Four hours’ sleep a night. Seven-day workweeks. Diet Cokes around the clock. For her first few years out of college, this was Evelyn Stevens’ life.
After graduating from Dartmouth in 2005, Stevens worked as an analyst for Lehman Brothers before taking a job as an associate at investment fund Gleacher Mezzanine (known today as Arrowhead). Both jobs paid well, but the work was intense and left little time for much else.
Then one day in late 2007, while on vacation in San Francisco, Stevens’ sister talked her into doing a local cyclocross race, which at first seemed like a crazy idea. She’d played tennis in college, went to the gym, and did some running, but she rarely pedaled a bike, let alone raced one. And yet there, in Golden Gate Park, at age 25, she raced for the first time.
Somewhat anticlimactically, she crashed and got banged up, but she finished and was immediately hooked — “in love” even.
“I was like, ‘This is awesome — this is for me,'” she says about that first race.
Seven years on, far from Wall Street, Stevens ranks among the world’s best cyclists. At 31, she’s in the prime of her career. With major victories already crowding her palmarès, or race résumé, she’s now targeting the sport’s most coveted prizes: next year’s world championships and Olympic gold, which could be hers in 2016.
Stevens recently sat down with Business Insider to talk about her remarkable, if improbable, career trajectory. We met her at a training camp in Richmond, Virginia, which in September 2015 will host the world championships.
Usually held in Europe, worlds are coming to the US for only the second time ever (the first world championships in the US were held in Colorado Springs in 1986). It’s an extraordinary opportunity for American cycling, and probably a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Stevens.
“To have worlds in the US — wow,” she says. “I feel lucky just having it in my career. Next year is the year going into the Olympics, so the world championships are always a really big goal in that year. I’ve never met a woman racer who doesn’t want to win worlds. We don’t have the three-week Tour de France [as the men have]. We have World Cup races and we have the Giro, which there’s not a ton of coverage of. And to be racing here with your stars-and-stripes on, in your home country, it’s fantastic.”
It all started after that first race in California. Stevens bought a bike of her own, but back in New York City she met an “intimidating entry point” — Manhattan traffic. So she’d walk her bike from her apartment over to the West Side Highway, then pedal up the path.
“I had no idea what I was doing at first,” she says. “I thought everyone in Central Park was a pro. I was in T-shirts and never looking the part.”
She signed up for a cycling clinic, where she honed her bike-handling skills and learned how to ride in a pack. In one of her first big amateur races, she didn’t just win but broke away solo and caught the pro field that was up the road. “That was pretty cool,” she says, “even though at the time it was like, ‘This is awkward — I don’t know how to pass them.'”
While still working long hours, she fantasized about going pro, but she was hesitant. In several races, she had shown real talent, but she would be coming very late to the professional ranks. Most pros start racing as kids or teens. One well-known rider, Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, whom Stevens would later be teammates with, started competing when she was 6.
Stevens risked it anyway, and quit her job in July 2009. She won more than a half-dozen of the toughest races in the US, in addition to taking silver at the national time-trial championships. That September she went to the world championships in Switzerland, finishing 15th in the road race — a staggeringly impressive performance for someone brand new to the sport. She has now competed in six world championships in a row.
She still smiles when she thinks about that first trip. “I went to worlds with a bike that I’d paid for with my own money, a helmet I bought, sunglasses I bought, and shoes I bought,” she says, laughing. “At the time that didn’t seem weird, but I got 15th and my first professional contract started in 2010.”
As for pay, salaries for female cyclists vary widely, and are much lower than men’s. The top riders earn over $US100,000, but there are many who earn far less than that. There are bonuses, prize money, and endorsements. USA Cycling offered large bonuses to medal winners at the London Olympics, where American Kristin Armstrong won gold. Still, women’s cycling is far behind men’s when it comes to both pay and media coverage. According to Ernst & Young, as reported by the Guardian, the minimum wage for male UCI WorldTour cyclists — the sport’s highest level — is €35,000 [$US43,000] a year, with the average salary reported at €265,000 [$US325,000] in 2012. “Female elite cyclists reportedly earn just €20,000 [$US24,500] per annum — and those are the lucky ones,” the Guardian wrote in November.
Since 2010, Stevens has since won some of the sport’s most prestigious races — and she has twice won the US time-trial title. Perhaps her most impressive victory was in the gruelling one-day classic Flèche Wallonne Féminine, in Belgium, where she went to the line with, and decisively beat, world champion Marianne Vos, whom many consider to be the greatest bike racer in the history of the sport, male or female.
Watch the finish of the Flèche Wallonne Féminine 2012, when Stevens raced the world’s No. 1 rider:
Stevens’ first coach, a former pro named Matthew Koschara, has not been surprised by her success. He calls her a “one in 10 million” talent.
“She has the right appetite, physiologically and psychologically,” Koschara told Business Insider. “She’s old school, she’s hard core — she’s a fighter.” He points to Stevens’ remarkable power-to-weight ratio, and although he won’t reveal stats from the time he coached Stevens, he says her three- and 10-minute power numbers, measured in watts, were “huge.” At five-foot-six and 120 pounds, she’s compact and very powerful.
“Evie is a very unusually naturally gifted person,” he adds. “She came so late to cycling, but I’d say she’s among the top three or four cyclists in the world.” Whereas she could win on 20% of courses a few years ago, she can now win on 80% of them, according to Koschara. A natural climber, she’s worked hard to become a more complete, all-around cyclist who can win on the flats and cobbles and in crosswinds.
“She’s made up any deficit she may have had coming late to the sport,” he says. “I’d be surprised if she didn’t medal in Richmond and Rio.”
Stevens says she approaches cycling as she did investment banking: with tenacity. After turning pro, she dedicated herself completely — she was “hyper-focused” — just as when she’d started her business career.
“With investment banking and finance, it’s not a world you gradually go into it,” she says. “It’s not like I started and they told me, ‘Take your time, get comfortable, leave at 5 p.m.’ You’re on deals, you’re operating on a high level quickly.
“If you want to get to that high level, you have to go after it,” she adds. “Investment banking is like pro cycling: It’s not a career you have for 30 years. You realise, ‘I’m going for it.’ For my career in cycling, every day it’s like, ‘What do I need to do better? What do I need to train?’ You can’t become complacent.”
One big difference in Stevens’ life these days is how much more sleep she gets — eight hours, plus naps, about double what she used to get. “You have to sleep in and you have to eat healthy, and, no, you can’t drink seven Diet Cokes to keep you awake,” she says. “If you’re tired you have to rest.” For Stevens, businesses would operate at a much higher efficiency level if employees slept more: “I think about how many errors I probably made while being sleep-deprived. If I ever ran a company I’d have sleep pods.” (She’s still thinking about one day getting an MBA.)
From the outside, if you meet Stevens in person, say, over coffee in downtown Richmond on a sunny fall day, it’s easy to think she’s intelligent and extremely determined. Her opponents on the road may also point out she’s fearless and hungry. They might talk about the time she threw down with the world champ on one of the toughest uphill finishes in bike racing, and won.
If Stevens continues her climb to the very top of world cycling, there will be more such stories to tell.
“Cycling is a very finite sport, kind of like the world of finance, but magnified,” she says. “There’s highs, there’s lows, and you see it so instantaneously — the crashes, the wins.”
“I’ve had some big wins, but I’m not at the top level yet. So it’s like, ‘What do I need to do to become top level?’ I think it’s the same in finance. For those moving up that ladder, they’re constantly looking and thinking, ‘How do you do it differently? How do you do it better?’ It’s a constantly moving process.”
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