Two-time Olympic medalist Jennifer Valente (San Diego; Twenty24) opened up the Izu Velodrome for the morning of racing, starting with the Scratch Race in the Women’s Omnium. at the Tokyo Olympics. Valente is a master of the Omnium, so we were due for some exciting racing.
Valente marked her riders as soon as the gun went off, with Team GB, the Dutch, and Denmark all ones to watch. The pace started off slow, with riders waiting to see who would do the work early on. With three laps to go, the pace picked up, and the race was on. At the bell lap, Australia took the lead and made the attack. Valente stayed in the mix toward the front of the group. About five riders back, a massive crash took out seven of the twenty-person field. Valente put in her finish line kick and won the event, walking away with maximum points. With three more events left, that was a great start to the day for Valente.
Next was the Tempo race. Valente led the back half of the race scoring three points on sprints at 8, 11, and 20. She finished third with Laura Kenny (GBR) and Kirsten Wild (NED), who took first and second. By the end of the race, Valente led the omnium standings by six points over Wild and Yumi Kajihara (JAP), who were tied for second.
Since the event was held in Izu and not in Tokyo, spectators were permitted into the stands. The crowds cheered loud throughout the entire session. Valente said, “The spectators made it really feel like a race. We all went into it thinking it was going to be a pretty quiet venue, a quiet velodrome, not really having it in the back of our heads [that having a crowd] was a possibility. So to have spectators and to feel the crowd, and the energy, I think definitely contributed to harder and faster racing.”
In the Elimination, Valente held firm and stayed at the front of the group for the majority of the race. Two of the big names, Wild and Kenny, were eliminated early on in the race. The only other racers in the top points for the overall omnium were Kajihara and Anita Yvonne Stenberg of Norway. Stenberg was eliminated, finishing eighth, and opening a gap for Valente to maintain her lead. Valente was eliminated, placing fourth, and Kajihara held on for second. Valente kept her lead by a narrow margin.
Valente talked about how she felt leading going into the next event. “Before the Points race, I went into it leading but pretty close on points. I really was just approaching it the same way that I approach any other race and taking it one event at a time, and one sprint at a time and looking at it as an individual race. I tried to put that idea around [winning] on the back burner for a moment and just focus on the race that was about to begin.
The last race of the day, and for the Games, for cycling came down to the Points Race in the Omnium. Valente started the race with the advantage at 110 points. Her closest competition was Kajihara, who had 108 points. The field knew they had to ride aggressively to overtake Valente in points. There were several attempts by riders to lap the field, but they were unsuccessful in gaining the additional 20 points. Valente would score points early in the race, during the first and third sprint, bringing her total to 118 as the race entered the final 30 laps.
At 22 laps to go, the Egyptian rider crossed wheels with Valente and took them both down. Valente recovered quickly, using several free laps to get back up and into the back race. Valente said, “I think there was a moment of panic and just trying to take a breath and assess the situation and figure out where I was at and where it put me. Then I just kept fighting the last 20 laps.”
Once back in the race, she raced at the back of the field to get her bearings. After the sprint at 10 to go, Valente propelled herself to the front of the field, where she would stay for the remainder of the race, placing second in the final sprint and finishing with a point total of 124, 14 points ahead of Kajihara, who earned the silver. Dutch rider Wild took home the bronze with her point total of 108.
When Valente realized she won, she went into the crowd of coaches and fell to the ground. She draped herself with the American flag in tears. She couldn’t believe she just won the Olympic Games. “There were probably 100 emotions running through me, and I think the biggest thing is that none of them had really set in yet,” Valente said. “I don’t know if they still have set in and to understand what it means to be an Olympic champion. It’s been really emotional, and it’s been a long five years, and I’m so happy to get this result.”
Valente was born and raised in track cycling growing up at the San Diego Velodrome. Winning the Olympics has always been her goal. She said, “I think this result certainly has years and years behind it. With my teammates, we won silver in the Team Pursuit in Rio and bronze here this week. I think just trying to build with that energy, and in continuation, this had always been a goal. To achieve that, it just opens your eyes to continue to look forward and find new opportunities and new goals in the future.
She went on to explain the camaraderie Team USA has built in Colorado. “Our Team Pursuit program was a big focus in the last couple of years. In this past year, we had all the Team Pursuit riders living in Colorado Springs. I think that was a huge contributing factor; to be around my teammates and constantly pushing each other day in and day out in different kinds of training sessions. This journey with both my teammates and the staff and our support staff with the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee is kind of an accumulation of this race, and it really was a joint effort.
Jennifer Valente, Emma White, Chloe Dygert, and Megan Jastrab win the Bronze Medal Round
Team USA took on Team Canada for the Bronze medal, going in as the favorite in the Olympic Team Pursuit. The Women’s Team Pursuit team of Jennifer Valente, Emma White, Chloe Dygert, and Megan Jastrab (Apple Valley, Calif.; Team DSM) led the race on every split against Canada, eventually taking the bronze medal. The Olympic medal would be Valente and Dygert’s second in the discipline, with White, Jastrab, and Williams all first-time Olympians.
Photo Credit USA Cycling and Casey Gibson