These Women Are American Cycling’s Best Hope for Olympic Gold

·15 min read
Photo credit: Photo Illustration created by Alyse Markel using Getty Images
Photo credit: Photo Illustration created by Alyse Markel using Getty Images

With the Tokyo Olympics rescheduled to this summer, we’ve had an extra year to get fired up for one of the rare, magic times when bike racing is actually on TV. Sure, we can always catch the occasional road classic streaming at 3 a.m. on some buggy, unreliable app. But how often do we get to see multiple cycling disciplines—mountain biking, track, road, and BMX—broadcast on regular channels at non-ridiculous hours so that millions of Americans can watch? This year there’s a good chance the U.S. women’s team will top the Olympic podium in several events, giving diehard cycling fans and rookie viewers alike even more reasons to get stoked. Here’s who to watch if you want to see the U.S. bring home gold.

Photo credit: Courtesy Steve Diamond
Photo credit: Courtesy Steve Diamond

Alise Willoughby

Sport: BMX race | Age: 30 | Hometown: St. Cloud, MN

Two-time World Champ BMX racer Alise Willoughby has dreamed of being an Olympic bike racer since she was in elementary school. She first realized her goal in 2012, when she placed 12th in London. Four years later, she brought home a silver medal in Rio. She’s spent all of the past year training with her coach and husband, former BMX pro Sam Willoughby. Get ready to watch her fly out of the gate this year in Tokyo.

How she’s dealt with the events of the past year: Once I moved past the initial shock of the Olympics being pushed back and had some time off to reset, I looked at the extra time as an opportunity to work with Sam on identifying things that may have been overlooked and how we could better my preparation plan for Tokyo 2021. The biggest change for me over the past year was the simple fact of not traveling so much for training or competition. If anything, the extra time has made me more excited for the chance to compete on the world stage again!

How she got into racing BMX: I started racing when I was 6 years old. I grew up with two older brothers, and one of them brought me along to the BMX track to race with him. The first time, I was too scared to actually do the race. The next week I came back and went for it. I had a little fall, but I was fine. That opened up my eyes that it’s OK to fall; you can just get up. After I got over that initial fear of going down the big starting hill, I was addicted.

Hardest race she’s ever done: One race that comes to mind is when my mom was really sick with cancer. It was one of my last races before she passed away in January 2014. My head wasn’t there. I did end up winning the race weekend, but I don’t know how.

Her secret weapon: I’m known for quick starts, so my acceleration down the first straight. In BMX we train for that like sprinters (in short: moving heavy weights fast). I think having a gymnastics background helped me in the beginning. I’ve also developed a tough mental game. Sam likes to call me “battle-tested,” which is something that comes with life experience. I work with a sports psychologist and have spent a lot of time working on my mental strength since my mom passed away.

Animal that best represents her race style: A cheetah! I spent my childhood pretending to be a cheetah because they’re so fast. I even put milk in a saucer and drank it like a cat when I was little. It was super-weird.

Pump-up song: “Coming Home” by Diddy is a good one to enter a stadium to. Also anything by Pink—Pink is my girl.

Best BMX advice: Just enjoy riding your bike as a kid. As the level of the sport rises—especially now that it’s in the Olympic Games—some parents want to groom their kids as athletes. But I think there’s value in going with the flow and letting a kid start racing at their own pace and enjoy riding. Learn to win, learn to lose, just spend hours on your bike doing whatever.

Her race mantra: During my mom’s fight against cancer, she’d always say to me, “Never ever give up.” It sounds cliché and simple, but when I’ve wanted to throw in the towel, it’s helped me stay motivated.

Why she fell in love with the sport: First, I love the head-to-head competition and the thrill of the race. Second, BMX is such a family sport. My family spent so many hours together at the track in St. Cloud volunteering. I love that social community side of it.

