Chloe Dygert exclusive: Why I'm in competition with myself

In a wide-ranging exclusive chat with Olympic Channel, the cycling star on both the road and track opens up on the Tokyo delay, coach Kristin Armstrong’s influence and the mentality that has her chasing greatness.

By Nick McCarvel

It was only the third track race of her young career when American Chloe Dygert, then 19, helped Team USA to the silver medal at Rio 2016 in the women’s team pursuit.

“It’s bittersweet,” she told Olympic Channel in an exclusive Instagram Live chat recently, watching footage of the U.S. team’s runner-up finish to Great Britain in cycling.

Since then, Dygert has essentially seen nothing but gold: She’s an eight-time world champion at the senior level, seven of those coming on the track and a time-trial world record set on the road last year, and is coached by Kristin Armstrong, the three-time Olympic gold medallist.

Her mantra, encouraged by Armstrong, is one only measured against self, which is increasingly daunting for the rest of the cycling world: “It’s that question of, ‘Am I going harder?’ It's not so much (in comparison with) anybody else. It's with me. Am I pushing my body to the maximum limit? You know, because I'm in competition with myself.”

Can that help her to gold at Tokyo 2020? She’s eyeing as much in three events: Road race, road time trial and the team pursuit, the latter where she earned silver in Rio. The next year will be telling, but in the meantime, she’s keeping her chin down, training in Boise, Idaho, with Armstrong, and trying to keep a body healthy that has been through countless injuries.

Here is an edited version of the Instagram live chat, which you can watch above, as well.

Olympic Channel: First off, obviously you’ve been impacted by Tokyo 2020 being delayed by a year. What sort of training re-adjustments have you made and how’s all of that been going?
Chloe Dygert:
After we found out the Games were going to be postponed, we just turned everything off, took a break to reset. There's nothing we can do. So, we took a month off. Then we started to get back into training. I had a little injury, so it was kind of frustrating starting up again.

Honestly, it's kind of a bummer (that) there's not racing going on right now. I do have to stay home and I do have to train. But I think that's something that I do really well just because I've had so many injuries in the past. There's no race and there's really nothing getting in the way where I can just fully focus on what I need to do to prepare for the world championships, which are in the middle of September next month.

I can look at it as a bad thing that I'm not getting to race, but I can also look at it as a positive.

I'm literally focusing on one event, one race and doing everything I can to make sure that race goes perfectly. Just being able to train and be home and take care of myself at home and be in my environment, you know, there's really nothing better than to be able to get me to the next step… (which) is the Olympics. I’m just trying to stay positive.

Training at home in Boise

OC: Tell us what training has looked like at home. You’re not part of a team sport where it’s more tricky right now, but what have you re-calibrated in particular?
Dygert: Yeah, I mean, that's the great thing: You can be on a bike (and out training) with a few other people. My coach, Kristin Armstrong, she actually trains with me and literally lives… I can point out her house if we went outside. I've trained with a few other professional male cyclists that live here, (but) I really do like to train alone just because my training is specific, the efforts and workouts that I have. And then sometimes there are days where I'm just like, ‘You know what? I don't want to pedal for five seconds, so I'm just going to not pedal.’ I do like to have that freedom.

When I do train, I have Kristin, which is really great because she pushes me, and having the professional voice really does make a difference. I have a mix of everything, and I think that creates a great balance for me.

Kristin has a gym here called Pivot, so I go there and do my physical therapy stuff. The structure and the discipline of actually going out and being somewhere and doing the therapy made me a little bit more disciplined rather than just, you know, I'll just put it off for another 30 minutes (at home).

OC: You’re based in Boise (Idaho). Is Kristin the connection there? (Dygert is from Indiana.) What do you like about being there?
Dygert: I used to come out here (for) my really big, last-minute training with (Kristin). Team Twenty20 that I'm on, we're based here (and) our team manager, she's like literally right next door, like we touch walls.

