September 21, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) She might be the greatest female cyclist in U.S. history, a two-time Olympic time trial gold medalist and world champion who has inspired an entire generation of riders.

She's also a coach. A mother. A philanthropist. A community health director.

Given everything she juggles, it was hardly a surprise when Kristin Armstrong announced her retirement for the second time after the London Olympics. And given her competitive nature, it was only a mild surprise when she announced another comeback earlier this year.

''She still had that fire burning inside her,'' explained Nicola Cranmer, her longtime friend and the general manager of Armstrong's Twenty16 Professional Cycling team.

''When she retired the first time, then came back, it seemed like, `OK, that made sense. She stopped to have a baby,''' Cranmer said. ''This time, she thought about it long and hard, went through a couple hip surgeries. We all thought, `I don't know how much of a reality it is,' but it was only well into this year that she decided to give it a go.''

On Tuesday, Armstrong's comeback will culminate in the world championship time trial, an event she won in 2006 and 2009 but that has never been more important. With her third title, or simply a podium finish, she would guarantee a spot at next year's Rio Olympics.

''Kristin isn't coming back just to be a player. She's coming back to win another gold medal,'' Cranmer said. ''She's setting herself up really well for success.''

Winning another world title won't be an easy task.

Lisa Brennauer of Germany is back to defend her gold. Ellen van Dijk of the Netherlands, the champion two years ago, is also on the start list. Then there are Armstrong's own teammates on the U.S. roster - Evie Stevens won bronze a year ago, Carmen Small the year before that.

''I expect a very tight and close race,'' Brennauer said. ''My opponents are all very strong. I expect it will be a very tough and close battle for the medals.''

It certainly didn't become any easier for Brennauer when Armstrong jumped into the fray.

By most accounts, she had been happily enjoying retirement. Armstrong spent time with her son, Lucas, and enjoyed hiking and the outdoors. She worked part time for a hospital in community outreach, promoting a healthy lifestyle. She even squeezed in a couple operations to ease a degenerative hip condition that will one day require a replacement.

The one thing she didn't do much of was train, at least at the same level that made her one of the world's best. But then the itch came back, the desire to see whether she still had it.

Armstrong finished third at the Tour of California time trial in May, her first major race back. Then she won the national championship, guaranteeing her spot at worlds. From there, she headed to the USA Pro Challenge, where she not only won the time trial but the overall title.

Clearly, Armstrong still had it.

''Every time she comes back, she puts everything on the table again and gambles it,'' said Jim Miller, the vice president of USA Cycling in charge of its national teams. ''If you're not motivated to come back and challenge yourself at the extreme, you have problems.''

Her return hasn't been without hiccups.

Armstrong got into a dispute with USA Cycling over the selection criteria for the Pan American championships in Mexico - first she was part of the team, then she was removed when a different set of criteria was used. But after airing her frustration, she offered to assist the team in whatever way she could while turning her own attention to winning at the nationals.

She wound up setting a course record in Chattanooga, Tennessee, earning her fourth stars-and-stripes jersey and first since 2007, and locking up a spot at the world championships.

With that, she was one step closer to Rio. She can take the final step with a victory Thursday.

''She's a special athlete, right? And if you can do it, why not?'' Miller said. ''The one thing that's lost is she doesn't quit riding bikes. She loves riding bikes.''

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