Ultimate goal: My husband, Sam, is my coach, and we both have Olympic silver medals, so we’re putting all our eggs in me taking home gold in Tokyo. Outside of BMX my biggest goal is to inspire others to not only take up riding bikes for fun, but also overcome tough obstacles in their daily lives. Both Sam and I have had a rocky road [a 2016 training crash left Sam paralyzed from the waist down], and I think people can draw some positivity and light from what we’ve been through and shared.


Photo credit: Michele Mondini
Photo credit: Michele Mondini

Kate Courtney

Sport: Mountain biking | Age: 25 | Hometown: San Francisco

Raised in California at the base of Mount Tamalpais, known as “the birthplace of modern mountain biking,” Kate Courtney seemed destined for dirt stardom from an early age. She captured her first junior MTB World Cup series win in 2012, at age 17. At 22, she moved up to the elite field and brought home the rainbow jersey at her first World Championship race—the first American world champion of the sport in almost two decades. The following year, she crushed the field to win the 2019 Elite World Cup series title. The Olympic podium is next on her checklist—and she’s headed to Tokyo feeling focused and hopeful.


How she’s dealt with the events of the past year: This year has been marked by adaptability and finding silver linings in extra time at home with my family. It’s also been a great opportunity for me to focus on training and continue to work toward my Olympic goals. Luckily, I was able to continue to train outside and set up a gym at my house for strength work. I am heading into the Olympic year feeling relaxed, focused, and more grateful than ever for the opportunity to line up to race.

On aiming for the Olympics: The moment I realized how important qualifying for Tokyo would be to me was when I didn’t qualify for the 2016 Games. The disappointment of not making the cut really illuminated to me how special the Olympics are and how important that goal was.

Her secret weapon: Consistency. I train really consistently and use a lot of data in my training, and you can see that in my performances, year over year and throughout the season. I haven’t changed any of that for the Olympic year—I’m still just checking those boxes and staying focused.

The animal that best represents her race style: I’m a shark: swim, lurk, attack.

Pump-up song: Anything by Beyoncé.

Best advice: Take it one step at a time. In cycling there are so many ways to improve and challenge yourself, but that can also be overwhelming. Take it one little piece at a time and continue to find ways to make progress.

Worst advice: That harder is always better. People are always going too hard on group rides and trying to push themselves every single day in training. But as an athlete your job is to perform at peak levels on certain days at certain times. So for me that has meant a big focus on recovery and letting my easy days be easy.

Most exciting thing in women’s cycling right now: Last year, my answer would have been that for the first time in a very long time, the U.S. women were ranked first in the world in mountain biking. With the pandemic and subsequent race cancellations in the U.S., our team ranking is unfortunately a different story this year. Regardless of the numbers, I still think the resurgence of mountain biking talent in the U.S. is one of the most exciting things. It took a lot of camaraderie, teamwork, and strong results among the USA women to put us in first place.

Photo credit: Casey B. Gibson
Photo credit: Casey B. Gibson

Jennifer Valente

Sport: Track cycling | Age: 26 | Events: Omnium, team pursuit | Hometown: San Diego

Jennifer Valente started racing on the San Diego velodrome after taking a youth class when she was 14. In the three years after that, she won a Junior World Championship title in the scratch race and found a spot on the 2012 Olympic Long Team. Tokyo will be her second Olympics—she brought home silver in 2016 as part of a team pursuit that included Chloé Dygert.



How she’s dealt with the events of the past year: Learning to be flexible with just about everything has been a big factor in staying motivated and focused. Last summer and fall, Covid restrictions altered training quite a bit. Gyms and the velodrome were closed off-and-on in my area, so there was a lot of time spent on my road bike or on a trainer. Most of our team has been together since the New Year and we have been able to get some track time, so each week is starting to feel more and more like the Olympics are right around the corner.

