For all the innumerable inconveniences that the Covid-19 pandemic brought to sporting calendars in 2020, it’s worth sparing a thought for Megan Jastrab.
The year before, aged just 17, she rode to three world titles, winning the junior road race in Yorkshire, just a month after earning rainbow stripes on the track in the junior Madison and omnium events.
She was the new poster girl of American cycling. But she never once got to show off her coveted five colourful bands.
“I didn’t get to race in any of the three rainbow jerseys, not even once,” she tells Cycling Weekly. “Not on the track, not on the road, nothing. I only raced once in 2020 because of Covid.
“I know it’s special to race in the rainbow jersey - well, they say it’s special! - so it was quite a hard pill to swallow. It still hurts, to be honest.”
Jastrab’s disappointment was tempered slightly, however, by the fact that USA Cycling allowed her to train in her track rainbow jersey with the elite category. “That was fortunate,” she remarks. “It felt weird being with elite champions, but they said I was going to wear them no matter the category.”
She was training on the track in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics that got shunted back a year to the 2021 summer. As the Games got closer, her outstanding ability promoted her to the senior women’s team pursuit squad who, spearheaded by Chloé Dygert, were among the favourites to win gold.
Jastrab had trained with Dygert and co. but thought she was going into the Olympics as fifth reserve. Until she became a leading figure.
“I had done team pursuit stuff at junior level and we weren't going as fast,” she recollects. “I wasn’t expected to be in the Olympics TP until a few months to go. I had done one simulation with the girls before but my very first senior TP race was in Tokyo.”
It went well, too. The Americans posted a time of 4-10.118 in qualifying that, had Germany not went three seconds quicker just moments earlier, would have been a new world record.
In the next round, they went ever quicker, posting 4-07.562, but losing against British opposition.
“A 4-07 was insane compared to what the world record [4-10.236 - ed] was before the Games,” Jastrab, who turns 20 in January, says. “It was pretty crazy because as soon as we had finished the qualifying, the coaches asked me to do the same thing again.
“I questioned, ‘but, why? I’m not riding? Another team’s riding.’ And then they said they wanted me in the finals. I was like, ‘hold up, I’ve only just done my first elite TP and I’m happy with that. But if you’re happy and want me to go again, sure!’ It was crazy.”
Jastrab, and her three colleagues rode to a bronze medal that she admits, collectively, was “seen as a failure because there were such high expectations.”
The wonder girl from Los Angeles, however, had made her mark again. Already in her young career she’s made a habit of surprising.
Take her world titles as a junior. “My parents wanted to come to Frankfurt to watch me in the Junior Track Worlds and I told them not to bother because I didn’t really have a shot of winning,” she recounts.
“I thought I might get a podium at best, that would have been great. So to win not one but two golds was, like, woah. That was exciting and weird.”
It wasn’t the first time Jastrab had said no to her parents. “My mum’s a really good cook, but as a child I didn’t eat a lot,” she laughs.
“I was so fussy with my food until about three years ago. It’d be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or nothing.
“My parents tried, forced me to expand my food pallet, but I hated the tasted of absolutely everything.”
Now the teenager has an apology to make. “I love Instagram and literally my whole feed is of food and I’m forever screenshooting recipes.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, mum, I’ve missed out on all of your good cooking, I’m so sorry’. I ask her to send me the recipes for all these foods, and I’m saying, ‘yeah, I know I didn’t like that before, but now I do.’”
A keen maker of “extravagant salads”, Jastrab raced 13 days last season with Team DSM, a move partially brought about because of her win on the road at the 2019 Worlds.
She was the favourite for victory in Harrogate on a course that played to her strengths. “I like challenging courses,” she explains. “Anything like a Classic route.
“When a race comes down to who has got through the hard parts, that’s what I like. Not a super-long climb, but anything under five minutes.
“There’s more stage races coming up in women’s cycling, so being a well-rounded cyclist is really important. I need to be able to go well up the hills, TT well, and I like sprinting. If the weather’s bad, that’s fine.
“In the last 18 months I’ve mainly just been doing track training, so I need to work more on the road now. I’m confident in the DSM performance team.”
Her priorities right now, though, are building towards the Paris 2024 Olympics, where she plans to have finished her double major in exercise science and business that she is studying at Milligan University in Tennessee.
Fellow students in the university grounds might not appreciate it, but they will be walking past the pin-up of female American cycling.
“It’s actually a privilege to have that tag,” she says, “because it’s not a popular sport in this country. If I have the responsibility of being the poster child of the future of women’s cycling in the US, I’m going to keep putting in as much as possible so that younger girls understand the sport and have fun doing it.
"I want to promote cycling as something successful for everyone and a way to stay healthy. It’s a privilege to be that representative.”
Her journey has only really just begun.
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