Track Cycling

“I want to just be the best at everything” Chloe Dygert: Wrecking Ball – Rouleur

Chloé Dygert is the unicorn of professional cycling. She pops up so rarely to race and when she does, her performances invite disbelief and wonder. Rivals shrink, people rub their eyes in disbelief, commentators exclaim. Did you see that? Did that really happen?

In time-trials, cycling’s individual test against the clock over set distances, there is nobody better. In the velodrome, she is a three-time world individual pursuit champion; in the four-woman team discipline, she has been pivotal to a quartet of US world titles, her long turns in the closing 90 seconds of a race often decisive. 

In 2020, she raced for a grand total of 59 minutes and emerged with two and a half world titles. Efficient work. Why the half? The last we saw of Dygert was at the World Championships in Imola, on course to defend the time-trial title she had emphatically won a year earlier. She went through the midrace checkpoint 35 seconds in front of eventual champion Anna van der Breggen. Let’s face it, she would surely have won. Nine kilometres from the finish, drama struck: she overshot a corner and disappeared over the crash barrier. Her hand was broken and her left knee was opened like a can of soup. Race over – and she is still in rehab from the leg laceration. Yet her first thought was: can I still win?

Dygert taking that fateful bend all-out is the essence of who she is. All or nothing, fighting fit or fighting back from injury. She is the unconventional champion who can be as hard as a charging bull and as delicate as a butterfly. 

Image: Kit Karzen

Chloé Dygert pops up on FaceTime from her living room in the north-west US city of Boise. With international travel off the cards for obvious reasons, we have four video chats between May and August 2020.  “I’m pretty much an open book, I don’t really give a sh*t at all, so I think we’re good,” she says after I explain the rules for on and off the record.

The capital of Idaho is one of the fastest-growing cities in the US for millennials, but Dygert isn’t here for the hipster coffee or independent shops. It is home to her brain trust: long-time team manager Nicola Cranmer lives next door and coach Kristin Armstrong is down the road. It’s a haven for cyclists, with the 16-kilometre climb of Bogus Basin on the doorstep, traffic-light roads and desert temperatures. It’s easy to imagine her doing threshold sessions past Jesse and Walter White as they cook crystal meth in their Breaking Bad RV.

She whirls the camera round on a video tour of her living room; an Audrey Hepburn poster stands out, while there are Louis Vuitton and Chanel books on the shelves. Framed butterflies and moths adorn the wall; she is also a collector of Michael Jackson and Barbie paraphernalia. Evidently, when Dygert is into something, she is fully into it.

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The global pandemic washed out her racing schedule, but barely rippled her routine. Not a people person, she doesn’t leave home much. “Ever since I was a kid, I liked my space. What really shows me how much I care and love for someone is if I can spend more than 24 hours with them and not want to kill them,” she says, laughing. “Even with my track team: I love those girls, I’ll do anything for them. But I don’t want to see them all the time … I can’t hide my emotions at all. If I’m annoyed with you, it’s very blatantly obvious. And I feel terrible. So if you write that in the story, I apologise to everybody. It has nothing to do really with you personally, it’s just how I am,” she says, laughing.

Image: Charlie Forgham-Bailey/SWpix

Chloé May Dygert grew up in the Indianapolis satellite town of Brownsburg. Her parents, landscaper David and hairdresser Gretchen, split up when she was a baby. She looks back on an outdoorsy childhood with fondness – messing about with her brother Gunner, ski trips to Colorado, evenings out with best friends for buffalo wings and the cinema. 

There were bumps and bruises too; her dad’s side of the family liked guns and Airsoft or paintball weapons were often lying around. Kids being kids, they would sometimes shoot each other at point blank range. Other times, they’d line up against the wall and play dodgeball, with Dygert getting hit all over her body. One time, she got a black eye from a baseball.

“I was totally ganged up on. And that happened in so many different ways. Any time I was playing with my cousins [Jonathan and Joseph], if we were playing tag, I was always ‘it’: I was the youngest, I was the slowest, I was the weakest. I had to overcome so many obstacles … I was always gonna be the one they were gonna blame and shoot at.”

The roughhousing left an impression on her. “I think it made me who I am today,” she says. “It made me tough, it made me not take any crap, it made me competitive. I think that’s made me not soft.

“There are too many soft mental and physical people in this world. It’s mind-blowing how soft people are. I keep seeing all these people getting fired for crap they’re saying. Are you kidding me? This is stuff I probably would say and if I were to get fired, it’s like you guys are so soft, nobody can take a hit, nothing. It’s like we all need to be bubble-wrapped. I think everyone needs to grow up in an environment where they get beat on – a little bit – growing up.”

