LONDON (AFP) — Britain’s Olympic track cycling supremacy will be put to the test beginning Thursday when six days of fierce competition, with world records and decades-old rivalries on the line, start in London.
Four years after Britain dominated the boards of the Laoshan velodrome in Beijing by winning seven gold medals out of 10, rule changes mean a repeat for the hosts is unlikely.
In the new Olympic track cycling program, both men and women compete in the same five events of the individual sprint, team sprint, keirin, team pursuit and omnium.
But while Britain has lowered its expectations, the host’s ambitions at the venue known as the “Pringle,” because of its curved shape, remain unchanged.
Qualifying with one of the fastest times for the men’s team pursuit on Thursday, when the fancied Australian, New Zealand and Russian teams will look to do likewise, will be Team GB’s first priority.
Beijing gold medalist Geraint Thomas was part of the British quartet — with Ed Clancy, Peter Kennaugh and Steven Burke — that broke the world record in Melbourne in April against Australia with a time of 3:53.295. He believes that benchmark will tumble again.
“I think we will (go faster than the current world record) and the Aussies will,” said Thomas, who completed the Giro d’Italia in May before settling down to working for the Games.
“We are just looking to keep going faster all the time and we are confident we can step up and go knock a chunk off that again.”
Jack Bobridge, the only member of a young Australian pursuit team — dubbed the “Boy Band” by British media — to compete in Beijing, where the Aussies finished fourth, says a podium place is not enough.
“We don’t just want to finish one place better. We haven’t come here to run second or third, we’ve come here to win,” Bobridge said Tuesday.
Britain has equally high hopes in the men’s three-lap, three-man power event of the team sprint, and the women’s two-lap equivalent.
Sir Chris Hoy, who won three gold medals in Beijing to add to the 1km gold he won in Athens, has a chance to take his tally to five on the opening day.
He is the anchor man in an event in which German-born Philip Hindes, known as “man one” in track jargon, will aim to give the Brits a crucially fast start before peeling off and handing over to Jason Kenny for lap two.
France, Germany and Australia will be knocking on the door, however, and Frenchman Gregory Baugé is hoping to steal the hosts’ thunder.
“Let’s hope it’s us, and not them, who emerge with the biggest smiles,” said Baugé, the three-time world sprint champion who will bid to succeed Hoy as champion in the individual event.
The team sprint can be won by one-thousandth of a second, a fact not lost on Hoy. “I think we have to be realistic. A bronze medal, or any medal would be an achievement and we’d celebrate that,” he said.
The women’s two-lap event, which Britain, Australia and Germany have virtually made their own, will be just as tight.
Britain’s Jess Varnish and Victoria Pendleton set a world record of 0:32.754 during the Olympic test event in February, only to see Germany’s Miriam Welte and Kristina Vogel clock 0:32.549 on their way to beating Australia’s Anna Meares and Kaarle McCulloch to worlds gold in April.
The potential for more Britain v. Australia rivalry will continue with both Meares and Pendleton going for three golds each from the sprint, keirin and team sprint.
Pendleton claimed her sixth world sprint title in Melbourne, where Meares won keirin gold, but knows that in her Olympic swansong her title might be heading to Australia.
“Her (Meares) performances on the whole over the last 12 months have been a lot more solid than mine,” said Pendleton.
The women’s team pursuit, an event in which three riders aim to set the fastest time over 3km (12 laps) of the 250m velodrome, will be hard to predict.
Britain owns the world record of 3:15.720, and while Australia, Canada, the
United States and New Zealand should all be in the mix, Australian Melissa
Hoskins says the hosts are the “team to beat.”
She added: “Not only do they have home-soil advantage, but they have proven that they are the strongest team in the world.
“To beat them, the whole team is going to have to be on song.”
The key battles
France’s Gregory Baugé is considered the man to beat ahead of the demanding three-day match sprint tournament, although he won’t be handed the gold by either Britain’s Jason Kenny, Australian Shane Perkins or Robert Forstemann of
Germany. Olympic champion Victoria Pendleton will lead Britain’s hopes on her swansong and is expected to meet either Australian Anna Meares, Simona Krupeckaite of Lithuania or China’s Guo Shuang in the final.
Australia, Britain and Germany have been the pace-setters for the three-man, three-lap power event in which a lightning fast first lap somewhere around the 17-second mark is considered crucial. In the women’s two-lap, two-woman equivalent Britain’s Victoria Pendleton and Jess Varnish will face equally fast duos in Anna Meares and Kaarle McCulloch of Australia and German pair Kristina Vogel and Miriam Welte. Both men’s and women’s finals are held on the opening day of competition Thursday.
In the high-octane Japanese event in which the field is paced by a derny for the first few laps, Sir Chris Hoy is Britain’s main hope for gold, having won February’s World Cup test event, uncharacteristically, from the back of the field. He will come up against Aussie Shane Perkins, Frenchman Mickael Bourgain and Malaysian Azizulhasni Awang among others. On the second day of competition Meares will lead Australia’s bid against some of the rivals she is likely to meet over the following days of match sprinting.
After trading some of the fastest times the world has seen for the 4 km, 16-lap event, Great Britain and Australia are widely expected to make the gold medal final, although Russia and New Zealand will be looking to be in the mix. In the women’s 3 km event over 12 laps, Britain, Australia, Canada, New
Zealand and the United States are expected to wage a five-way battle for gold.
The six-discipline event is hard to predict, but after making its debut at world championship level in 2009 it has produced some specialists in Australian Glenn O’Shea, Canada’s Zach Bell, Britain’s Ed Clancy, New Zealander Shane Archbold and Colombian Juan Arango. Laura Trott, the 20-year-old talent who is also in the women’s pursuit, will spearhead British hopes against a quality field containing Canadian Tara Whitten, Sarah Hammer of the United States and Annette Edmondson of Australia.