How Megan Jastrab became U.S. cycling’s newest star
Not long after Megan Jastrab crashed and badly bruised her hip preparing for the 2017 California state junior track championships, her father, Mike, found her in her bedroom pumping out stomach crunches, preparing for her next race.
If she couldn’t ride her bike, she reasoned, she’d shift her energy elsewhere—anything to improve her next performance. It was clear, even then, that Megan was no ordinary 15-year-old kid. It wasn’t just because of her work ethic that Jastrab turned heads. Her talent and race craft brought her head-turning results.
In May of that year, she finished second at the Redlands Classic’s stage 4 criterium, winning the field sprint against a veteran field. In August of that year, riding for the Amy D. Foundation composite team, Jastrab faced off against riders twice her age at the Colorado Classic, while still on junior gears (52×14).
After the race, without a moment’s hesitation, Jastrab listed her career objectives to VeloNews: “Olympics, worlds, Women’s WorldTour. Set your goals high!”
Now 17, Jastrab remains an extraordinary talent, and she’s well on her way to making some of her dreams a reality. A condensed list of her 2019 accomplishments (thus far) includes the stage 2 victory at the Redlands Classic with her Rally-UHC trade team; victory at the first race in the UCI junior women’s Nation’s Cup, Piccolo Trofeo Alfredo Binda, in a sprint; second place at the Gent-Wevelgem junior women’s Nation’s Cup event, winning the field sprint behind a solo Elynor Bäckstedt, daughter of Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus Bäckstedt.
Then, Jastrab won a stage and the overall at the Healthy Aging Tour in the Netherlands.
And then, just this week, Jastrab won the junior national titles in the road race and criterium. Those wins marked her 20th and 21st national titles.
“It is an incredible feeling to represent my country doing what I love,” Jastrab says. “To be able to stand on the podium at a Nation’s Cup wearing the USA Cycling kit is something I’ll cherish every time.”
Today, the enthusiasm and determination she expressed at that Colorado Classic still drive her. The work ethic remains, and with even more experience under her belt, her trajectory climbs steadily upward.
“I’m still of the same mindset, and I’m going to be working hard and putting all my effort forward,” Jastrab told VeloNews after her Binda win. “I’m going to keep improving as fast as I can over this next year and take advantage of all the opportunities I’m given.”
Right now, Jastrab has plenty of opportunities on her horizon. There are domestic U.S. road races and criteriums, which she will race with her Rally-UHC professional team. There’s also the upcoming UCI road world championships in Yorkshire, which is held on a course that suits her powerful style. And finally, the 2020 Olympics are looming on the horizon. In addition to her accolades in road races, Jastrab is also an accomplished track racer, with multiple national titles on her list of palmares. While Jastrab has not committed to the Olympic push just yet, she could become the fourth and final rider to join the U.S. women’s pursuit squad.
All this for a kid from Southern California who still has to ride on junior gears.
“We don’t really do TV”
Jastrab hails from Apple Valley, California, a place her entire family refers to as the “middle of nowhere.” As young kids, Megan and her older brother Ryan, now 19 and riding for the Wildlife Generation team (the successor to the Jelly Belly squad), were constantly outside.
“We don’t really do TV,” says their mother, Lynn. “We wanted the kids to be outside. It was always, ‘Go outside and play; go outside and ride your bike.’ The two of them have lived on their bikes.”
According to Megan, whether it was dirt bikes, rollerblades, skateboards, or bicycles, any sport that involved wheels, she did. When bicycles became her preferred outlet, she first began racing BMX at a track near her home. She soon graduated to laps around the neighborhood with her father on her mother’s old Schwinn with down-tube shifters.
Megan’s trajectory since then has been as rapid as her finishing kick. She started racing on the road in 2014. The next season she had moved up to race as a Cat. 3. Her father, who raced in college, would take her and her older brother out to an abandoned Lowe’s parking lot to give them sprint lead-outs. Mike liked to win the last sprint and then lovingly taunt the kids. They’d then team up on him and try to chase him down by leading out one another.
The lessons had a lasting impact on Jastrab, who credits her father for much of her cycling education and development.
“My dad coached me when I began, and before any criterium or big race, we would pre-ride the course, look at the turns, look at the wind, the road surface, everything like that, and then review it. He’d be like, ‘Well, here’s a few options of how the race can play out,’” Jastrab says. “And then he would help me through sprint points, where I need to be, how I should take this turn, how I should ride like this.”
That base of knowledge and experience has been coupled with international race experience across several disciplines. Before the 2018 season, Jastrab was contacted by the manager of a Belgian team who tracked her results the previous year. She took the leap, and raced for the team for seven weeks. She picked up a big win at the Under-17 Gent-Wevelgem.
One of the remaining challenges Jastrab faces in her development comes due to her age. Because she is just 17, she cannot compete at UCI elite races, even when racing for Rally-UHC. Thus, she must take full advantage of the few opportunities she has to compete at the elite level, at races like Redlands and the Colorado Classic.
Also due to her age, she still competes on junior gears, which top out at 52×14. For Jastrab, she sees both the advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, she says, if the sprint is flat or downhill, she will usually spin out. On the other hand, having to constantly analyze her positioning relative to riders with traditional gearing has improved her ability to read race situations and tactics.
