Megan Jastrab’s first season in the junior ranks was a hugely successful one. She won almost every race she started, including the 2019 world championship title on both the road and the track (in the Madison and omnium). COVID-19 prevented Jastrab from shining in the rainbow jersey because the junior women hardly had any races in 2020, but the race-free year proved to be a blessing in disguise.
“Normally I would have had only half a year to prepare for the Olympics after my age restriction [of 18 years] ended so now with the delay I have a year and a half,” the now-19-year-old Jastrab tells me. “I have grown as an athlete and person in this time.”
Jastrab is one of the most exciting young riders out there but we won’t see her race in her new Team DSM kit much this year; at least not until August. This year is all about qualifying for the Olympics. She did meet her new DSM teammates during a winter training camp but that didn’t go as planned.
“I got COVID-19,” she says from the USA Cycling training centre in Colorado. “I flew to Europe for the first camp with the new team. The team protocol had me quarantine and then the symptoms started on day five and on day eight I tested positive. It must have been on my last day home before travelling to Europe that I caught it.
“I only saw my teammates wave at me from outside the window of the team house in the Netherlands. Some people keep testing positive after a few tests and I was the lucky one. That meant I couldn’t travel to Spain with the team at all and flew back to the US when I finally tested negative.”
Jastrab’s symptoms weren’t mild. She experienced a loss of taste and smell but also had shortness of breath and chest pains.
“The chest pains were bad and it felt like people were stabbing knives in my chest,” she says. “It was also scary because there was a concern for long-term damage to my heart and lungs. Luckily all the scans, tests and bloodwork came back clear.”
Jastrab joined the USA Cycling team at altitude in Colorado and will focus on track for the upcoming months. With her early season camp derailed due to COVID, coming back to the US meant Jastrab’s first track training camp was a real shock to the system. However, the hard work has now started in earnest. She hopes to compete for Team USA at the upcoming Olympics in both the newly added Madison for women, and the team pursuit. The American women won a silver medal in the team pursuit at the Rio Olympics and they are the reigning world champions.
“I never raced a team pursuit in a race setting because I was too young,” Jastrab says. “I love the event though. It’s real teamwork and that’s what I like about cycling in general. It’s all about the execution on race day and it’s very scientific. In other track events like the Madison race there is luck involved but a team pursuit is about training every little thing to get it perfect.”
Jastrab hopes to earn a spot in the strong team pursuit quartet. Jennifer Valente, Chloé Dygert, Emma White and Lily Williams won the world title in Berlin in 2020. Jastrab joins that quartet on the longlist for the Olympic event, alongside Kendall Ryan and Christina Birch.
There is a lot of firepower among these seven riders and quite a few world titles between them. Like Jastrab, Dygert and Valente were junior world champions. Both riders have gone on to win more world titles as elite riders. This is a goal Jastrab herself has too, whether it’s on the road or velodrome.
“It’s very helpful to be on the same team as them,” she says. “They are very open and they know what it takes [to become elite world champions]. They tell me that it takes time and that I should take my time. They both encourage me.”
In Rio de Janeiro Kelly Catlin was part of the American team that won the silver medal. Tragically, Catlin took her own life in 2019, aged only 23. Jastrab is the recipient of the Kelly Catlin Fund grant to help her Olympic dreams come true. She also had a personal relationship with Catlin – the loss of her former Rally teammate was an important moment in Jastrab’s life.
“Kelly was a special person, she was so gifted,” Jastrab says. “She had this amazing personality. It was hard when I heard of her death. She was my roommate at my first Rally team camp. She combined her university education with a sports career and had a great impact on me. Losing her was hard. We really need to check in on each other more often, especially now during these COVID times.”
Like Catlin, Jastrab is both athletically and academically competitive. After she graduated from high school, Jastrab started a degree in nursing but she now majors in two different studies: business and exercise science.
“I have always loved school,” she says with almost an apologetic smile. “Studying now can sometimes be stressful but it helps me take my mind off cycling. These are my prime years in sports and having to do the clinical work for nursing didn’t work so I switched. I now follow online classes but luckily, I take a lot of the things I learned in nursing to my major in exercise science. Lots of the studies in nutrition for example have cycling as a study object.”
Although Jastrab gets a base salary because she signed with a UCI Women’s World Tour (she’s with DSM for 2021 and 2022), she is fully aware she needs a Plan B next to her cycling Plan A.
“Cycling in itself is a short-term job,” she says. “Things can change instantly with injuries. I also don’t want to be stuck in a place I don’t like. Studying balances out the mental and physical side of my life.”
Things are changing fast in women’s cycling. The base salary which, by 2024, will gradually be equalised with what male riders in the WorldTour get, is an important step, but Jastrab is also realistic in her expectations.
“These are exciting times in women’s cycling,” she says. “It’s amazing what’s happening at the moment with a women’s Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, the women’s Vuelta. Women are fighting for change. It’s also motivating me and I am supportive of change, naturally, but change takes time. We can’t change everything overnight. Small steps lead to big things.”
Jastrab is part of an exciting new generation of American riders. She and Quinn Simmons are the most recent junior world champions (there were no junior world championships in 2020). Chloé Dygert took an elite world title at the 2019 World Championships in Harrogate and the USA topped the medal table, beating traditional cycling countries like the Netherlands. Young riders like Matteo Jorgenson, Brandon McNulty and DSM teammate Kevin Vermaerke are already showing their talents at WorldTour level. Jastrab seems likely to as well.
However, with the junior women going straight from the U19 ranks to elite (there’s no U23 women’s category) it’s hard to fight your way in, especially since there weren’t any races in 2020. Jastrab is one of the few young American women getting a chance at the highest level.
“It’s an exciting time for American cycling but cycling is still a very small sport and an expensive one as well,” she says. “I was lucky to sign with DSM early in 2020 but for other former junior riders it’s much harder, especially now there aren’t many races in the US at all. We showed in Harrogate [2019 Worlds] that it can be done but it’s now also up to USA Cycling to come up with new plans for these young riders to get a chance to prove themselves.”
While her focus will be on making the USA Cycling team for Tokyo – the selection deadline will be in June – Jastrab is also thinking of her debut with Team DSM and her further development as a road rider.
“I should have the endurance after Tokyo so when I go to Europe after the Olympics I am not on the back foot,” she says. “I also heard some races are postponed so there might be some races left for me.
“I want to be an all-round rider,” she says of her future. “I have that strong sprint to play out of course and that won’t go away. But I also like to focus on hard races, on the small hills, the bad weather circumstances.”
In other words, Jastrab eyes the Spring Classics. She was a team leader for the USA junior women when they raced in Europe in 2019 but she is also a team player at heart. With other fast women like Lorena Wiebes, Susanne Andersen and Tour of Flanders winner Coryn Rivera on the team, Jastrab will have to slot into the role of support rider too, especially as a neo-pro.
“There is so much to learn at Team DSM,” Jastrab says. “They are eager to support me in my development as a rider. I have only met some of them from behind the window [being in COVID quarantine] but everyone was very supportive and when I signed all my new teammates sent messages. I like working with a team because it gives me great pleasure to do the work for someone else to take the win. You can’t win them all yourself.”
Megan Jastrab won’t be winning them all but with the talent, intelligence, mental and physical strength the young rider from California has, she will be a name to watch in the biggest races on the calendar.
And here’s something to ponder: as a little girl, Jastrab thought that watching a peloton ride for hours on end through France in the height of summer was stupid and boring. In a few years’ time, that little girl might win a stage or more in the new Tour de France for women.