By JULIE JAG
LONDON — Shelley Olds knew she wanted to be an Olympian.
She might have gone in soccer or running, both of which she excelled at in college. But by chance she took a tandem mountain bike ride in 2005, and the Scotts Valley resident, who previously had sold cell phones, decided a life on the bike was for her.
Track cycling caught her fancy, but just as she was reaching her peak in her best event, points, the International Olympic Committee unceremoniously axed it from the Games. That didn’t stop Olds. She took to the road and, on Sunday, nearly wound up on the podium.
A flat tire knocked Olds back to seventh on the 89-mile course that wound through London and finished up at the Mall near Buckingham Palace. That’s the best finish for an American woman since Jeanne Golay placed sixth in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992, when Olds was 11.
But Olds found that as little consolation after being so close to taking home a medal.
“Seventh place, I guess I can be sort of happy with that,” said Olds, who formerly raced under the surname Evans and recently moved to Gilroy, “but when you’re that close to a medal and then you’re in seventh, then it’s different.”
Olds had a three-in-four chance of winning some hardware when she sagely jumped with a late breakaway that included eventual winner Marianne Vos of Holland, silver medalist Lizzy Armistead of Great Britain — who delivered the host country its first medal — and bronze medalist Olga Zabelinskaya of Russia. With 40 kilometers to go, the women worked together to put space between them and the main peloton.
That is just where Olds wanted to be. The points race in track cycling features a sprint every 10 laps, and Olds had transferred those skills to the road. She had said before the race she was hoping it would come down to a dash.
Then, her front bike tire, along with her dream of medaling, came up flat.
A mechanic made the change, but even with the help of her USA teammates, as well as the German and Italian teams, pushing to catch the leaders, the effort fell short.
“That’s just bike racing,” Olds said. “I had to stop and wait for a wheel change. It wasn’t a very fast wheel change. I was almost chasing to get back on to the end of the bunch. At that point, I thought there was still hope because Italy, Germany and the US weren’t represented. I thought the three teams could chase enough to bring it back.
“Those girls were just riding too strong and they never came back. It’s really a disappointment.”
Olds almost deserves a medal just for reaching the 2012 Olympics after the IOC cut her track event in 2010. After the decision, she immediately switched exclusively to road riding, which she had dabbled in previously. She joined the professional domestic team Peanut Butter & Co. TWENTY12, now Exergy TWENTY12.
“She started out with us as a category 4 rider and through to cat 1 and national champ and also track world cup multi-time medalist,” said Nicola Cranmer, the general manager for the TWENTY12 team.
Still, the Olympics loomed as the goal.
Olds found quick success. She joined a European team, started training in Spain and won stages of the Tour d’Italia and the Tour of New Zealand. But it couldn’t be that easy for Olds.
Just as the time for selecting the four U.S. Olympic team was drawing near, she fractured her wrist while racing in Italy. The injury required a cast and doctors’ orders to not race on it for six weeks.
That gave Olds one race in which to secure her spot: a UCI World Cup race on Chongming Island in China in May.
“When I broke my wrist I wasn’t able to climb for a long time because of the cast. I couldn’t stand and move around,” Olds told Cyclingnews.com. “I focused all my energy on the race in China because I knew that was what I could use to qualify for the Olympics. It was completely flat. So, I focused all my training on flat racing, sprints, power work on the flats.”
Olds knew she wanted to go to the Olympics, so she made it happen. She found an opportunity late in the cold, windy and rainy race and seized it and the victory, and later the final spot on the Olympic team.
When met with the same conditions at the Olympics, Olds seized it again. This time, her luck just didn’t hold out.
“ I’m really devastated because I believe I definitely could have medaled,” she said. “That was the winning move and I was in it.”