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Armstrong headed to worlds after trying summer

Updated: September 06, 2011, 04:05

BOISE, Idaho (AP) It's fitting that Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong's 11-month-old son fell and bonked his head last Friday, just minutes after she learned she had qualified for the U.S. cycling team for the world championship race in Denmark this month.

After all, it's been a season of hard knocks for Armstrong, too.

Injuries from a crash in June in the Nature Valley Grand Prix in Minnesota, coupled with a mystery illness, led to a disappointing third place at the USA Cycling National Championship a week later. But Armstrong's win at a big California time trial in May and a victory in a Colorado stage race last month convinced coaches she had earned a trip to Europe.

A podium finish in Copenhagen would guarantee her a spot on the U.S. team for the 2012 London Olympics.

But first things first: How's Lucas, her son?

"He's fine,'' Armstrong told The Associated Press, laughing. "He was pulling his alligator by its string. He just bonked his head on the chair.''

Such is the life of America's most-decorated female professional cyclist, balancing life as a mom in Boise with a difficult challenge: repeating her gold medal performance at the 2008 Beijing Games on the streets of London next summer.

She retired briefly in 2009 after winning that year's world championship time trial in Switzerland - her second rainbow jersey in four years - to have a child.

However, Armstrong announced her comeback just over a year later, with her sights set on London.

She had a strong spring, winning the Tour of California time trial by 13 seconds ahead of her biggest rival, Amber Neben.

But by June, it looked as though her plans had gone off the rails.

First, there was the painful crash in Minnesota - an enormous, multi-rider pileup at the start of the final lap in which Armstrong was buried under a stack of bicycles.

It was so bad that organizers stopped the race. One rider was taken away on a backboard. Others couldn't continue.

Armstrong told supporters afterward that she was banged up but fine.

Worse, though, was the mysterious virus that she picked up in the days that followed, an illness that left her weak and fatigued for the national championship race the following week in Augusta, Ga.

That race was particularly important, because the winner receives an automatic spot on the world championship team. Armstrong had been counting on a stellar result to take the pressure off - and let her focus a little more on her family.

"After Nature Valley and my performance at nationals, I felt like I'd been going nonstop since (giving birth to) Lucas,'' she said. "In my mind, I was prepared to win nationals. It ended up being a week down, then another week off. I had two weeks to try to rethink everything, and wonder what in the world I was doing.''

In interviews after the national championship, Armstrong sounded dejected, even wondering whether the 2012 London Games were worth it.

After kicking the virus, however, her attitude changed.

In a heart-to-heart talk with her husband, Armstrong decided she wasn't done.

"We said, `We've gone way too far to give up,''' she said. "All I could do was race as hard as I can, train as focused as I can.''

It worked.

On an Aug. 20 training ride up the twisting, 14.5-mile road up to the ski area above Boise - the road is now named after Armstrong because it's where she trained before her gold-medal performance in Beijing - she confided to the riders suffering around her that she felt stronger than she had all season.

In fact, her coach had to tell her - order her - to hold back on the throttle and ride more conservatively. She needed her strength for a three-day race that started the following Monday.

At that event, the inaugural Aspen Women's Pro Race in Colorado, Armstrong turned in an impressive performance, particularly on the second day when she soloed to a 40-second victory.

On Sept. 15, Armstrong will celebrate her son's first birthday.

Hours later, she'll board a jet bound for Copenhagen, where she'll ride in both the world championship time trial and road race.

If she places in the top three, she'll secure a coveted automatic Olympic berth that she hopes will allow her to relax a little.

A summer of uncertainty has taught her how important that can be.

"I'm definitely not going for third,'' she said. "I'm going to win. It's a flat course, it fits me well. To me, it would mean so much, because then I can move forward, not play the stress game and train accordingly.''

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