Cycling: GB strike gold but Pendleton is wobbling

Sir Chris powers to victory in keirin but sprint challenge proves too much for women's medal hopeful

Click to follow
The Independent Online

As curtain-raisers and a test event for Olympic track racing in London go, the drama and high level of sporting performance produced so far, not to mention the huge degree of home support, will surely only be outstripped by the main event itself in six months' time.

Everything here betrays the fact that the Olympics are looming ever closer: from the sight of the 340 riders in their respective national teams, crammed together in a tight, open-roofed village of fenced-off "pens", to the profusion of London 2012 stands and plethora of Union flags hanging over the backs of seats, just outside the upper edge of the 250m track itself.

What raises the adrenalin to its highest levels, though, is the noise. Far more deafening than four years ago in Laoshan velodrome at Beijing – the public were warned on Thursday that the acoustics are designed to amplify their applause – it is highly, and logically, partisan. Only a rider from Uganda, Patrick Lawino, curiously enough, has come anywhere near receiving the huge ovations that break out every time a home rider clambers up the boards to the waiting bikes in the startgates.

The British fans had a lot to applaud last night, after Sir Chris Hoy powered through to claim the host nation's first gold of the night with a spectacular late acceleration in the keirin. Rather than his trademark charge from the front that earned him the same coloured medal in the 2008 Olympics and three World Championships, Hoy played a canny strategic game, biding his time then turning up the power in the last half-lap that saw him jump from fifth to a definitive first.

Half a wheel ahead of Germany's Rene Enders on the line, Hoy said he hit 78.1kph in the final dash, the highest speed he has ever recorded in a keirin, and that the crowd had helped spur him on. "It doesn't feel like a World Cup, it feels like a more significant race," he said. "What a buzz, to hear that roar when you cross the line, it's phenomenal.

"There is so much energy you get from the crowd, you have to use it in a positive way. I could have gone from the front but I've been trying to win races with other tactics." And last night it paid off in spades.

Victoria Pendleton's key challenge in her event, the sprint, came in the semi-finals against her longstanding rival Anna Meares, whom she defeated in the Olympics in 2008. Pendleton made her own trademark last-lap lunge for the lead in the first round but it failed to pay off. However, in the second an agonisingly late acceleration put her back on level pegging.

The third, decisive round was a disappointingly low-key affair as Meares neatly swooped ahead with a lap to go, clearly leaving Pendleton with too much work to do. While Pendleton had to settle for fourth after losing 2-1 to Hong Kong's Wai Lee Sze, more importantly Meares revenge for Australia's defeat in Friday's team sprint also leaves Pendleton slightly on the back foot against her most dangerous rival for London 2012.

Pendleton took her defeat philosophically, saying: "I haven't done a lot of sprint tactics training yet, and there's no point practising tactics if you haven't got the legs to perform it properly." She also said Friday's team sprint effort with Jess Varnish had played its part: "You don't break a world record without taking a little bit out of yourself."

If the biggest question mark hung over Pendleton last night, Team GB have been at pains to emphasise that for all the symbolic importance of a victory in the Olympic track stadium, the real challenges – with March's World Championship the biggest of them – are yet to come.

"This is an important testing ground for us, even if a number of our athletes are on tapering programmes for the Olympics and are not potentially at their best at this point," said the team psychiatrist Steve Peters – often cited by Hoy and Pendleton as a key factor in their success. "We can see how the athletes react under home pressure, which can produce both negative emotions and a lot of positive ones, like the lift from the crowd. It can affect their judgement, so they ride differently to what they would have done. It may be detrimental."

Peters pointed out that of the logistical glitches in need of ironing out before the summer, one was as mundane (but as important) as "toilet facilities. The athletes are saying, before we can race we do need to go to the toilet and we've only got one that's a long walk. As glitches they are really worth looking at, because you don't want [a situation] where an athlete may say on the day of the Olympics, I'm struggling because I've got a full bladder."

For some of those on the far side of the 250m Siberian pine track, sadly, the World Cup will be as close as they will get to the Olympics. Among them is Jim Varnish, father of Jess who, like so many, entered the ballot for 2012 tickets and was "very, very disappointed" that it didn't work out. "This is our Olympics," he said wistfully, although they have more than made the most of the World Cup. "We organised a family event yesterday, brought a minibus down with friends and relatives on board. I'm here all three days. It's an incredible event, great facilities, an off-the-map track. It's been absolutely superb to see Jess break the world record, too, something very special." The lifelong memories of the 2012 Olympics, it seems, have already begun.

But Varnish Snr has no doubt that last Friday, when the pair had blasted to GB's first gold medal in the test event as well as the world record, "was the most amazing track event I've ever been to". Varnish may be a shade biased, but he is far from being the only one of the 6,000 capacity crowd that have packed out the velodrome for the last three days who believe it is proving to be a truly exceptional track venue.