I came here for that… it was convenient. Boise is a cool town, though. Whenever I talk to my dad I'm like, ‘Oh, you're gonna love it when you come out here!’ And I talk about all the food or the restaurants or something… it's always about food. It's always about restaurants. Well, of course, what else are we going to do?

OC: If we look to next summer and Tokyo, you’re one of only 76 Americans and two cyclists to have already qualified for the Olympics. Does that change your mentality at all? Take the pressure off a little bit?
Dygert: I definitely have taken it for granted. I think of realising how stressed I would be if I wasn't already going. The sport is very political. It's very catty. … Being able to just have that peace, to know that I'm going, especially after all the injuries and things that I've had, not even knowing if I'd be able to continue in the sport after my concussion (in 2018) or after my surgeries. It really is a blessing to have that.

Even this world championships (next month), if I don't feel like going if the virus got really bad and we didn't want to risk it, then I wouldn't go.

I think it is really nice to have that luxury of being able to pick and choose what I need to do, what's going to be perfect for my lead up to the Olympic Games.

Virtual racing... the way of the future?

OC: Tell us about the virtual racing that we’ve seen across cycling during the pandemic? The UCI is quite excited about it and it’s allowed for some great racing away from the real-life stuff we’re used to in “normal times.”
Virtual racing is definitely very different from being on the road. It has its benefits for sure. I think the biggest thing about virtual racing is the unknown of, you know, the riders next to you: ‘Are they breathing as hard as I am? Are they dying?’ You can't see. You can't feel what's going on. You really have to go on your instinct, and you have to really know the game to be able to be good at it.

There are riders who are very, very talented on the road (who) will come into the game and – because of a lack of experience – they won't be able to finish with the front group. And it's like, ‘Well, what the heck?’ you know? I've been on Zwift (a virtual riding platform) since before Rio 2016, so I'm pretty familiar with the game.

It really is a great way to train. It has made a difference for my training, especially, when I've had a concussion or when I've not been able to go outside. I can ride with someone who's in Europe, which really is amazing.

OC: And how does it feel on the bike itself. Like can you feel the road and the resistance as you’re going through a certain course?
There's different (versions), different ways to make it more real life you can train with. (On some versions) if you put it all the way up, you will literally feel every incline, downhill, everything, and you have to pedal with it where if you turn it all the way off, you're just pedaling and not feeling much. It's nice to have that option. And then you can make it go in the middle and find your sweet spot of what you want. But there's other trainers that will, I think, actually shake you if you go over some bumps.

I literally don't do technology, so it's hard to figure some of this stuff out, I'm not going to lie. (Laughs.)

OC: We’ve seen a lot of creativity with sports events these last couple of months, including with virtual events and cycling. Is there a future opportunity there? Or is it more of a gap-fill for the time being?
Dygert: It's definitely made its mark on the world… even if the most high-end riders aren't going to be on it, there's going to be phenomenal riders that are going to be a part of this.

When there's big events on Zwift, it's it draws a crowd. It really is fun and fascinating, especially when you can watch it.

I think that's great for keeping spectators. Of course, there's a few flaws with Internet dropping out, which is going to happen, but it's just like a mechanical (issue) on the road. You know, things happen. And I really do think it's going to make its mark in the world for sure.

OC: Do you miss all of the elements of a real race, or the feelings of being out on the road?
Oh, for sure. It goes kind of both ways. There are times where I'm riding outside and it's raining, I'm like, ‘Why didn't I ride inside?!’ It goes both ways… But, you know, there is nothing like being outside, seeing (your surroundings) and being able to feel the wind and everything that it comes with.

But the pain is still the same. I will say that.

An eye on mental health

OC: You’re meant to be in Tokyo right now. How have you dealt with the one-year delay mentally? How have you tried to bring your best self to training each day since the postponement?
Dygert: I'm kind of in my bubble, and I didn't really realise how bad it was. So, when (Tokyo) was postponed, I was a little upset.