Those around her already noticed a desire to be challenged. Her dad David remembers a six-year-old Chloé insisting on running a 15km race one Sunday instead of the 5km version. “I saw many qualities in her at an early age that made me realise she was wired differently,” he writes in an email. She ended up finishing in the top five of the women’s field too.

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In middle and high school, she was the outstanding athlete, a precocious runner who broke records and was a top basketball player. She would throw herself around the court with total commitment – not the most skilful, but the hardest worker. One coach likened her to a bull in a china shop. 

She appears to have had an early sense of her champion destiny, even if it didn’t come in the sport she expected. In eighth grade, aged 12, she wrote a message to her maths teacher Alisha Konkle, which included one of her first autographs. It reads: “Yo, yo, yo, Miss K! I’m working on my signature. Keep this, it’s going to be valuable in a few years, haha! PS. Merry Christmas” 

Image: Chris Auld

Dygert is likeable company, filling our conversation with anecdotes and bursts of her high-pitched laugh. There is a deep kindness beneath the surface of the intense athlete; she loves cats – her four felines are named after characters from the film Rocky – and still sponsors her high school fishing club. I am even on the receiving end of this. Aware that I’m looking for anecdotes from her adolescence, she sends e-mails to a dozen former teachers and forwards their responses to me, without being asked to. I’m grateful, though it made me briefly stop to think: is this just another outlet for Chloé the fierce competitor? Is she trying to give me the best profile ever and somehow “win” this? 

Those passed-on messages reveal a class clown who would take reels of selfies when her teacher left her phone on the desk. A fast food lover who once devoured 11 baby burritos before a cross-country meet and told a coach that her midrace motivation was pie. A desire to be perfect: in art class, she wanted her Michael Jackson portrait to be the best so she came back after school to work on it. 

And an injury list befitting a stuntwoman, not a high school student – a tweaked back, Achilles injury, broken nose, torn shoulder, sprained wrists, sprained ankles, shin stress fractures, jammed thumbs, concussion. Peers in the corridors of Brownsburg High School got used to Dygert’s walking wounded routine. 

“I’ve been told by several people that they think I’m too strong for my body,” she says. “My body has limits, but I don’t feel them, I don’t know what they are, so I go beyond those. I think I get injured because I can press past pain. I can block pain out.”  

Her father David was a keen cyclist who built an off-road track in their garden. Brother Gunner, 18 months older, was a leading local racer. Even then, cycling was not on her radar. “I didn’t even know it was a thing. People do this for fun? Eurgh!” she recalls. She was bribed into entering her first race by the promise of a pair of Zipp wheels – and Oakley sunglasses if she won. 

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She dipped her toe over the next few years, showing promise. Then she tore her left anterior cruciate ligament. During the lengthy recovery process, Dygert walked with a limp for four months. “I remember thinking, I’m done doing any sport I ever want to do,” she says. Lying in hospital after a full ACL reconstruction in February 2015, she cheerfully announced to her dad that she was going to the Rio Olympics, 18 months away. She was a junior category racer with no top national results to speak of, let alone international; it brings to mind a kid telling their parents that they’re going to be an astronaut or US president one day. Gee, sure, shoot for the moon, champ. 

But once Dygert puts her mind to something, she does her utmost to make it happen. In 2015, she won ten of her first 12 races and earned selection to the US team for the junior World Championships in Richmond. Dygert smoked the opposition there, winning the time-trial and road race by over a minute. In the latter, she remembers looking at the screwed-up faces of her suffering breakaway companions while she gazed into the adjacent river, sight-seeing. She drifted off the front on the course’s main climb without meaning to attack. Bike races are not supposed to be won by accident. “Very rarely can I have a day where I just feel flawless, perfect legs, perfect everything. That was one of those days. I haven’t felt like that since,” she says. “The only other one was doing the 400-metre dash in high school.”

Image: Alex Broadway/SWpix

From there, she was on the USA Cycling conveyor belt. Discovering her remarkable physiological engine, she was slotted into the elite team pursuit line-up and she made her Rio 2016 date, winning Olympic silver. Just doing that, at the age of 19 after her knee problems, was an absurd achievement, yet Dygert wasn’t content with second place initially. “I think that’s probably what’s hard for people to believe why I am the way I am. [Winning] is such an expectation to me – from the beginning, that’s what I’m used to. So if I don’t win, I’m more upset about not winning than I am excited about the accomplishments I’ve had,” she says. Her Christian faith helped; to calm herself down, she reminded herself that silver was what God wanted, part of His plan, just like the regular injuries had been. 

