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Saturday, August 08, 2009

Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal
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Little more than a year ago, Evelyn Stevens was just another associate on Wall Street, working 50-hour weeks with an investment fund and trying to stay in shape by sneaking the occasional jog.

Then she bought a bike.

On Sunday, the 26-year-old former college tennis player will compete in the Route de France, a six-day race that draws some of the world’s top female cyclists. And here’s the part nobody, not even Ms. Stevens, could have imagined just a few months ago: She might just win.

The story behind Ms. Stevens’s dramatic rise from nowhere to the top echelon of an international sport isn’t the usual cliché of hard work, sacrifice and perseverance. In fact, if there’s a lesson aspiring athletes can take from this, it’s that it helps to be blessed with very good genes. The truth is that Ms. Stevens is one in a million: She was lucky enough to stumble into the exact pursuit she was born for.

“She’s the most complete rider I’ve ever come across,” says her coach, Matt Koschara, who has raced against the likes of Lance Armstrong. “I imagine she’s going to some day be world champion.”

Exactly what makes Ms. Stevens so physiologically different is still somewhat of a mystery. Football players have big biceps, and baseball players have incredibly fast reflexes. The exceptional attributes of cyclists and other endurance athletes are less obvious—they’re hidden in their blood and their lungs. For this reason, it’s not uncommon, especially in women’s cycling, for athletes to discover their hidden talents late in life, after leaving other sports like soccer or swimming. “You can have this mild-mannered kind of Clark Kent with glasses working 45 hours a week, and they get on the bike and find they have this tremendous engine,” says Mr. Koschara, who also coaches other cyclists in the New York area.

Ms. Stevens still has not gone through the complete battery of tests that gauge athletic potential, but the tests that have been conducted on her show remarkable results. She is capable of producing a huge amount of leg power—measured in watts—for someone her weight and with her training history. With less than a year on the bike, Ms. Stevens could put out 310 watts of power for five minutes when she was tested by Mr. Koschara this past spring. Most women at her weight of 120-pounds can put out only about 220 watts, he says, while the elite professionals can produce around 350.

Her light weight and high power output allow her to climb uphill faster than anyone she’s faced so far. “That is what makes her the star she is,” says Mr. Koschara.

After playing college tennis at Dartmouth and landing a job at investment bank Lehman Brothers in New York, Ms. Stevens says she was content to leave sports behind. Her exhausting schedule left her with barely enough time for jogging. “That was about the extent of my athletic life,” she says.

On a Thanksgiving visit to Northern California in 2007, Ms. Stevens’s sister and brother-in-law persuaded her to try a cyclocross race, an often-muddy hybrid between mountain and road biking. After numerous falls, she ended the race dirty and sore. “But I had so much fun,” she says.

For the complete story on Evelyn's trek, head to the online version of The Wall Street Journal.

- A.S.