With four Olympic and 14 world championship medals, Sarah Hammer is one of America’s most decorated track cyclists. Most recently, she won two silver medals at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games — in omnium and team pursuit.
After Rio, it was a safe bet that Hammer would retire. She was one of the oldest track cyclists competing at the 2016 Games. And what else was there for her to win? Except perhaps Olympic gold. She had given it her all in Rio though and was satisfied with her two silvers — to go with her two silver medals from the 2012 Olympic Games.
But the 33-year-old veteran has not hung up her wheels yet.
Instead, Hammer has switched her focus — from the against-the-clock track events in which she has won her Olympic and world championship medals (individual pursuit, team pursuit and omnium, track cycling’s “decathlon” where points were once accrued through six races, half of which were against the clock; the format has since changed) to mass start events that require more tactics.
“It’s true racing, head to head,” said Hammer by phone from the airport on her way to Hong Kong for the 2017 UCI Track Cycling World Championships. “A lot of times, it isn’t the fastest person who wins, it’s the smartest person.”
Hammer’s conversion from top pursuit and omnium rider to mass start cyclist has been quick. It started after a long post-Olympic vacation in Nepal and India last fall with her husband, Andy Sparks. It was a trip she had dreamed about for a long time, especially hiking in Nepal.
“That is my enjoyment, not riding the bike, just walking and clearing my head in the mountains,” she said. “That was a really wonderful way to finish out the season.”
After they returned stateside in November, Hammer was invited to Colombia to compete in a fun track race. At first, she demurred, telling her hosts that she was not in good cycling shape. But they insisted she come for the fans.
“So I went down there and my tongue was in my spokes,” she said with a laugh.
Hammer returned home to Temecula in southern California and began training again. But rather than continue with the same program she had pursued for almost two decades, she wanted a change. Or rather, she wanted to return to her roots: mass start racing.
“When you’re a 14- or 15-year-old, you don’t do time trials,” she said. “You learn how to race your bike [in a pack of riders]. So it’s kind of a way for me to get back to where I started.”
These mass start events include the points race (where points are won in sprints every 10 laps over 25 kilometers, or 100 laps) and the scratch race (where the first across the line after 10 kilometers or 40 laps wins, with cyclists trying to lap the field to ensure victory). The elimination race is part of the omnium and is also a mass start event. Cyclists sprint for the line every two laps, and the last cyclist across the line is eliminated until only the winner remains.
The omnium is now a mass start event as well. After Rio, the UCI reformatted the omnium, reducing the six-event competition to four, all held in the same day (not over two days). And the four events are all mass starts: the points, elimination and scratch races remain, and a new 7.5-kilometer “tempo” race was added. In the tempo race, points are awarded for sprints held every lap after the first four.
Gone from the omnium is the individual pursuit, an event in which Hammer earned many points toward her overall omnium ranking in past Olympic Games, world championships and world cups. The new format — where female cyclists race over 30 miles in one day, with each race punctuated by hard sprints — favors savvy cyclists who excel at endurance events.
In addition to being grueling, mass starts are unpredictable, fraught with crashes and other mishaps. And one tactical misstep (getting boxed in or being at the back of the pack when someone attacks off the front) can lead to defeat. But for these reasons, mass start races are exciting.
“There are a lot of tactics that come into [mass start racing],” explained Hammer. “Of course, you need to be strong, but it’s all about smarts and tactics and truly just beating people with a lot of others in the race.”
Hammer traveled to Cali, Colombia, in mid-February for UCI World Cup #3 and competed in the points and scratch races, as well as the omnium.
“If I’m good, I’m good, and maybe I’ll go to worlds,” she thought.
She was good — winning the scratch race and taking silver in the points race. In the omnium, she finished fifth.
At 2017 worlds, her goal is to win the points race. She will also compete in the scratch race and omnium at worlds.
She is aware that anything can happen in mass start events. But she is confident that at least one rainbow jersey is within reach — to go with the eight that she already has in her wardrobe.
“I wouldn’t be on the plane to Hong Kong if I didn’t think that it was possible,” she said. “My goal is to bring home another world champion’s jersey. Every race I line up for, I will be going for that.”
Although listed on the team pursuit squad, Hammer will only compete if one of the other four women is injured. Racing the team pursuit will be Rio silver medalists Chloe Dygert, Jennifer Valente and Kelly Catlin, and Kim Geist, who won a bronze medal in the points race at 2015 worlds.
After world championships, Hammer does not know how much longer she will compete. She and her husband want to start a family.
“That’s the next goal in life,” she said. “So we’ll see where life takes us.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.