Once I really started paying attention and seeing how bad it actually was, obviously it was the right call. I don't know… I'm not stressed about it. I'm not worried about it. Everybody's in the same boat. I just am thankful that it's not an injury that's keeping me in. I've had so many injuries in my life, so I’m used to setbacks… used to changing this or that.

I understand and can appreciate how difficult this is for athletes that wanted to retire after this year or start a family. But, you know, for me personally, it’s almost like a blessing: I won the world championships last year, so… I'm feeling good. I'm not worried.

OC: You seem to really roll with the punches well.
It's funny that you say that I'm calm because I feel like when I'm stressed… it’s full on. So, I'm either 100 percent or zero percent. There's no like… in between. There are times, like yesterday I kind of had a bad workout, so I was having a tantrum on the side of the road.

It's not a 50 percent tantrum. It's 100 percent tantrum, you know. (Laughs.)

I think I've just gotten to the point where I'm just like… there's nothing I can do (about Tokyo). I can’t control the uncontrollable.

OC: Well, being a high-level athlete, you have to disconnect a little bit, especially with all of the pressure that you deal with. Do you work with a mental coach at all? Or a psychologist?
After my concussion I did talk to one… but mentally… even for racing and the pressure, I don't let things get to me. I think that's just because of the how I was raised and the support that I had behind me and the fact that I've been through so many injuries and I've had to do everything basically on my own with this small team behind me.

You know, I have to really rely on myself and just those few people. And, you know, again, controlling what I can… I can only control what I can do. You know, there's been comments from some of my competitors, ‘Chloe, she's gonna be the one to beat at the Olympics.’ All right. That's what it's going to be. It doesn't faze me. I don't care. I'm going to do whatever I gotta do to be able to perform. To try to win that gold medal, I don't care about anything or anybody else. What they say, the pressure they put on me, it's all me.

If there's any pressure on me, it's from myself and what I know. Mentally I do feel like I have a pretty strong head and I'm not opposed to talking to someone to help me, but I really don't feel the need because I get what I need to get done and I don't have any worries about it.

OC: Team USA has been through a lot in the last couple of years with your Rio teammate Kelly Catlin taking her life. That was obviously a very personal experience for you, but it was a tragic example of how taking care of an athlete’s mental health should always be number one on the priority list.
For sure. Yeah. I think in that situation, it obviously was really hard for all of us. And… it’s still hard. I think about Kelly every day. Mental health is a tough thing. I see myself being fine and that I don't need the help. But, you know, maybe I actually do. I think that was kind of her same mentality.

We think we're untouchable. And I think as much as we want to blame everybody else for, oh, you know, ‘You didn't give me the help that I needed.’ It's also (on me) to reach out. I wasn't the one to say I need help. I think that is a big issue as well.

I think it really is just like everything in life, everything is a learning (opportunity).

Chloe Dygert, Team USA

OC: You’ve mentioned Kristin Armstrong and I want to include Gary Sutton here, another one of your coaches. But one of the things that Kristin has pushed you on is ‘are you hurting as much’ as other people in your training? You’re a world champion, a world record holder, but she’s pushing you to be better.
It’s that question of, ‘Am I going harder?’ It's not so much (in comparison with) anybody else. It's with me. Am I pushing my body to the maximum limit? You know, because I'm in competition with myself.

Yes, winning is great, but when I do my world championship race on the track or something and I get my world record… It's not the time I want… so, I'm, like, frustrated with myself. It's competition with myself. Like, ‘Why couldn't I have gone faster?’ Or, ‘What did I do wrong?’ I didn't hurt as bad as I should have.

And I think that's what's great with Kristin and the things that she's taught me. I can take it and turn it into my things.

And with (Gary Sutton) ‘old man Garbear,’ I love him. He's just been so great for our program. … He's just all about keeping you level and reminding you that you're not any better than anybody else. And I couldn't have had better coaches.