This compulsion to win permeates everything Dygert does. At times, she treads a fine line between competitive and caustic. “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win bike races,” she told the Adventure Stache podcast in mid-2020. “If you’re telling me good luck on the start line, shut the fuck up.” Chloé Dygert: make that a unicorn with fangs. Such sky-high standards have inevitable drawbacks. After bad workouts, she will sometimes be in tears – although what she classes as a productive session (on her Wattbike, at least) usually ends with her crouching nauseously over a trash can, which sounds even worse.

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Her Sho-Air Twenty20 team manager Nicola Cranmer has been an ever-present through her development. She spotted Dygert as a 16-year-old, impressed by her abject disappointment at losing the US junior road and cyclo-cross nationals. “It wasn’t just being a sore loser, it’s deeper than that,” Cranmer says.

On the same squad where Kristin Armstrong and Coryn Rivera cut their teeth, she has become the dominator of the American scene. In August 2019 at the Colorado Classic, Dygert won the overall and all four stages – even on days she was supporting team-mates. Having worked in the stables of the great racehorse Desert Orchid in her native UK, Cranmer sees parallels between Dygert and high-performance horses: “You see how they integrate – or don’t integrate – with the other horses, [as the] outliers they are.”

I mention Dygert’s openness. “Sometimes it would be in her best interests to be a little bit more calculated. But she’s also very young and just shoots from the hip,” Cranmer replies. 

Image: Chris Auld

She makes winning look easy, but getting to the start line in the right condition is usually the hard part. The Indiana native has pre-arthritic knees and has needed PRP therapy on her hip in the past; until last year, she hadn’t gone through a season injury-free. “I feel like I’ve had setbacks my whole life. People struggling with the Olympics being postponed is a perfect example,” she says. “It sucks, but my entire life has been like this. So it’s really no different.”

Concussion after a crash at the Tour of California in May 2018 was a frightening event that affected her personality too. “For the better: my mentality about riding, my motivation and my life. I’m more mature. Everything about me was just different,” she says. It gave her a shorter fuse (“Drives me nuts” is a recurrent Dygertism during our conversations) and she finds herself swearing more as a stress reliever. Having married fellow US cycling talent Logan Owen in 2016 and moved across the country to live with him, the concussion contributed to her realisation that they should divorce.

Working through those challenges, she also went into knee surgery to fix a nagging problem. In the spring of 2019, she was not at her best and feared she was done. “If I was getting second place at [TT] nationals to Amber Neben, there’s no way I’d be able to compete at an elite level anymore,” she says.

It’s no sleight against Neben. Anything other than first place is a crisis for Dygert. “I hate training, I hate riding my bike, but I love to win and winning outweighs anything and everything … if I can’t win consistently, then I’m not gonna continue racing. There’s just no point. There’s other things to do in life,” she says.

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It took a maiden elite world time-trial title in September 2019 to fully restore confidence. She spent the race telling herself that Dutch rivals Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten were going slightly faster than her. She finished with the biggest winning margin in history, making light work of a rolling 30-kilometre course in northern England.

Standing on the podium, runner-up Van der Breggen, 92 seconds in arrears, asked her why she wasn’t happier. The simple answer is because she expected it. “Why would I show up to lose? What’s the point of that?” Dygert says. “If I win, that’s the goal. I’d honestly be more upset if I lost than me being excited if I won.” Deep down, she was frustrated at putting a minute into the opposition by the mid-race check but only another 30 seconds by the finish. Image: Alex Whitehead/SWPix

With her physiological capacity and intense drive, Dygert appears to be in a league of her own against the clock, whether on the road or the track where she is a multiple and current world individual and team pursuit champion. “I’m worried about my opponents but at the same time, I’m more worried about the time that I want to get … my competition is against the clock now,” Dygert says. She wants to lower her world pursuit record from 3-16 to 3-10 simply because a junior male racer dipped under that mark. The Hour Record of 48.007km is also in her crosshairs, but only when she’s ready so she can “put it out of reach”.

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If time-trials and pursuits are like Broadway performances, each scene rehearsed over and over in private, elite international road racing is improv, reacting to unknowns and variables. The big question is whether Dygert can hold her own there. Staying in the USA, she has never competed in a WorldTour road race; her technical skills and bunch craft haven’t been fully tested. Having signed with Women’s WorldTour squad Canyon//SRAM for 2021, Europe is the next step, after hoped-for Olympic gold in the time-trial and team pursuit next summer. 

