With seven world championships and four Olympic medals among her palmares, Sarah Hammer has easily established herself as America's most decorated track athlete. But the 33-year-old has glimpsed the future and seen that her days at the top are numbered, and she's got a pretty good idea which rider will knock her from her perch. In fact, she's rooming with her this week in Hong Kong at the UCI Track World Championships, which start Wednesday and continue through Sunday.
Chloe Dygert, 20, Hammer's ongoing apprentice and roommate this week in Hong Kong, will take another step in her track racing development when she competes for the first time for a rainbow jersey in the 3km individual pursuit, the event Hammer has won five times and for which she currently holds the world record of 3:22.269.
Dygert, who won her first elite rainbow jersey at last year's World Championships in the team pursuit, picked up the 3km individual pursuit this year at the Los Angeles World Cup finals, where she took the gold medal with a time of 3:28.431, beating Hammer's track record by three seconds in just her third-ever attempt at the event.
While Hammer focuses on Hong Kong's mass-start events – the omnium, scratch race and points race – Dygert will pick up the individual pursuit banner for USA Cycling, hoping to repeat her result in Los Angeles and win her first individual elite championship. Despite her inexperience, she knows bringing home the jersey from Hong Kong will be a much taller order than winning in L.A.
"I've been looking at the times [of] the others girls that I'll be competing with, and it's hard to say," Dygert told Cyclingnews. "Each track is so different, and I'm so new to it that someone who knows what they're talking about is probably saying, 'Oh my gosh, she's stupid,' but my personal belief is that every track is so different, and that each race and each body is so different from day to day, that it's just hard to say.
"It's definitely going to be very competitive and a very strong field, but team pursuit is such a big focus for each team, and so after an Olympic year everyone gets to kind of focus on their individual efforts, so a lot more girls are doing the individual pursuit than last year, so the competition has definitely grown a bit," she said.
Dygert will also reprise her role on the US team pursuit squad that won gold at last year's championships in London. The team, minus Hammer, won the event in Los Angeles but will face a much tougher field in Hong Kong. They'll likely race with Kim Geist rather than with Hammer, who said that although she is one of five riders named for the roster she is focused on the mass-start events and does not expect to get a ride in the team pursuit.
"I've spent so many years in those aero bars, I'm like, 'These days I'm retired,'" she said.
A wide-open omnium after changes
Changes to the omnium in 2016 that reduced the event from six races to four, removing the timed events and adding the tempo race, will produce a wide-open event that anyone can now win, Hammer said. She won the omnium rainbow jersey in 2013 and 2014, but riders who may have been weaker in the timed events in the past now have a much clearer shot at winning the overall.
"Everyone is truly a contender now," Hammer said. "Before, with the timed stuff, you could do the calculations about how riders were going to lose X amount of points in all these timed events so they are not a threat. Now everyone is a threat. It makes it exciting racing. The tempo race is a little interesting. I'm still learning how to race that."
Not having to train for the omnium's timed events has allowed Hammer to put her aero bike on the back burner and focus almost entirely on the mass-start events, providing a bit of motivation after years of repetitive training.
"I'm really excited to do the points race and scratch race," she said. "I haven't had the opportunity to race stand-alone events at the World Championships outside of the omnium since before the last Olympic cycle in 2012. And I'm saying before that cycle, so it's been seven or eight years. So that's been fun, and obviously, the omnium has a new format taking out the timed events. I'm feeling really good on my mass-start bike, so that's been awesome. It's going back to my roots."
Thoughts of retirement, and a replacement
At 33 and having won her first World Championship more than a decade ago, Hammer's thoughts have turned to a possible retirement, although they appear to be just thoughts at this point.
"It will be coming at some point, for sure," she said. "I'm still enjoying racing my bike. It's been a new challenge, switching back to the mass-start stuff, and I'm enjoying that challenge. I've been in this so long that when you're doing something day after day it gets repetitive, so it's nice to have a new goal and a new challenge. Those are important things for me. We'll see how well it goes. If I get those titles then ... obviously, I always like to go out on top."
When Hammer does step away from the sport, she'll do so knowing a worthy replacement is on the rise. Hammer said she spotted Dygert's potential the first time she saw her on the track during Dygert's first-ever day of velodrome training.
"I saw her potential the absolute first day," Hammer said. "My jaw dropped. I was like, 'Oh, wow. This is good.' I've had my eye on her even before she won the junior road titles. I was peering through results at junior nationals and I'd seen her results and then I saw picture of her on the podium, and I saw her legs and I was like, 'Whoa, this looks like a track rider here.'"
Dygert was similarly impressed with Hammer that first day. She said she glued herself to Hammer's wheel during workouts, and the mentor-apprentice relationship has grown from there.
"It's almost funny," Dygert said of how close they've become. "We had our soigneur come in yesterday and she was washing her hands in the bathroom and noticed that Sarah and I have the same toothbrushes, we have the same toiletry bags, we have the same purses. We are like the same person. Off the bike she's had back problems since forever ago, and I just blew out my back last year, so we're both getting the same treatments and we're both using the same KT Tape, it's like we're twins on and off the bike. It's really great."
When Dygert beat Hammer's record on the track in Los Angeles, the mentor was there to encourage and congratulate the student.
"She's so supportive," Dygert said. "When I broke her record in the 3km, she was right there. She's telling me how to do it. She's like, 'Chloe you want to go off here. You want to do this, you want to do this.' And when I got off the track she was the first one there to hug me. She's just a great competitor. She's got a great heart. She's a great athlete and friend and mentor."
Hammer said the "sky is the limit" for what Dygert can accomplish on the track and also on the road, where she won the junior time trial and road race at the 2015 world championships, and Dygert appears to have the ambition to match Hammer's ideas about her potential.
"I have so many different goals," Dygert said. "I see Sarah and what she's done in the USA. So I look at that and say, 'Yeah, I want to accomplish that.' Then I look at Laura Kenny from Great Britain and see what she's done and I want to accomplish that. Then I see what Coryn Rivera did the other day in Flanders, and I think I want to be like her.
"It's not like I'm mad that they did that and I'm jealous. It's more just motivating to me. Like if she can do that then I want to try and do it, too. It's the same with Kristin [Armstrong] and her three gold medals in the Olympics. It's like, 'Oh, man, me too. I want to do that.'"
Dygert wants to take it even one step further, with her ultimate goal being to compete in road and track events at the same Olympics. If the Madison is added to the 2020 Olympics, Dygert said, she sees a path to reaching that accomplishment.
"So I would do the Madison as my event on the track and then TT and/or the road race," she said before laughing and making an addition. "Then maybe throw in some mountain biking, you know."
Hammer said if anyone could pull it off, it's her protege.
"People have doubled up and had success in both a long time ago," Hammer said. "But it was different. There wasn't as much specialization on the track and they rode smaller gears back then. I think the last person was Leontien van Moorsel. In 2000 she won gold in both. Now you don't see it as much, but anything is possible. If anybody can do it, it would be Chloe."