OC: The team pursuit silver in Rio 2016. You were so green then, being 19 and you said it was only your third-ever track race. How much is gold on your mind when you look at Tokyo a year from now?
Yeah. Any race, if it's a race I can win, I'm not going to show up to get any (place) at all. That's not how I function. People can say that I'm cocky, you know, whatever. But from since I started racing bikes… (the will to win) is really all I know.

In my second year racing I went to the Olympics. I don't want it to sound arrogant or cocky, but I'm so used to that. It is such an expectation for me that if I don't (win), I'm more upset than I am happy about doing it. You know? Because that's what I work for and that's what I'm going for. And if I don't get it… it’s frustrating.

Growing up as Chole Dygert: 'I'm a Midwest girl'

OC: It seems like your parents were – are – very influential on you as an athlete and as a competitor. Are there childhood experiences that shaped that mentality that you were talking about just now?
Dygert: It’s not like I grew up any more special than anybody else. It's just… I'm a Midwest girl. I grew up in the Hoosier State of Indiana, so of course I played basketball. I played a lot of team sports. I played with the boys. I had to grow up with all boys.

I grew up with such discipline, such structure and strictness. My dad… once he'd made his decision, he was going to stand firm and commit to. It’s the same with me: I make up a plan. I make a decision. I'm going to commit. I'm not going to deviate. I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that I follow through and do that.

Both of my parents are entrepreneurs, so seeing how hard they have to work and the things that they go through and what they did to be able to provide for me and my brothers… once I started racing, I never had the best of the best stuff, but I had what I needed to be competitive, to be where I needed to be.

I really owe everything to my parents and especially my dad. If I if he wouldn't have pushed me… looking back now, I'm so grateful for everything that I did. Him and his structure and his pushing me, saying, ‘I think you're pretty good at bikes. You should probably continue to ride bikes.’

OC: Not to simplify it, but it’s a great example of you working hard, not necessarily coming from extraordinary circumstances, and becoming an Olympian… a medallist.
Dygert: Yeah, I think that it's good for people to hear. I grew up very normal. I had a very normal childhood. I'm nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary. I don't get special treatment. I just have been given in God given talent that I've been able to work on and make better, you know?

'I'm like a kid trading pins'

OC: This is a question from Steve, a fan on Twitter. ‘How do we get more young girls involved in cycling?’
I’ve been thinking about this a lot… I think you just need to get on a bike. You just need to ride. You just need to have fun and see if this is something that you want to do. If you're good enough, you're going to be noticed. Get on the bike and not worry about at such a young age.

Worry about, you know, if this is what your life is going to be or not. Boys included… just get on a bike and enjoy it.

OC: OK let’s end with some quick-fire questions: What’s your favourite part of a ride out on the road?
Pulling back up to my house when I’m done.

OC: What’s the coolest place in the world that cycling has taken you?
That's a good question. Usually I see the airport and the velodrome or where I'm riding my bike and that’s it. But the world championships are going to be in Switzerland and normally I don't really get blown away by scenery and stuff because but Switzerland is beautiful… like, very beautiful. And I would say Italy is very pretty, too.

OC: What would young Chloe – say, eight or nine years ago before you were immersed int his sport – think about your life now?
So, I grew up without cable. I didn't know anything about Olympics. I knew Apolo Ohno and thought he was so cool. But back then, I probably wouldn't think anything. I would have been like, ‘Oh, that's my life? Great! Like, how am I going to get there?’ You know, I wouldn't be starstruck. I wouldn't be any more excited.

I would just feel happy that that's great. I made something of my life and wasn't always lazy… I don't think I would think much of it, really. It would just kind of be like, good, I did something.

OC: Picture yourself in Tokyo a year from now. What comes to mind?
Honestly, I'm kind of bummed because both my (cycling0 venues are really far away from the village. I’m the biggest pin trader… I’m like a kid trading pins. I have all my pins from Rio, from Pan Am games, like love pins. So honestly, like besides the racing, I'm super excited to trade pins. I love it.