Team GB cycling stars' most fearful opponent? Expectation
After the golden glory of Beijing and incredible Tour de France feats of Wiggins and Cavendish, the spotlight burns brightly on our two-wheelers
If there is one sport where the bar is set almost ridiculously high in the Olympic Games for host nation Great Britain, it is cycling. And no matter how often GB officials have tried to play down the pressure by saying that the 14 medals clinched by Britain's most successful single sport in Beijing were a one-off, and that the official estimate for all cycling disciplines is between just six and 10 medals in London, the public expectation is far higher.
The way cycling spearheaded the Beijing gold rush for GB – and the country's finest Olympics in a century – is partly to blame for this. Another is the huge increase in British cycling's profile generally over the last four years, with the country's maiden win in the Tour de France last Sunday – by a triple Olympic gold medallist, Bradley Wiggins – and Mark Cavendish becoming world road-race champion last autumn and winning on the Champs-Elysées last weekend strongly suggesting that we will again be the nation to beat.
Yet another reason for the high expectations is that none of the big hitters on two wheels from Beijing – Sir Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny, Victoria Pendleton, Wiggins and Nicole Cooke – have retired. Just to crank up the pressure further on certain other individuals, there is Cavendish's excellent – but by no means guaranteed – chance to take Britain's first gold medal of the Games in a location as symbolic as The Mall.
And if the men's road race is one golden opportunity that nobody wants to miss, Yorkshire's Lizzie Armitstead – Britain's top female sprinter – could well follow suit in the equivalent women's event the following day. As if that wasn't enough, while the Hampton Court time-trial course next Wednesday is probably too flat for Emma Pooley to repeat her excellent silver medal from Beijing, it will be an ideal hunting ground for Wiggins to snatch his fourth Olympic gold.
That is the dream scenario and if it works out, it might seem at that point that Britain is bound for runaway cycling medal success that surpasses even the exploits in Beijing. However, the massive restructuring of the Olympic track programme during the last four years could make it more difficult for our track cyclists to gobble up the medals in Stratford's "Pringle" Velodrome at the same rate that they racked up seven golds in the Laoshan Velodrome back in 2008. One new regulation which hits Britain's medal chances is that no more than one rider from each nation can enter the individual events. Had that applied in Beijing, Scotsman Ross Edgar would not have taken part in the keirin to clinch a silver behind Hoy, and Bolton's Kenny would not have clinched the same colour medal behind the same man in the individual sprint. As things now stand, Kenny will be our sole entrant in the individual sprint, where the raw speed and tactical nous of France's Grégory Baugé is likely to make the three-times world champion a formidable opponent.
Hoy's non-participation in the men's sprint means his historic Beijing triple is no longer possible, but on the plus side, his searing last-bend surge for victory in the keirin world championships this April was one of the high points of the GB team's performance Down Under.
However, when it comes to the men's team sprint the comparative inexperience of their "man one", young Philip Hindes, when compared to rock-solid veteran Jamie Staff – now retired – in Beijing, makes a repeat gold medal in that speciality for Hoy and Kenny less of a certainty.
The wiping of the individual pursuit from the Olympic schedule – where Britain took gold and bronze for the men and gold and silver for the women in Beijing – represents another big setback for GB's medal chances.
But both in the men's and women's team pursuit, Great Britain's chances of securing gold are excellent. Laura Trott, Dani King, Jo Rowsell and Wendy Houvenaghel have been world champions for two years running and recently set a new world record in Australia. Whichever three of those four race, they should be Britain's best chance of a gold in the entire velodrome programme.
There is a similar enthusiasm – although not quite as marked – about the GB men's team pursuiters. Their world championship title this spring came after a harder struggle for supremacy during the last three years, given that though closest Beijing rivals Denmark have faded, a re-emerging Australia – fourth in China – will be their main contenders and the gaps may be closer than for the women.
However, with two of the squad – Ed Clancy and Geraint Thomas – already gold medallists at Beijing, experience and the confidence following their stinging defeat of the Aussies in April should spur them on to greatness.
Perhaps the key factor when it comes to Britain's chances of surpassing its China performance is Victoria Pendleton, whose final Games glitter with the opportunity to "do a Hoy" and claim gold medals in no less than three velodrome events in one fell swoop – the keirin, individual sprint and team sprint.
Pendelton's best chance will be in the individual sprint, where she was crowned world champion for a sixth time this spring.
In China, too, she saw off her most persistent rival, Anna Meares, without needing to recur to the third round, but in Australia's world championships the balance of power between the two in the semi-finals was more even. A crash, though, had a lot to do with that – with Pendleton beating Meares with track burns showing through her skinsuit and gold remains by far the most likely outcome for the 31-year-old Briton.
On paper, the keirin and the team sprint with Jess Varnish are Pendleton's weaker suits – but only her outstanding qualities in the match sprint, which she has dominated for nearly a decade, tend to overshadow everything else she does. The keirin world champion in 2007, since then she has taken a further two silver medals in the same event and if Australia were not at their best, racing in front of a home crowd could help Pendleton get back on top of her game.
The GB team sprint results have only been slightly more uneven, with a fourth place in the world championships for Varnish and Pendleton, but prior to that the duo snared a valuable victory in Stratford in February's World Cup. Either way, the Germans will be the nation to beat, and the duo most likely to defeat Pendleton and Varnish. And if that hat-trick of medal opportunities means Pendleton could become the star of the Games in the same way that Hoy did, she is not the only possible multiple medallist from the women's track team. Team pursuiter Laura Trott could take double gold if she continues to shine as brightly as she did in Australia in the new Olympic event, the women's omnium.
In total then, theoretically, there could be as many cycling golds as we won in Beijing, with the improvement of our chances in the two men's roadracing events making up for the slight dip in collective performance on the track. Meanwhile, Shanaze Reade in the women's BMX – and perhaps national champion Annie Last in women's MTBing – could give us even more reasons to celebrate. That is the theory. However, when it comes to road- racing and particularly for the events where Cavendish and Armitstead are favourites, the variables are far greater than in track events.
Inside the velodrome, the opposition, most notably the Australians, has clearly re-grouped after the British swept the field in Beijing – and the world in general is out for its sporting revenge plus a memorable chance to beat the host nation. So if the expectations of Britain's cycling stars are even higher than Beijing, the boredom threshold for fans ought to be far lower. And nobody can complain about that.
Three rivals to watch out for
"There is no love lost between these two" remarked Australia's Herald Sun recently about Anna Meares and Victoria Pendleton. Their rivalry will continue in the sprint – where Pendleton knocked Meares off the top spot in Beijing – the team sprint and in the keirin. Meares has three Olympic medals to her name, and will be the first woman to win four track medals if she gets on the London podium.
Australian men's pursuit
The Australians have shone in this ever since their 1984 gold medal in Los Angeles, but in the latest duel with the boys from Down Under the British start with world-record holders, world champions and Olympic champions as well as the "home crowd" factor all in their favour. Aussie national performance director Kevin Tabotta warned yesterday of the dangers of an "us-versus-them" battle. Some hope.
In the individual sprint, "France's rivalry with Britain dates back to the 2000 Games", claims French trainer and three-times gold medallist Florian Rousseau. The latest mutation in this historic duel is Grégory Baugé, who has dominated the event since 2009, versus Jason Kenny, who lost against the Frenchman in April's world championships – after beating Sir Chris Hoy.
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