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U.S. Cyclists Primed For History As Madison Cycling Gears Up For Its Olympic Return In 2020

By Gary R. Blockus | Aug. 06, 2018, 5:05 p.m. (ET)

(L-R) Kimberly Geist and Kimberly Zubris compete in the women's Madison at the 2017 UCI Track Cycling World Championships on April 15, 2017 in Hong Kong. 


Olympic silver medalist and three-time world champion Jennifer Valente is stoked for Tuesday.

That’s when the 23-year-old from San Diego, along with 31-year-old Christina Birch, plan to make a statement directed toward the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

Valente and Birch are looking forward to putting their names at the top of the list for the very first women’s Madison race in Olympic history if they can pull off a victory in the race at the   
USA Cycling Elite Track National Championships at the VELO Sports Center in Carson, California.

The Madison — which gets its name from Madison Square Garden, where it started in 1898 — is a tag-team relay points race full of thrills, chills and, yes, even crashes as teammates take turns actively competing in the race while one partner takes a passive roll around the top of the velodrome. 

At key moments before the start of the points sprints, the passive rider must accelerate into the active rider. The passive cyclist then takes over for his or her partner via a dangerous hand-sling where the active rider reaches back and slings the oncoming cyclist into the racing fray. The rider leaving the action then heads to the top of the track to slowly circle while awaiting the opportunity to switch places and jump back into the action.

“I’m really excited for this race at nationals because it will be our third race together,” said Birch, who teamed with Valente to win one women’s Madison and take second in another last month at the Nations Cup on the Izu Velodrome in Izu, Japan, the same venue that will host track cycling for the 2020 Games. 

The Madison had been contested as a men’s event at three straight Olympic Games from 2000 through 2008 but was dropped before the London Games in 2012 because there was no corresponding women’s event. 

In 2017, the International Olympic Committee announced the return of the Madison for 2020, this time for both men and women. Men will race 50K (200 laps), and women 30K (120 laps).

“Adding another event on the track for the Olympics is super cool,” said Valente, whose world titles and Olympic medal are all in team pursuit. “The event itself is very fast paced, and there’s always something happening in the race.”

In the Madison, final placements are based on points. Teams accumulate points on the intermediate sprints, which are held every 10 laps, and by gaining a lap on the main field.

The sprint winner earns five points, while the next three finishers earn three, two and one point, respectively. These point totals are doubled for the final sprint that ends the race. Teams can also earn 20 points for gaining a lap on the field. If teams are tied at the end, placements in the final sprint are used as a tiebreaker.

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The hand-sling is the most critical — and scary — part of the action. Riders typically switch between active and passive around every 1.5 laps.

“It’s such a cool part of the race,” said Birch, “but it can also be chaotic if 12 teams decide to make the switch at once. When you’re going into the action, you’re going from as slow as possible up to race speed for the exchange, and things happen quickly.”

Valente, who won the omnium event last week at nationals with Birch taking third, said the Madison racers go from super slow to racing as hard as they can in a rapidly changing race-and-recover mode that is as taxing mentality as it is physically.

“Going slow presents another problem,” Valente said. “I remember sprinters practicing riding slow for 200 meters, and I spend a day or so reminding myself exactly how slow I can go on a 250-meter track.” 

The race originated at Madison Square Garden as a way for race promoters to get around a rule limiting how long per day cyclists could race in the old six-day races.

Now into its third century as a race, the Madison remains a popular event.

However, somewhat ironically the event sometimes known internationally as “the American race” has never had a U.S. medalist in Olympic or world championship competition.

Valente and Birch are hoping to change those fortunes, and they’re looking at nationals as their launch pad.

Gary R. Blockus is a journalist from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who has covered multiple Olympic Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Jennifer Valente