Coryn Labecki: My love for cycling has been reborn

As the old saying goes, if it wasn’t for bad luck, Coryn Labecki would have no luck at all.

She has endured two bouts of COVID-19 in the space of four months and suffered three punctures while riding high at her debut Paris-Roubaix. It’s not been the ideal start to the American star’s time at new team Jumbo-Visma.

“I’ve come to learn that every year is different,” Labecki told VeloNews in an exclusive interview.

“And it’s funny because everyone usually just compares you to your best years. Then if you haven’t won anything, you’re just gone, off the map. But I think that’s just part of my journey and my story in cycling. And I work hard every day to try and get back to that level I was at in 2017 and 2018.”

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In those seasons, Labecki (née Rivera) had a striking breakthrough at the highest level, winning nine races, including the Trofeo Binda, Tour of Flanders, Women’s Tour and the U.S. national road race.

“I think I’ve definitely matured over the years,” she adds. “Having a lot of bad luck after those first two years was pretty tough to deal with, trying to figure out what I really wanted.

“Through the pandemic, I realized how cool the job that I have is. So, in that regard, I kind of had a rebirth of my love of what I do here, in cycling. I think I’m more appreciative and grateful for the opportunity. And I just have to keep working hard and understand that shit’ll get rough sometimes,” she says, adding with a smile: “Sometimes you’ve got to keep putting one foot in front of the other and hopefully it’ll work out your way.”

Her first bout of COVID-19 came in December after a team training camp, the second in early May.

Labecki thinks she got it from a White House visit with the U.S. Olympic teams: “I’d rather have it that way than get it during the races and miss them so that’s a silver lining. It was nice to be home but a little bittersweet that I couldn’t have a good build for training.”

It wasn’t all dead recovery time though: she tried out new recipes in her pizza oven and did some work on her converted Sprinter van. She intends to use it for an altitude training block in Colorado before the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, sharing it with her husband Nate and their American bulldog Tank.

Life with Jumbo-Visma

Labecki, Vos, and Jumbo-Visma line up for Roubaix. (Photo: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images)

Labecki is settling in at Jumbo-Visma after joining from Team DSM this winter.

“It was time for a change, five years on one team is kind of a long time,” she says. “I think I work well with the Dutch teams, I’ve been there for so long and understand how they operate. And also, it was the chance to race with Marianne [Vos], a rider similar to me who I can learn from. So far, it’s been great.”

What has she already picked up from Vos?

“She’s just really focused, especially when the race gets tough. It’s all a mindset. It’s something you have to stay on top of yourself with. And I think that’s what makes her so good.”

Labecki has come close to victory: she finished sixth at Trofeo Binda and ninth at Amstel Gold Race, also helping Vos to second at Gent-Wevelgem. The Californian assesses the spring as “fairly decent. Not our best, of course, we always aim to win, but it was quite all right.”

She was also in her element over the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix, finishing 24th despite three punctures at key moments.

“I really enjoyed it, I love that kind of racing,” she says. “I just had a lot of bad luck. I’m surely going to be back to do better. After watching the race the first year, all the riders I thought would do well kind of didn’t. I noticed it was more about skills and positioning than it was power. I think it went quite well despite the three flats.”

Although bouts of COVID-19 have affected her training, how far away does she feel from her 2017 and 2018 level?

“I think you’re always on the cusp and it also just changes from year to year – not only your own form, but other people’s form, and also how other teams can really work well together. So there’s a lot of factors into that.”

Hopes for the U.S. scene

Ruth Winder retired after the world championships
Winder (now retired) and Labecki were two of the leading lights of the US road scene. (Photo: Alex Broadway – Pool/Getty Images)

The U.S. national championships, which will be held in Knoxville, is a perennial goal for Labecki, who last wore the stars and stripes after winning in 2018.

“It’s a bit of a crapshoot, a bit of a gamble,” she says of the racing dynamic there. “The big American teams always play all their cards and send an early break: sometimes it works out for then, sometimes it doesn’t. The year that I won, Ruth Winder was my teammate. And then all other years I was alone and I’ve gotten second. Hopefully, luck is on my side being a solo rider.”

What would she like to see happen on the U.S. scene over the next five years?

“See it get back to where it was. When I was a junior, the racing in the US was really awesome. We had big races, T-Mobile and Highroad missing some of the spring World Cups to race Redlands Classic, Merced and San Dimas – all stage races in California, a couple are gone now,” she says.

“Racing in the U.S. used to be huge, you’d show up to Nature Valley [Grand Prix] and get absolutely drilled, some Euro teams would make the race real hard. I think the depth of racing in the US was stronger in the past, I’d love to see that grow again and find its feet.”

Then there is the challenge for American riders of breaking through at WorldTour level, one Labecki knows full well. She name-checks Megan Jastrab (Team DSM), Kaia Schmid (Human Powered Health), Veronica Ewers (EF Education-Tibco-SVB) and Kristen Faulkner (Team BikeExchange-Jayco) as talents to watch out for.

“What’s helpful too is women’s cycling is growing so much,” Labecki said. “I think the young riders can actually see a real future here, whereas before it was like well, why would I ride a bike in Europe for free, away from home and I’m just suffering all the time. Whereas now there’s minimum salary, it’s more organized and it makes you want to stay because you’re not sacrificing so much for nothing.”

Though she has had more than her fair share of hardship in the last 18 months, Labecki is still smiling – and enjoying a few extra happiness watts from her marriage in October 2021.

“Nate’s got a new job and he was able to be in Europe for over a month this spring; normally, I don’t see him for three or four months.” He only missed one of her seven races and even played the perfect soigneur in the feed zone. “I didn’t miss a bottle from him as well, that was nice.”