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Jennifer Valente: The US track team is a ‘step above’ with Chloé Dygert

American track star riding without pressure after striking Olympic and world championship gold last year.

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The eventual return of Chloé Dygert to the U.S. track team will bring it to another level, according to her national teammate Jennifer Valente.

Injury forced Dygert to take extended periods out of racing since slicing her thigh in a crash at the 2020 UCI Road World Championships. While she raced with the U.S. track squad at the Olympics last year — where the team took the bronze medal in the team pursuit — but she hasn’t raced with them since.

Following a bout with the Epstein-Barr virus in the spring and surgery on her leg this fall, Dygert is planning a full return to racing in 2023. It’s not clear when she will return to the boards, but Valente is looking forward to having her back.

“Chloé coming back, when she’s healthy, she’s a phenomenal athlete. Nobody comes close to what she is capable of. I think our team in general is a step above when we have Chloé, so I’m really looking forward to that,” Valente said at a recent press conference for the UCI Track Champions League in Berlin.

Valente has been the star rider for the U.S. women in the velodrome over the last year. She took the Olympic omnium title in commanding fashion in Tokyo last year, and claimed her first individual world title with victory in the omnium at the recent track worlds in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines.

They were both major goals for Valente and achieving them both in the last year has freed the way she has raced. She still wants to win, but she’s able enjoy her racing much more.

“Two things that I wanted had always been Olympic gold and a world championships. The Olympics happened first, which is a little bit backwards for a lot of athletes. But it made the focus more around the world championships for me this year,” she said. “Being able to accomplish that with the omnium, I think it just changed the pressure that I put on myself, picking off goals one at a time.

“You’re able to open up your mind and think about other things and create new goals. This month has felt less pressure and less stress and more about the purity of racing the bike and I think that’s a really fun place to be. I think certainly at an event like the track champions league where it really is about the racing.”

Usually, the first year following an Olympic Games allows for a bit of downtime for the riders as they look to build back up to their peak four years later. With the coronavirus pandemic delaying the Tokyo Olympics by a year, this cycle is much more congested with just three years in between.

It’s not just the timing that makes it different, but the way that the riders can prepare. In the build-up to Tokyo, COVID-19 restrictions meant next to no racing for the riders while this cycle has a feast of racing opportunities.

“I think that every Olympic cycle is unique and it’s kind of part of what makes each Olympics identifiable and different,” she said. “Tokyo was in the pandemic, and it was about who can train on their own and get creative, who can find workouts when there’s not access to everything you need or typically would have access to. Racing a lot is a different prep and super worlds are next summer and then it’s going to be a year to go. There’s a lot of racing to go between now and Paris and I think it will just be a different kind of build.”

While it is nice to be back in competition, it has its downsides too and Valente has been on the move a lot more in the last few months. During the UCI Track Champions League, she’s staying a week in each of the cities where the events take place.

She went to Mallorca first before heading to Berlin as soon as that event finished and France is next. Living from hotel to hotel can get tiring after a while.

“For me, I think it’s more about the travel, which gets me more. The racing is always good, I love the competition and being able to test your skills and test where you are and see what you’re capable of in a race environment. The travel for me wears on me so it’s kind of a balance between being at home enough but also pushing yourself in a race environment,” she said.