Olympic Omnium gold medalist Jennifer Valente is used to the large, loud crowds that pack alongside the banked turns of a velodrome, so there was nothing unusual earlier this month when she transitioned to the criterium scene for the 43rd annual Athens Orthopedic Clinic Twilight Criterium. Amid the course-side party atmosphere in Athens, Georgia, Valente took third place.
Aside from a few cycling-savvy spectators among the throng of 20,000 that were estimated along the barriers and nearby tailgate parties and bistro patios, few were aware that a three-time Olympian and recent gold medalist was in contention for a long-overdue criterium podium.
“Athens was a race that I had watched on the live stream in past years. It has a reputation even if you have never raced it. The course is challenging and the crowds are enthusiastic,” said Valente, who rides on the road for Virginia’s Blue Ridge TWENTY24 told Cyclingnews, being very gracious about the college crowd reacting to race moves as well as beverage refills.
“Every move that the racers made, the spectators cheered, and the louder the cheering, the more the racers would fight for a better position. The energy between the racers and people lined up around the course made for a fun and exciting night.”
Exciting indeed. The California sprinter took part in five of the seven races with Speed Week, a US criterium series with races in South Carolina and Georgia compacted across 10 days. She jumped in with the team, but it wasn’t without a bit of reservations.
“It was her decision to race some criteriums this year, everyone thinks that because she won an Olympic gold in a mass start event that she knows how race a criterium. Speed Week was a learning experience for her,” Nicola Cranmer, general manager of Virginia’s Blue Ridge TWENTY24, told Cyclingnews.
The team was second to only L39ION of Los Angeles in the overall team standings, and scored six podiums. Valente, who had to fly home to Colorado during the week and missed two races, took the only victory for the team, in the third race in LaGrange, Georgia, and then trailed only L39ION duo Kendall Ryan and Alexis Ryan for the podium spot in Athens. Her teammate Emily Ehrlich led the way with four podiums, and finished third in the individual standings.
“I had never raced Speed Week before this year. The whole idea of Speed Week, with races that are all very different in a condensed time frame, is fantastic. Each course was unique and allowed for different tactics and different teams to put their best foot forward,” Valente reflected. “It is a lot of quality racing packed into a short time frame with many opportunities to learn, improve, or try new things.”
This year’s squad was newly formed as Virginia’s Blue Ridge TWENTY24, and used Speed Week to grow as a team. There have been variations of the team since it was founded in 2005 by Cranmer, changing the name each quadrennial to create a pathway for riders to Olympic Games beginning with TWENTY12 looking at 2012 London. Now TWENTY24 as part of the name, the team is supporting rider development for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.
Valente, now 27, has been with the team since 2012, and earned spots in two Olympic Games, earning three medals for Team USA, one in each colour. She took silver in the Team Pursuit in Rio and bronze in the same event in Tokyo, and scored the gold medal in Tokyo in the Omnium.
Valente isn’t typically on a roster for criteriums. She laughed when asked how long it had been since her last outing in a series of criterium races and had to give it some thought. She said most of them were well before she focused on the track, going back to the grassroots events at Tour of America’s Dairyland as a junior, and when she wasn’t on the podium often.
“Nicola and TWENTY24 have always supported athletes doing different things, like the track and gravel. The criteriums are the traditional route, and we’re trying to do that a little bit more this year, but certainly still riding track for me, and a couple of other athletes riding gravel or mountain bike, we’re switching it up a little bit. It’s a well-rounded programme. I think the juniors learn a lot from seeing other options. They can go to college and have cycling scholarships, so the kids that are 17, 18 and 19 years old can find a path in cycling and how that fits.”
She took part in two spring camps with the younger riders in the Roanoke, Virginia area and said she was amazed at the number of eager athletes who took part.
“She is a natural mentor and leader with the junior girls, she always has plenty to share with them. Jennifer appreciates our balance philosophies that we share with the young athletes, it's not our goal to turn them into professional cyclists but to develop well rounded individuals on and off the bike,” Cranmer added.
Valente is currently at the UCI Track Nations Cup in Milton, Ontario to begin her quest for points that will add to qualification for the Paris Games.
“I rode for Virginia's Blue Ridge TWENTY24 as a junior and seeing how big the junior program is now is really fantastic. Every one of the junior girls has big goals in cycling or academics or life and they are so motivated to improve and learn,” Valente said.
“The team has supported me as I focus on Olympic goals on the track. The individual approach allowed me to give my full attention to a very specific arena while still being part of a team.”
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Jackie has been involved in professional sports for more than 30 years in news reporting, sports marketing and public relations. She founded Peloton Sports in 1998, a sports marketing and public relations agency, which managed projects for Tour de Georgia, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and USA Cycling. She also founded Bike Alpharetta Inc, a Georgia non-profit to promote safe cycling. She is proud to have worked in professional baseball for six years - from selling advertising to pulling the tarp. She has climbed l'Alpe d'Huez three times (not fast). Her favorite road rides are around horse farms in north Georgia (USA) and around lavender fields in Provence (France), and some mtb rides in Park City, Utah (USA).
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