ROANOKE, Va. – Jennifer Valente, an American favorite for a gold medal in Paris, recently came to Roanoke to do some training knowing the competition will see her coming when she competes next year at the Paris Olympics.
“Going into an Olympics as the reigning world champion is definitely different. It adds a different kind of target on your back. So there are pluses and minuses about it. Definitely, it is a confidence boost as well. So I’m taking that as a positive,” Valente said as we rode bicycles along the Roanoke River before she departed for an earnest training ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Valente has already won three Olympic medals, including a gold in an event called the omnium – a series of races that take place on the track.
And in August she won two world championships. Barring something unforeseen, she will compete for the U.S. in the Omnium in Paris, and depending upon how selections shake out, she may participate in two team events as well. But that won’t be determined until much closer to the Olympics.
When she is not racing for the USA, she is a member of VBR Team 2024, a Roanoke-based women’s cycling team that has produced more than a dozen Olympic medalists.
“Jennifer Valente is one of the best riders in the world as current as current Olympic champion and current world champion. She literally is the best in the world at what she does,” said Nicola Cranmer, Team 2024 founder and general manager.
Cranmer has known Jennifer for a long time. She has watched her development and success as Valente has won more international championships than any other U.S. cyclist.
“She’s been with the team for a little over a decade actually. She started off as a junior and to be quite honest she’s just sort of reaching her performance level if you like,” Cranmer said. “I mean she’s just getting to be really, really good.”
Although she races indoors on the track, most of Valente’s training happens outside on the road. On this day she rode up Mill Mountain with her VBR 2024 teammates, reaching the top without showing any signs of significant exertion, in the process demonstrating the difference between world-class athletes and mere mortals.
Valente lets the bike do the talking
Quiet and reserved in person she is studying to be an engineer at Colorado State University. She says she knew early on that she wanted to be in the Olympics, but she didn’t know which sport. Then she found cycling.
“I think I knew I wanted to go to the Olympics I had before which is unique because I had to decide that before I had picked up the sport,” Valente said. And when I kind of realized I was good at cycling and started to fall in love with cycling a little bit more, and found track cycling ... it’s easy to have that grow when you are good at it and the opportunity is there.”
Once she found the bike, she found herself consistently on the podium.
Riding side by side through Wasena and Smith Parks in Roanoke, I asked what it was like to win gold.
“Winning an Olympic gold medal is pretty much a dream come true. I think so. Many kids dream of that when they were little. And I did too. I certainly dreamt of having an Olympic medal and having it be gold is really the pinnacle of what I could achieve in the sport. I don’t think there’s any other way to describe it other than a dream come true,” she said.
And Cranmer said she has a good chance of adding at least one more medal next year.
“She’s obviously one of the favorites. Reining gold champion from the Tokyo Olympics and also double world champion heading into the Omnium, and she’s definitely the favorite - and you know she will do everything that she can to prepare herself to win the event,” Cranmer said.
Valente seems to know this is her time. And she is still eager to win.
“Obviously, you always want to feel like you have accomplished everything you could and you’re the best that you can be. And you don’t want to have any doubts about that,” Valente said. “But I also think that every Olympic medal that you can win or that you’re trying to win has its own story and its own journey.”