The 2021 VeloNews Awards are running all the rest of the month for VeloNews and Outside+ members.
The final race of the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, track cycling’s Omnium event, also delivered the most drama, edge-of-your-seat action, and American glory of the Games. American Jennifer Valente earned the USA its first-ever Olympic gold medal in women’s track cycling, and her pathway to the win included plenty of twists and turns.
Valente, 26, came into the games targeting three events: Team Pursuit, Madison, and the Omnium event. With a bronze in the Team Pursuit, and a costly crash in the Madison, Valente knew that Omnium was her last shot at an individual medal.
The event comprises four different races — Scratch Race, Tempo Race, Elimination Race, and Points Race — and Valente got off on the wrong foot early. Midway through the Scratch Race she found herself boxed in on the inside, unable to navigate a clear pathway for the sprint. And then, a touch of wheels sent nine riders tumbling to the track, among them defending Olympic champion Laura Kenny.
Valente steered to avoid the bodies and bikes, and the calamity opened the door for her — she surged on the last lap to win the race. Smart riding in the Tempo and Elimination races placed Valente into pole position heading into the most important event, the Points Race.
Valente held just a two-point lead on Japanese rider Yumi Kajihara, and the Points Race awards 20 points to any rider capable of lapping the field. Rider after rider attacked Valente during the 20km race, with Kirsten Wild and Amalie Didericksen nearly lapping the field. But Valente stayed cool and collected. She marked Kajihara, rested her legs when she needed to, and chased down the moves. She even crashed, hitting the deck with 20 laps remaining, before jumping aboard her bicycle to get back in the fight.
In the end, Valente used her legs, lungs, and brainpower to keep her lead — she allowed non-threatening riders to attack and gobble up points while she saved her legs. She chased down threats, and even saved enough punch to win the opening sprint and finished second in the final kick. In the end, the smart riding paid off. Valente earned a historic gold medal.
The lasting image of the 2021 Games for USA Cycling was that of Valente, draped in the U.S. flag, sitting on the track with tears of joy in her eyes.
“It was an emotional cocktail — it was so many different things,” Valente said. “Leading the Omnium from the first race — your mind jumps to the end. You have to bring it back and stay in the moment. I did that throughout the entire Points Race. What am I doing? What’s happening right now? Not letting my mind drift to the end. Then it started to sink in, just how much went into that result.”