In celebration of the reigning UCI world championship-winning women’s team pursuit squad getting the nod to represent the United States at this summer’s biggest sporting competition in Tokyo, we’re helping race fans get to know some of the squad members through a series of interviews here on our blog. This time around, we spoke with Jennifer Valente, who races professionally for TWENTY24 Pro Cycling. In addition to the team pursuit, Valente will also be competing in two additional events inside the velodrome in Tokyo. A multi-time world champion, Valente is one of the most accomplished and versatile athletes within the USA Cycling program. Get to know Jennifer a bit more in our interview below. (And don't miss our interviews with her teammates, Emma White and Lily Williams.)
FELT: Where did you grow up, and how did you first get into bike racing
Jennifer: I grew up in San Diego, California, and we actually had a velodrome nearby, which there's not too many of those around. My dad raced on the road, so we always had bikes around the house. Both my brothers and I grew up riding whenever and however we could. We took kid’s classes at the velodrome in San Diego, too, when we were young, around 10 or 11 years old. I didn’t start racing bikes until I was maybe 13 or 14 years old. And I started racing on the track. After that, I started doing some road racing and that kind of morphed into racing in local criteriums. But I started on the track and I've always come back to the track. That's what I want to do and that's what I love. So I started racing on the track in San Diego and then began traveling to tracks around the United States. I made the junior worlds team, when I was a first-year junior, and that was a big stepping stone for me. And pretty much since then it just kind of took off, with me focusing on the track, trying to make the top team for USA Cycling, and really understanding that I can be good at it. Coming to that realization, myself, probably started after junior worlds in 2011.
FELT: You race professionally for TWENTY24 Pro Cycling. How did you first come to join that team?
Jennifer: I joined TWENTY24 Pro Cycling back in 2012, when they went by a different name. They've always had a huge focus on a junior program and developing riders. And I knew that I wanted to go to the biggest sporting competition—like this summer’s Tokyo—and the whole premise of the team is to develop athletes for that competition. So I went to junior worlds and they started talking to a couple of track riders, and it just kind of seemed like a good fit from there. I've been with the team ever since, both as a junior and then as an Elite rider on the road.
FELT: Tell us what it was like when you first heard that the competition in Tokyo was going to be postponed last summer.
Jennifer: It was kind of a slow process, if I remember correctly, because there were a lot of rumors at first, and then it seemed that there was a few weeks of waiting for confirmation. Then we got an email from the governing body, and that was when it was official. But I think at that point I had already gone through all these ‘What if?’ scenarios in my head. I think we knew after the World Championships in 2020 in Berlin. We flew home from that race, and then the whole country shut down. So there was a lot of speculation that the Tokyo event would be affected, and it was hard to believe that it actually wouldn't be affected because it’s such a global event and it's on such a big scale and there are so many things that go into it. So when Tokyo was officially postponed, we immediately set about trying to come up with a new plan, and determine how that was going to affect everything and just kind of take everything in one day at a time.
FELT: You’ve had a lot of experience and success racing on the track, including at the UCI World Championships and in Rio back in 2016. In terms of training and preparation, have you approached an event like Tokyo any differently than you would a season without such a marquee summer competition?
Jennifer: I think when it comes to the summer competition in Tokyo, track cycling is maybe a little bit different than road racing or even some other sports, in the sense that for track cycling, Tokyo will be the biggest opportunity that we have to show our kind of niche sport to people who are not necessarily into cycling. And that’s not just in our sport—there are also plenty of people who follow cycling who are cycling enthusiasts, but who don't really know about track events or the riders, and what it's all about. And so, Tokyo is one opportunity which everything kind of revolves around, and so a lot of our planning and our focus and our training, and all of our energy is put into these four-year cycles. Or, five years, in the case of this summer’s event in Tokyo. So our focus doesn't change too much, because our focus for the last four years has pretty much been on this event. There’s the UCI World Championships every year, but for the most part, our track programs are designed for four-year cycles.
FELT: You’ve been selected to race in the team pursuit, the omnium, and the madison disciplines. In which of those competitions are you most excited to compete?
Jennifer: I love mass-start racing. I started as a junior riding Tuesday nights in San Diego doing mass-start races. And the omnium consists of all different types of mass-start events. So, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what I can do there, just because it's where I started and what I've always loved to do. But the team pursuit will always be special. We have such a great group of girls this year, as we’ve had for the last couple of years. We’re definitely hungry, we’re definitely strong, and we’re definitely coming together, so I’m looking forward to competing in that.
FELT: You were part of the team pursuit squad for the United States that took second place back in Rio in 2016. Looking ahead to Tokyo, what would a successful team pursuit event be for you and the team this time around
Jennifer: I think the definition of success is different for every person. And when you're competing in a team event, everyone has to be on the same page of what the goals are, what the priorities are, and what you're trying to accomplish and achieve, especially in such a big competition like Tokyo. And I think the pandemic may have even redefined what ‘success’ is and what our goals are. But, it’s the biggest competition in the world, and we want to one-up what we did in Rio, of course. The goal is always to be better than you were previously, and to continue improving within ourselves. We can't control what any other country does, there's plenty of speculation about what finishing time it’s going to take to win, and you kind of just have to put that aside and our plan is to continually do better than we've done previously, both in training and in the competition.
Jennifer: The TA FRD was unveiled before the 2016 competition in Rio, and it’s been the only pursuit bike I’ve ridden since 2016. So I'm very comfortable and molded into that bike and that riding position, and I feel as fast as I possibly can. But I definitely remember getting on it for the first time. And you only experience how drastically different it is when you go from another bike to getting on that bike the first time. It’s all very narrow and asymmetrical, it's designed to go fast turning left. And so the first time I rode it was a huge shock, just getting used to the new feel and what you have underneath you and how you're going to ride it. That’s faded a little bit because I've become so used to it—I've been spoiled riding it for five years now! When it comes to the new TK FRD for mass-start events, I rode it for the first time in the fall of 2019, and that was a big difference from the previous generation Felt bike that I had been riding. Like the TA FRD, I felt the biggest differences in the TK FRD right when I rode it for the first time, and it became a seamless transition for how I got used to it, which worked out pretty quickly after one event. I think that with so much uncertainty in regards to everything going on over the last year, that having something that's dependable is really important. And our team’s equipment is one of those things that we rely on for everything. Going into each event, we know that we can count on our Felt bikes—both the TA FRD and the TK FRD.
FELT: What makes track racing so unique and exciting amongst other cycling disciplines?
Jennifer: There are quite a few things that make track racing so exciting. The biggest one is that it’s spectator-friendly. You can see all of the action and all of the tactics happening in front of you, and there are so many things always happening. And I think it can be hard for spectators to understand just how much tactics play in a road race because it's so spread out, both time-wise and geographically across a course. Some things happen on camera, while most things don’t, and there are a lot of things you don't see unless you're actually in the race itself. With track cycling, you can much more easily pick out those pieces while watching, and I think that that can be really exciting for spectators to see all these tactics unfold and watch each rider trying to play their own card. Another thing that makes the team pursuit, specifically, so exciting, is that it’s one of the few team sports that is truly a team event. And what I mean by that is, everyone is doing the same effort and has to complete the whole event, and they can all stand on the podium together, as opposed to something like a road race where you’re often riding for one teammate to take the win. And I think that's really special to be able to use each individual person to the best of their ability. The more you know each other, and know what your strengths and weaknesses are, the more you need to be really honest with each other to come up with the best plan of how you're going to maximize everyone’s strengths. And so it really is like the ultimate team event in cycling.
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