Culture

The evolution of Lauren Stephens

Rider reflects on both her growth and the team’s growth

January 22, 2022

You would be hard pressed to find a professional rider in the peloton who has spent more time with the same team than Lauren Stephens.

The American started racing in 2009, joined Team TIBCO Silicon Valley Bank in 2013 and—apart from one season racing for a different team—has raced for Team TIBCO Silicon Valley Bank ever since. Through nine seasons of racing, not only has Stephens matured as a rider, she’s also witnessed the team’s evolution.

Stephens started racing in college. After becoming a math teacher, she continued to race on the weekends and school holidays for fun. “I thought back in college, ‘Oh, ok my athletic career is done and now I’m going to go and teach high school and coach cross country.’ My grandpa was a cross country coach. I come from a family with a lot of teachers. I was really happy with that. I didn’t realize you could make a career out of [cycling].”

After beating the professional field at a criterium in Charlotte and then placing third at the Joe Martin Stage Race the following weekend, Stephens was suddenly on everyone’s radar, and she turned down other offers to accept a contract with Team TIBCO Silicon Valley Bank.

This was midway through the 2013 season. By this point, Team TIBCO Silicon Valley Bank was an established team with several seasons under its belt. They had twice won the US National Road Race Championships, and the team was well respected in the peloton. “In 2013 the team had some big name riders on the team. Shelly Olds was on the team. Claudia Hausler, later Lichtenberg, was on the team. She was a German rider, and so was Chantal Blaak. So not bad!” For a rider like Stephens — strong but lacking top level race experience — it was an ideal situation. “I had really good mentorship. I basically just got yelled at a lot for not knowing what I was doing over in Europe or putting everyone in the gutter on a team time trial. It was definitely very quick learning but it was really great to have that. I came to Team TIBCO Silicon Valley Bank and it was like ‘Ok, these are riders I can learn from and I can support and I can grow.’”

Stephens, though keen to absorb as much as possible from her race-savvy teammates, never imagined that she herself would soon become a source of inspiration and motivation. “And then the following year, none of those riders returned. We had a new director. We had a lot of strong American riders but we didn’t have any clear race leader.” Upon realizing that everything had suddenly changed, she decided she would be the rider to assume leadership.

“That year was a big growing year for the team,” Stephens recalls. “I remember sitting at a race and the director having us go around asking us what our goals were for the race. I was one of the last ones to go and I said, ‘I want to be in the top three overall.’ There were a couple of riders you could tell were like ‘Man, I wish I would have said that!’ I think that moment is what started my career or when I started realizing I can do this. You have to speak it. You have to voice those goals. From that point on, I feel like on Team TIBCO Silicon Valley Bank I’ve really been the leader on the team. It was a lot quicker than I thought it would happen but they’ve been really supportive all the way through.”

While Stephens is the one who stepped up, she credits the team and owner Linda Jackson with creating the right environment for her to take on this responsibility. “I’ve been on her team since 2013. Whether it’s been that she’s provided opportunities or put the right people around me, Linda’s definitely played a role [in my development].”

While Stephens jumped in the deep end by taking leadership among the riders, she sees the team’s development as having taken a different trajectory. “We’ve been going to Europe since I first joined the team. We’ve had years where we’ve spent more time or less time there. In my first three years, I feel like I spent more and more time in Europe and then we took a step back and spent more time in America and then have been building up again. There’s been this ebb and flow. Now we’re going to be full time over there, so it’s been nice. It seems like the pathway has been a bit more natural and not just jumping straight over there.”

Stephens views this ebb and flow as a result of team management reflecting on their past seasons and future goals before committing to a race calendar. It is this sense of reflection and maturity that she says played an important role in her victory at the road race national championships last year. “I think we raced really calmly which I think definitely comes with age. Our plan was definitely aggressive but it was very thought out and we were patient and we had multiple cards to play. It’s not like we came in and said ‘We’re racing for Lauren today and this is how it’s going to happen.’ We had different options out there on how things could play out. I just think we raced calmly and it worked!”

The team’s racing calendar has noticeably evolved in recent years, adding gravel and cyclocross events for select riders. “It brings diversity. It brings a different perspective. It brings different strengths, because each of those disciplines requires different strengths. It just makes the team well-rounded.”

Having the opportunity to race gravel is one of the factors that has led Stephens to stay with the team. In 2021 she raced Unbound, Big Sugar, SBT GRVL, and Gravel Worlds. “I’ve started to mix in an alternative program and I think that’s really set another spark. When it comes to mountain biking and gravel, the adventure side of it, I’m really starting to enjoy that side rather than the highly competitive side. I’m always going to be competitive but that’s not as important to me anymore as it has been. I’d say gravel is that level of the weekend racing group ride where I still want to beat you all but I’ll be more chill about it and we’ll definitely have a beer together after.”

Not only has Stephens evolved as a cyclist alongside the team, but the sport itself has changed as well. “I think one of the things I’ve seen a lot of in my career is that the sport has been steadily growing and developing. I think the [increased] salary is going to make things more sustainable for current riders to stay in the sport longer. Hopefully that is something that helps to continue to grow the sport. I don’t really know where it’s going next but it seems like it has been getting better for the women’s peloton. The peloton has been getting stronger and stronger so I think we’re just going to keep seeing that. The depth and the level of the riders just keeps getting higher and I think a lot of that comes from being able to do it full time like so many riders are able to do now.”

Going into her tenth season of professional racing, Stephens never thought she'd stay in the sport this long. “I thought I’d try this out for a few years and go back to teaching,” she says. We are thrilled she’s picked EF Education-TIBCO-SVB over the classroom.

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