How she got into track racing: My brothers and I took the kids’ class at the San Diego velodrome, and I stuck with it. We all grew up riding mountain bikes and BMX bikes around the neighborhood. Having the kids’ class at the velodrome showed me that track cycling was a sport and you could do it the way other people do Little League or soccer. As we got older, my brothers and I picked different sports; I stuck with cycling because it was something my brothers hadn’t picked. We’re all pretty competitive, so it was best for us to play different sports!

What she loves most about cycling: One of my favorite feelings is that of riding fast on a banked track and feeling my body push into each bend.

Favorite event: I love mass-start, or “bunch,” racing, where everyone starts at the same time. In the Olympics, that’s the omnium and the madison. That’s what drew me to cycling in the first place. There are so many things happening at the same time, so it’s not just “the strongest wins” or “the fastest wins” or the most experienced or smartest wins. It’s a combination of all those things. And all those things have to line up, so the same 24 athletes could place in a different order, depending on the day.

Hardest race she’s ever done: I don’t know, but I know it wasn’t hard because of the course or competition. A lot of times races are hard based on other factors, like what was going on with my life at the time, or what was going on around me, or what happened with the equipment.

Her secret weapon: The amount of support we have around our team. There are people every day in my corner that I owe everything to, who continue to push and motivate us. My coach, my family, and my friends have all been steadfast. We rely so heavily on the USAC staff, the gym coach, and the people we work with day in and day out who deserve more recognition.

Best track advice: Race everything. I grew up racing on Tuesday nights in San Diego, and every week it was a different thing—sprints and keirins, points racing, sometimes even a random snowball race they made up. I think you can learn so much by putting yourself in all types of situations. You learn what you like and what you don’t like and what you’re good at and what you’re not, and if those don’t line up, you learn what you can work on.

What’s next for her after Tokyo: I’m going back to school full-time after the Olympics. I’m at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, studying mechanical engineering, so I’m just going to focus on finishing my academic goals.

Photo credit: Matt Trappe
Photo credit: Matt Trappe

Chloé Dygert

Sport: Track cycling, road cycling | Age: 24 | Events: Team pursuit, individual time trial, road race | Hometown: Brownsburg, IN

Known for her blistering sprint and fierce, competitive spirit, Olympic silver medalist and 10-time World Champ Chloé Dygert has had an eventful run-up to Tokyo. Last year, fresh off setting the world record in a non-Olympic event—the individual pursuit—at the 2020 Track Cycling World Championships in Berlin, Dygert crashed during her time trial at the 2020 UCI Road World Championships. She sustained a severe leg injury that threatened to derail not only her Olympic plans, but her entire cycling career. She also drew criticism for “liking” racist and transphobic messages on Twitter. [When Bicycling requested an interview for this story, Dygert’s representatives said she was not doing any media. She did, however, eventually respond to some questions about racing.] Since then, she’s gotten back on her bike, signed on to the Canyon-SRAM UCI Women’s World Tour team, and is now gearing up for the Games.


How she’s dealt with the events of the past year: I’ve spent the past year in hospital beds, in a wheelchair, on crutches, in PT clinics, on my dad’s couch, on treadmills, on my trainer, and now back on the road riding my Canyon. At the time of the crash it was unknown if I was going to be able to make it to the Games. I am grateful to all those who have helped me and stood with me throughout. They’re the reason I will make it.

Her thoughts on being described as a “natural”: It’s funny: Winning world championships and winning big races—it’s almost as if I’m expecting it now. But you can be as talented as you want, and you still have to work hard to maintain that talent and make it actually work.

Her secret weapon: Mental toughness. You can win or lose a race by the way you act on the start line. There are mind games you can play with people if they don’t have a strong head.

Best advice: Set your standards high. At the 2020 Track World Championships, I set the World Record, but I still didn’t get the time I wanted.

Proudest victory: Every race I’ve won, I can pick out something I’m upset about. My Worlds time trial performance in 2019 was one of my favorite wins, but there are still things I could have done better.

Favorite event: The time trial. It’s all me—100 percent focused, all out, everything you have. There’s no excuse. I love that.

