Jennifer Valente’s quiet and unassuming demeanor obfuscates an important truth. At age 26, Valente has become the newest American queen of the velodrome, and the country’s latest international track cycling star.
And as Team USA heads into the 2021 Olympics with its eyes on multiple medals, Valente is leading the charge.
Valente will compete in three different events in Tokyo: Omnium, Madison, and Team Pursuit. In each one, she is among the favorites to win a medal. And Valente is now the captain of the storied U.S. women’s Team Pursuit squad and the emotional anchor of the team.
“These girls know what they need to do, and a lot of that has been because of the leadership of Jenn,” said Gary Sutton, the team’s coach. “She understands each personality and how to get the best out of them. When she speaks, they listen.”
Teammates spoke to VeloNews about Valente’s leadership during a training session six weeks out from the Olympics. She’s direct with her criticism, and serves up any critique with plenty of praise, they said. As the veteran member of the U.S. Team Pursuit squad, Valente is also quick to hand out advice and tips to the new riders.
Her goal is to bring new riders into the event by building up their confidence, teammates told VeloNews.
“I don’t think she realizes the impact she has on the team — she’s such a mentor,” said Emma White, who joined the Team Pursuit squad in 2019. “She reiterated from the very beginning to ask her any question at any point, and I’ve taken her up on that almost every day.”
Valente said the positive feedback from her teammates was reassuring because she doesn’t always see herself as a born leader.
“I try to bring people together to make sure we’re all on the same page, and a lot of that comes from experience,” Valente said. “I have ridden the most events, and I grew up riding track, which is different from the other girls on the team.”
While other team members gravitated to the track from road or cyclocross racing, Valente has spent her entire career on the track. She started riding at age 9 in San Diego, California and began taking kids’ classes on the city’s velodrome at age 13. When she was 14, Valente tagged along with friends to the U.S. track national championships in Los Angeles, and she ended up making the podium in two events.
“I always wanted to go to the Olympics, I think before I even picked a sport,” Valente said. “Even following my older brother around on a BMX bike and mountain bike and being so determined not to get dropped translated into being a professional.”
Valente became hooked on track cycling as a teenager. Over the next three years, Valente won 12 junior national titles and one world title.
Valente said she was hooked by the competition, and also by a specific element of the training required for velodrome racing. The short and extremely intense nature of the efforts requires a special skill in training.
“Being able to push yourself in training to a point where you can’t walk, and it’s very uncomfortable, is part of the process,” Valente said. “We push ourselves to the point where we are seeing stars and passing out. If you can do that in training, then it makes racing seem like less of a big deal.”
Those efforts help prepare a track rider’s legs and lungs for the searing effort they must accomplish during a race. The Team Pursuit, for example, is just over four minutes long. But for those four minutes, each racer must push herself to a level where simply finishing is in doubt.
“It’s pretty much the most pain you could ever imagine, and then you’re pushing yourself even further,” Valente said. “If you get to halfway and you’re confident that you can even finish, you aren’t going hard enough. And you want every single person to be in that place.”
Coaxing other riders to push themselves to that level takes time and patience, and Valente has had to do it over the past three years. She and Chloé Dygert are the only two returning athletes from the 2016 U.S. team that scored silver at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
In the interim years, Sarah Hammer retired and Kelly Catlin died tragically by suicide. In their place, the U.S. brought on Lily Williams and White.
“Everyone is going to get to the same spot, even if we get there a different way,” Valente said. “Not all of us channel the same inner mentality in order to push ourselves. Getting people on the same page is really important.”
As Valente has shepherded the new riders into the squad, she’s also had to think about her individual goals on the track. She owns medals from six different events at the UCI track world championships, and since 2016 she has split her focus between Team Pursuit and the Omnium and Madison events. While the Team Pursuit is all about the effort, Madison and Omnium require intense strategic thinking, as riders must target scoring points and battle other teams on the track.
It’s a tall order, no doubt, but Valente believes she’s up to the challenge. After all, she’s been preparing for it her entire life.