “There are days where I still can’t believe I did it.”

There were no arms aloft on the line; Rivera cupped her hands over nose and mouth and made the universal gesture for “Omigod.” A moment later she wobbled to a stop in the chute and collapsed to the ground, and there, surrounded by cameras, she went through the entire spectrum of human emotions—a medley of triumph and tears, joy and disbelief—in roughly eight seconds.

“There were a lot of tears that day,” Rivera recalls. “It’s one thing to know you can do something like that and another thing to actually do it.”