Jennifer Valente did not set out to be a track cyclist.
But with a 2015 world championship silver medal and three world cup medals in her collection, the 20-year-old is a leading candidate to make the team pursuit squad for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
In Rio, the women’s team pursuit squad wants to do one better than it did in London. At the 2012 Olympics in London, Sarah Hammer, Dotsie Bausch and Lauren Tamayo won the silver medal behind the powerhouse British team.
Two years ago, the UCI (cycling’s international federation) expanded women’s team pursuit from three to four riders (and from a 3,000-meter race to 4,000 meters to match the men’s event). Since November 2013, Valente has competed in every world cup and world championship team pursuit — the only U.S. woman who’s remained a constant.
So from where has Valente emerged? And why is she so strong?
From San Diego, Valente grew up around bikes. Her father was a bike racer, and young Jenn rode her bike like most other kids — for fun.
One of her dad’s friends taught kids’ classes at the San Diego Velodrome, and when Valente was 13, she decided to try the track.
“It wasn’t until someone started pushing me, (saying) ‘Hey, you could be pretty good at this if you focused on it,’ that I started progressing,” she said.
In the summer of 2009, cycling friends were driving to U.S. nationals in Los Angeles, and Valente tagged along.
She made the podium in the sprint and 500-meter time trial and was hooked.
Over the next three years, she earned 12 junior national titles and one junior world championship title.
Her coach, the late Mark Whitehead, and Marty Nothstein — both U.S. Olympians, the latter an Olympic champion — were watching her compete at the 2010 nationals.
Nothstein told Whitehead, “She’s a special one, make sure you take care of it,” reported the San Diego Union-Tribune.
“He knows as well as I do that when see you somebody who’s got it, you know,” Whitehead told the Union-Tribune. “Just by the naked eye, you can see it. She has it.”
Whitehead died suddenly the following year at nationals. Valente credits him with keeping the sport fun when she was a junior. But he also made her work hard and taught her how to fight.
“He was very passionate about everything, about training, about racing, like if you hit a (personal record) or made a goal,” said Valente. “That totally translated into my attitude on the bike and how I approach things.”
Transitioning from the junior to elite ranks, Valente trained with the sprinters. But in world cup sprint races, she was not a podium contender.
Still, she was named to USA Cycling’s 2012 Olympic “long team,” the list of riders from whom the Olympic team was selected.
“For me, that was a huge accomplishment,” she said. “I was 16; it was pretty cool to have my name next to those other riders.”
It also made her realize that competing in an Olympic Games was possible.
In the summer of 2013, she moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to train. At the U.S. Olympic Training Center Velodrome, she met Hammer and coach Andy Sparks, who encouraged her to try track’s endurance races (individual pursuit, team pursuit and omnium).
“Jenn is an incredible starter,” said Hammer, who is aiming for her third Olympic team. “She gets us up to speed like no one else on the squad can and launches us and really sets the tone of the ride.”
Valente entered her first world cup as an endurance rider in November 2013, and it did not go well.
“I don't think everyone believed in me yet,” she said. “I had been working my (butt) off trying to show people that I could do the endurance side.”
She contracted food poisoning but still competed in team pursuit. After the race, she collapsed on the floor and vomited on the team mechanic.
“It’s become a joke now,” she said with a laugh. “It was pretty much how you don’t want to go into your first world cup.”
Valente stuck with it, and a month later, the U.S. women’s team pursuit squad — with Valente, Tamayo, Cari Higgins and Jade Wilcoxson — earned its first world cup podium since December 2011.
“It was the three oldest riders on the team and the youngest rider (Valente), which was comical,” added Valente with a laugh.
But she has gained the respect of the veterans on the team.
“What she brings outside of the race arena is a maturity rarely seen for 20 years old,” said Hammer. “She moved out to Colorado to train with me at 18, and since day one she has always been prepared for training and brings an intensity and determination that I've never seen before at that age.”
Asked if she was intimidated by the accomplished veterans on the squad, Valente said yes. But she has learned to channel it.
“The harder you train and the closer you can make your own dreams your reality, you start trying to make that your reality, so that you’re not so awestruck all the time,” she explained.
At the 2015 UCI Track Cycling World Championships in February, the team finished fifth. A day later, Valente won her first world championship medal — silver in individual pursuit.
Valente is gaining speed as she pedals toward Rio, where team pursuit and omnium are the only endurance track cycling races on the Olympic program.
Over the summer, she helped the U.S. take the team pursuit silver medal at the Pan Am Games in Toronto, won three more national titles (omnium, individual pursuit and scratch) and even beat Hammer — the 2012 Olympic silver medalist — in the omnium in the U.S. Grand Prix of Colorado Springs.
At the first world cup this fall, Valente earned a bronze medal in the scratch race (where women race 10 kilometers and whoever crosses the finish line first wins) and helped power the team pursuit to another silver medal. World cup No. 2 is coming up this weekend in New Zealand.
Ideally, she would like to compete in team pursuit and omnium in Rio. But only one U.S. woman will qualify for the omnium, and Hammer is the defending silver medalist.
However, Valente is not looking beyond the upcoming world cup and world championships, scheduled for early March in London.
“I’m going to New Zealand and going to try to ride the best race I can and then focus on the team pursuit for 2016 worlds,” she said. “That’s the plan.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.