Absent Obree leaves mark on rivals

Robin Nicholl on how one man has changed the shape of track racing
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The cult of the flat-out racing style is growing. Although its guru, Graeme Obree, will not be defending his world 4,000 metres pursuit title in Manchester today, his presence will be everywhere in the pounds 9m velodrome, Britain's temple of track racing.

From the United States to New Zealand, the word has spread. The Italians, usually cycling's innovators, became the followers when Obree beat their best, Andrea Collinelli, to win a second world crown last year in Bogota.

A weakened Obree failed in Atlanta, but Collinelli won the Olympic gold medal and set a world record. Antonella Bellutti produced a second gold medal for Italy using the style that Obree likens to Superman, arms outstretched, in flight.

Devotees of the style now include Chris Boardman who, according to the British national coach, Doug Dailey, was touching world record pace while working out with the position on the 250m wooden track.

The prospect of Obree, the world 4,000m pursuit champion, taking on Boardman, the 1994 champion, filled the 3,300-seat stadium on the second day of the championships, when the pursuit final takes place.

Then Obree, who is working his way back after suffering a viral infection, withdrew on medical advice, leaving Boardman to carry the flag against Collinelli and the Frenchman Philippe Ermenault.

Meanwhile, Obree gained another convert in Lee Vertongen. The New Zealander had broken two bicycles while racing in the United States and feared that his trip to the World Championships would be wasted. Then Obree offered to loan him the original world-beating bike he calls "Old Faithful", and Vertongen was back on track with personal bests in training.

France's Olympic medallists, Ermenault and Marion Clignet, and the American Janie Quigley have been won over by the position Obree devised after the world governing body, the Union Cycliste International, outlawed his downhill skier position as "dangerous."

The word on the track is that the new position is "really fast". With all eight Olympic champions competing, ticket sales have gained momentum, with two more days almost sold out.

The first day offers three finals, and each of the five days has at least one final. It is the most important meeting since the track opened almost two years ago, and the event has 27 nations competing for 12 titles.

Shane Kelly, of Australia, defends his kilometre time trial title on the opening night, anxious to wipe out the miserable memory of Atlanta, when he fluffed his start and lost a golden opportunity.

There are also two medal fights not for the faint-hearted. The former world champion Michael Huebner, of Germany, seeks to re-establish himself after losing ground to the Australian Gary Neiwand and the American Marty Nothstein in the keirin, an aggressive race which has a huge betting following in Japan.

The madison team race, named after Madison Square Garden where it was popular in the 1920s, has the Italians Marco Villa and Silvio Martinello chasing a second world crown to go with their Olympic title.