Ultimate goal: I want to go to the next six Olympic games, and I’d like to win one more medal than Kristin Armstrong at the Olympics. She has three, I want four. [Dygert currently has one.]

Photo credit: Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images
Photo credit: Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

Hannah Roberts

Sport: BMX freestyle | Age: 19 | Hometown: Buchanan, MI

As 2020 world champion, Hannah Roberts will take on the Olympic debut of the BMX freestyle event. Roberts began riding at age 9 and started competing in 2012, inspired by her cousin, BMX pro Brett Banasiewicz. A powerhouse rider who does backflips just to warm up, Roberts wowed the field when she became the first woman to nail the 360 Tailwhip in competition—a move where she spins in a full circle while the back of the bike does a full rotation around the bars.


On aiming for the Olympics: I always had a dream to be an Olympian when I was young, but once I left organized sports and settled on BMX, I dropped that because it wasn’t an Olympic sport. When it was announced freestyle BMX would be at Tokyo for the first time in 2020, it was crazy—the whole thing has been super life-changing and so much more motivational for my riding. Knowing I had a chance pushed me a lot further than I was pushing myself.

Animal that represents her race style: I’m pretty focused when I’m competing, but outside of competition it would probably be a koala. I spend a lot of time sleeping.

Her secret weapon: I’m always able to find the fun in whatever we’re doing. Even when everyone is stressed out, I just make jokes.

Worst advice: I’ve heard people tell younger kids they have to learn something new every time they ride. That’s not true. As long as you’re doing what you enjoy, that’s what BMX is about.

Favorite trick: My favorite trick of the moment is a Backflip Barspin [where the rider rotates the bars while performing a backflip]. If you do it on the right ramp with speed, it just feels so good and controlled.

Race strategy: I tell myself to go in and have a good solid run that I can look back and feel happy for rather than trying to win the event. So the contest becomes more like a goal list of tricks than a calculated plan of what’s going to get me in first. That’s why I did the 360 Tailwhip—I’d never done one in a contest and wanted to, so I knew I was going to start my run with that, even if I fell.

On the state of women’s BMX: So many women are getting involved, and it’s really stepping up the game. You can’t just go to a contest and do a few tricks and win—you have to have a really solid run and be clean, and then it’s all up to the judges.

How she feels when she’s in the air: It feels like forever, though you know exactly how much time you have to do your trick. It’s an amazing feeling you can’t get anywhere else, like the adrenaline rush from a roller coaster, but you’re in control of it. That’s why I do it.

Photo credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Why Are American Women So Good at the Olympics?

Women’s cycling events are still relatively new to the Olympic program. The first women’s Olympic road race began in 1984—72 years and 15 Games after the men’s race became a recurring event in 1912. Women’s track cycling was even later to the program, making its debut in the 1988 Games with the individual sprint, and building out most of its current events in 2012. That was around the time women began to pull ahead of the men in medal count, with Kristin Armstrong and Sarah Hammer winning multiple gold and silver medals on the road and track. So why have U.S. women been so dominant?

“Success breeds more success,” says Kim Geist, a cycling coach and two-time World Champ in the team pursuit. Geist says when women’s track cycling events like the team pursuit were first introduced in 2012, the U.S. prioritized those events, setting the bar high and seeing quick results. That triggered momentum that continues to build. Women’s developmental programs like Team TWENTY20 have also started paying off, creating more pathways to Olympic victory. “It doesn’t happen overnight,” says owner Nicola Cranmer of the successes of the team, founded in 2005. “You take a rider like Chloé—her ‘overnight success’ was on the track, but she was being developed since age 15 as part of our program.” Leaders have been proactive in finding and cultivating young talent. But there are also some harsh realities behind the U.S. women’s Olympic success. With fewer race opportunities and fewer big road contracts for women than for men, the Games are a comparatively bigger showcase of their skills and talents.

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