“When you’re thinking about race tactics, it’s like, ‘Where’s the wind coming from? Where should I position myself? How can I use the junior gear?’ It helps to figure out a way to sprint for the win,” she says.
Beating the boys
In between her Nation’s Cup races this spring, Jastrab and her junior women teammates hit the local kermesse race in Belgium—to ride with the junior men’s 15-16 group.
“We rolled up in the van, and out popped six girls with pony tails. You could see the look on the parents’ faces. It was like, ‘What the hell?’” says Jeff Pierce, USA Cycling’s director of athletics for road and track, who has been directing Jastrab and the junior women’s team during the spring classics season.
A gap existed in the women’s schedule prior to the weekend’s Healthy Aging Tour Nation’s Cup race, and Pierce saw the kermesse as a valuable learning opportunity. The junior men’s races often feature unpredictable action. The teenagers lack the experience and know-how to execute complex road tactics; instead they spend much of the race attacking each other around every turn. Pierce saw it as a great opportunity to have the young women practice teamwork.
The USA Cycling women ended up placing three teammates in the front group. Jastrab sprinted for third place. The Belgian boys were impressed. “They were really nice to me on the podium,” Jastrab says.
“Megan has some natural ability, but when she starts racing, it’s on,” Pierce says. “She’s pretty intense—very driven and focused. She’s going to be pretty competitive because she has extraordinary physical capabilities. She trains hard and does everything else. You look at that and the package comes together pretty well.”
Along with her racing development, Jastrab has the difficult task of attempting to lead a normal young adult’s life—balancing athletics, education, and enjoyment.
From an early age, Jastrab’s parents have been her role models, teaching her invaluable lessons on how to make all the puzzle pieces come together.
“My parents definitely taught me how to manage my time wisely, taught me morals, and to have a goal and figure out a straightforward path to achieve your goals,” she says.
For their part, Megan’s parents are enjoying the opportunity to watch their daughter grow into an elite athlete. Still, they’re cognizant that she is just 17—a kid, but a kid with a lot of potential. As they say, there is no guidebook for raising someone with such grand aspirations. They’ve spoken to other parents in similar situations, taking that advice and trying to apply it to their child and her particular personality.
Megan’s mother, Lynn, puts it bluntly. “She wants it all!” she laughs.
Road to Tokyo
Earlier this year Jastrab attended a USA Cycling track training camp, where she gained experience in the Madison and the pursuit and other events. Jastrab also rode as the lead out rider in the women’s team pursuit.
“Riding in formation was really fun,” Jastrab said. “We would do a flying 200 [meters] to get up to speed and I would get them up to speed and pull off and then sit on. The girls were super supportive.”
The experience hints at Jastrab’s potential to slot into the U.S. Olympic women’s pursuit team for Tokyo. In 2016 the team earned Olympic silver in Rio de Janiero with Chloe Dygert Owen, Jennifer Valente, Sarah Hammer, and Kelly Catlin. Since then, the team has claimed the UCI world championship on three separate occasions (2016-2018), and also undergone a complete shakeup. Hammer retired following the 2016 games and Dygert Owen missed much of the 2018 season due to a concussion.
And then, the team endured a terrible tragedy when Catlin died by suicide earlier this year.
The U.S. team is unquestionably strong, with riders Emma White, Kimberly Geist, and Christina Birch also in the running for a spot. But Jastrab’s rapid rise could vault her into the running for the team. Jastrab said she is “keeping her options open” regarding a run at the Olympics, but said she has not committed fully to the Olympic chase. She is still 17 years old, and Olympic rules require a rider to be 18 in order to participate.
U.S. track coach Gary Sutton also would not confirm whether Jastrab could be the fourth member of the squad. But Sutton did say he was impressed with Jastrab’s abilities on the track.
“We need a rider who can get off the mark fairly quickly,” Gary Sutton said. “You need to get through the first kilometer in one minute and seven seconds and then still deliver three good turns.”
While the Olympics sit on the far horizon, Jastrab had more pressing decisions to make in 2019. Atop her list was deciding on a college. Jastrab took a methodical approach to find the right fit. She decided to attend Milligan College in Tennessee not only because of its highly ranked cycling team, but because the school offers a nursing major, something that will help her achieve her goal of becoming a nurse anesthesiologist.
Having such definitive, specific goals is simply the way Jastrab operates. With the influence and support of her parents and teammates, and her enriching worldly experiences, the 17-year-old seems to possess the wisdom and poise of an athlete twice her age. As she strives to excel across her several teams and multiple continents, Jastrab’s greatest strength may be in keeping a healthy perspective on what it all means within the context of her life.
“It’s really important to focus on what your goals are and to take into account all the stresses of every single race you do or that training puts on you, mentally and physically,” she says. “It’s really important to make sure you’re talking to your coach, you’re talking with the teams, and you work towards your goals, and you don’t get sidetracked by what everyone is telling you to do, and you really focus on what you want and what makes you happy.”
As she emphasizes, she’s still only a 17-year-old kid that just loves to ride a bike—and dream big.