Britain's track cyclists insist that the 2012 Olympic Games are their overriding target but their greatest rivals proved again last night that the hosts will not have everything their own way in London. Australia have been the dominant country at this week's world championships in Copenhagen and enjoyed one of their finest victories when their men's pursuit team held off Britain to take their fifth gold medal of the week.
Steven Burke, Ed Clancy, Ben Swift and Andrew Tennant qualified more than a second quicker than the Australians but the Britons trailed throughout the evening race for gold. Jack Bobridge, Rohan Dennis, Michael Hepburn and Cameron Meyer were determined to seize the initiative at the start and led at every time check over the four kilometres.
The Britons reduced the gap to one tenth of a second during the final kilometre, but the Australians held on to win in 3min 55.654sec, 0.152sec ahead of their opponents. The winning time was less than two and a half seconds slower than the world record, which Britain set in winning the Olympic gold medal two years ago.
Clancy was the only rider left from the winning team in Beijing and one consolation for Britain is that they fielded a young and largely inexperienced quartet. Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas, who are concentrating for the moment on their road careers, are likely to return to the squad for London, while 39-year-old Jason Queally, who did not make the final line-up in Copenhagen, is also in contention for a place.
The Australians, however, also fielded a young team – their oldest rider was just 22 – and their seventh victory in this event in the modern era will fill them with confidence.
Clancy tried to put a brave face on the result. "As a team we're used to winning,' he said. "We're GB and people expect us to win. Anything other than a win always seems a bit of a disappointment. We knew the Aussies are coming strong at the moment. They've got a good bunch of young lads and I guess they just did us on the day."
Britain's only gold medal so far was won by Sir Chris Hoy in the keirin and the Scot today begins his attempt to win a second in the individual sprint competition.
Victoria Pendleton began the defence of her world sprint title yesterday and recovered from a moderate start to earn a place in today's semi-finals, in which she will face Australia's Anna Meares, who has been one of the riders of the week.
Pendleton's pure speed usually tells in qualifying but on this occasion she could finish only seventh. Nevertheless the Olympic champion went on to beat her fellow Briton, Jessica Varnish, France's Clara Sanchez and Russia's Victoria Baranova. The third Briton, Rebecca James, went out in the round of 16.
Teun Mulder, of the Netherlands, won the one kilometre time trial, in which Britain's David Daniell finished a disappointing seventh.