Golden sprint team in confident mood
The one gold medal on offer in cycling today ended up in British hands as team sprinters Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny and Jamie Staff vanquished favourites France with jawdropping ease.
A three-lap contest in which each component of the trio leads for one circuit of the velodrome before peeling off, anchorman Chris Hoy crossed the finishing line more than half a second ahead of the French: the track racing equivalent of a country mile.
“We honestly thought we were coming here for silver.” British cycling head coach Dave Brailsford said. “But then you go out and see what you can do, and we weren’t scared by it. It was an opportunity we didn’t want to miss.”
The team sprint gold ends a run of success for France dating back through various World Championships to the 2004 Olympics, where Britain had finished a deeply disappointed fifth.
Fast forward four years and Great Britain’s qualifying time was enormously promising: their 42.950 seconds posted for the three laps was the fastest ever in team sprint history.
After effortlessly brushing aside the United States in the next round, Britain more than rose to the challenge in the duel for gold or silver against France.
A first lap time of 17.1 seconds by veteran Staff already had British staff on their feet cheering - and the team well ahead of the French - but it was Kenny, 15 years his junior, whose performance was truly exceptional.
Riding his first ever Olympics, and only given the definitive thumbs up to replace team stalwart Ross Edgar just a few days ago, Bolton-born Kenny’s acceleration was so powerful he even opened a gap on Hoy, the last man in the line.
Widely touted to clinch three gold medals this Olympics, the Scot was forced to dig deep to maintain contact with Kenny. Once acheived, on the final lap he inexorably widened Great Britain’s lead with each pedal-stroke - and the first of those three possible medals was in the bag.
Discussing their ultra-strong qualifier, Hoy pointed out that “you have to come in and commit from the word go. You never know how the other teams are going to perform.”
“It was a really big boost. To put three laps which individually were the quickest ever in the world, to get that all together on the same day, that’s not easy to do.”
There was also a sense of sporting revenge after so many years of being sidelined by the French.
“It feels good to be on the top level of the podium for a change after the French have dominated this one for so long.”
“I’m always surprised when we do so, but currently everybody’s riding a level beyond what they’ve ever done before.”
As Hoy’s words indicated, there were yet more reasons for Great Britain to be cheerful today, with Bradley Wiggins taking the first place on the classification for the men’s individual pursuit, and Wendy Houvenaghel and Rebecca Romero scooping the top two places in the women’s.
Even 20-year-old Stephen Burke, like Kenny riding his first Olympics, recorded an impressive fifth best time - more than nine seconds faster than his previous personal best.
“It was a formality.” Wiggins said laconically of his ride, as if breaking an Olympic record time in a classification phase - his time slashed over a tenth of a second of the previous Olympic best - was the most straightforward thing in the world. At this phase in the track game, though, for Great Britain, such amazing rides are becoming perilously close to the norm.
“A start like this is huge.” pointed out British coach Shane Sutton. “You think about what it was like for the Aussies when they had that great start in the 2004 Olympics. That gave them a huge lift right from the word go.”
The chances of the team sprint’s gold ushering in an avalanche of similar-coloured medals for Great Britain - predictions of up to six golds have been made in the track alone - already looked un-nervingly high. Incredibly, today’s performance allows for even headier levels of optimism.
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