Dygert thinks the sport’s Classics suit her, though she is frustrated by the fact that she will likely not win the Giro d’Italia, women’s cycling’s leading stage race, because she will “never be the best climber”. 

But when I tell her Marianne Vos won it three times, it changes something. “No shit? Then heck yeah, I’m doing it too. Okay, perfect,” she says, clapping her hands with glee. “I’ll have to make sure I do it a year when it’s a little flatter than normal and with a time-trial. Great, that’s awesome. I’m winning, I’m gonna do it.” 

There is no specific person Dygert looks up to in the sport. “Because there’s so many things that I want to do. I want to be like Kristin [Armstrong], but also Marianne, but also Pauline [Ferrand-Prévot] and also Peter Sagan. A good climber like Annemiek, Van der Breggen, but if you take all of those and mix them.

“Have you seen the movie Twins? They took six men with all the best of everything, mixed their sperm up and made Arnold Schwarzanegger. If I could just take everybody that I wanna be and mix them together: that’s who I want to be!” she says, laughing. “I want to be like the Eddy Merckx of women’s cycling … I wanna be better than Kristin, Vos, Van Vleuten. I want to be known as being better. I want to just be the best at everything.”

Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix

Her coach Kristin Armstrong was a similar predator on a bike and has become her oracle. Kristin sets her training, Kristin grants her a rest day if she needs it and Kristin will keep working with her when she goes to Canyon//SRAM. She is a benchmark, who peaked for three Olympic time-trial golds, and an example who did her own thing off the bike.

“I want to be a role model [like Kristin] because they like who I am as me, not because I’m pretending to be nice. I want them to like me because I can be a bitch and I’m not afraid of being a bitch,” Dygert says. “I will say cuss words, I will believe in my beliefs. I will not follow a crowd and be okay with all the shit everybody else is doing … I won’t compromise on anything that I believe. I want people to see that and know that they can stay strong and not have to worry about the comments, media, hate and everything that comes along with it, if they are afraid to speak what they really want, you know?”

Has she ever had social media hate or negative comments? “A little bit. My dad makes me more aware of it than anything else: maybe you shouldn’t have said that, maybe you should talk about this,” she says. 

Dygert does not fit into convenient boxes: she is a committed Christian who swears like a trooper, an elite athlete who loves fast food, a cyclist who hates riding her bike.

We move into a long conversation about diversity. She thinks that while there shouldn’t be tokenistic picks on teams (“in sport, best player plays, no matter what”), race should be no barrier. 

It’s not necessarily about putting loads of athletes of colour on cycling teams, I reply, it’s about levelling the playing field slightly by giving them more opportunities. If you’re a Black person who wants to be a great swimmer and you look on TV or go to your local pool, everyone is white. That’s not going to make you feel like that’s your sport. “But if we want to end racism, you can’t think like that. That’s the issue, we need to stop feeling that way,” she says. “We need to make it normal, no matter who you are, what you look like, what colour you are, you can do what you want.”

Dygert also mentions having to use dated equipment for years, before saying “I’m not complaining”. Frankly, she would be well within her rights to, as a ten-time world champion who has felt under-supported. Certainly, cycling has some way to go to offer equality for both women and cyclists of colour.

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Image: Kit Karzen

Whether putting across her views or hunting down an opponent in an individual pursuit, Chloé Dygert is relentless. Still only 23, she has time to reinvent herself and dominate women’s cycling.

But her body could thwart her ambitions. Her persistent triumph-to-treatment room cycle seems exhausting and Dygert recognises that it will take longer to come back from every serious injury. As her old middle school basketball coach wrote, she’s a wrecking ball – but will she wreak havoc on the sport for a decade or swing back and damage herself?

She is far more fragile than she might appear, an exceptional competitor, someone refreshingly open who mainly shuts herself away in solitude. The last question of our fourth and final interview is the one she is slowest to answer: how would you describe yourself as a person?

“I hate that question. How I see myself is going to be different than how anything else would see me,” she says. “I… I… if I could live alone, be in my bubble and not have to do social media, not do talks, obviously I like hanging out with people but if I didn’t have to worry about anything or anybody, and didn’t have to worry about not being political, and just being able to live my life, watch my shows and eat what I wanna eat and do what I wanna do. That would be just perfect for me. That’s who I am.

“And it’s not because I’m Chloé Dygert, that’s not at all what it is. I’m just different, the way I feel I need to reach my goals. I need to stay in my room, do my own thing and not talk to anybody, not do anything with anybody. That’s how I have to be. That’s me.”

Cover image: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix