Sir Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish have together been involved in some of British cycling’s most enduring moments.
At the 2012 Tour de France, the sight of the yellow- jerseyed Wiggins, a rider Cavendish refers to as “a big brother”, leading the Manxman, in the rainbow jersey of world champion, on to the Champs-Elysées remains a memorable image.
So, too, the role Wiggins played in Project Rainbow, the successful quest to guide Cavendish to the World Championships road-race title the season before.
This week the pair are reuniting at the track World Championships for the first time since 2008, something Wiggins likened to The Smiths reforming.
Then, as now, the worlds are in Britain, starting today at the 2012 Olympic velodrome at Lee Valley and ending on Sunday when Wiggins and Cavendish bring down the curtain on the whole event in the final track race, the 50km Madison, which they won in 2008.
The respect between the pair is mutual, Cavendish, in this week’s build-up describing Wiggins as “always the heart of the group”, while Wiggins referred to “the good experiences” the duo have had together.
In recent weeks Wiggins and the GB team chief Shane Sutton have shown a growing confidence about Sunday’s outcome. Sutton, also Wiggins’ long-time mentor, describes him as “one of the greatest sportsmen of all time” and said that he was “pretty much invincible”.
Invincibility is a term oft-used about Britain’s track riders but it is a cloak that slipped markedly last season.
At last year’s track World Championships in Paris, GB, the sport’s usual table toppers could only sneak into 10th place in the medals table with three in all, and not one of them of the golden hue to which the British public has become accustomed. It led Sutton to berate his charges very publicly and accuse some of them of having lost their hunger, a hairdryer treatment that was not universally well received by all the riders.
Jason Kenny, a double gold medallist from London 2012 who has marginally lost his lustre in recent seasons but remains formidable at his peak, said: “When he says that I just think, ‘Shut the fuck up!’ You know what I mean? We are here because we want to be here. We want to win, and it hurts us enough losing without having someone barking at us.”
Despite Kenny’s comments, the mood in the British camp ahead of this week’s World Championships has improved markedly, in some sense the team lifted by the addition of Cavendish and Wiggins, with team-mates talking about their approachability and lack of ego.
The GB squad is still struggling to fill the void left by the retirement of the previous star duo in Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton after their combined glories at London 2012. And the question remains: where do the British team currently rank worldwide?
It is notable that in 2012 they failed to top the worlds medal table only to sweep the board at the subsequent Olympics, such was their ability to peak at the right time when it comes to the Games. But their previous world dominance slipped to the extent that last year in Paris the seemingly unconquerable British quartet in the team pursuit lost their lengthy unbeaten run.
Britain’s cause in that event this week has not been helped by being deprived of Katie Archibald through an injury which, it transpired, was the result of her crashing her motorbike while travelling at 70mph rather than crashing her road bicycle, as had previously been claimed.
It led to the trademark public rebuke from Sutton, though Archibald should be back for this year’s Rio Olympics, prompting team member Joanna Rowsell Shand to describe her as a potential “secret weapon”.
Sutton and his riders have talked about London being the stepping stone to Rio, but there are pitfalls along the way.
The women’s team sprint line-up are the only British team still to qualify for this year’s Olympics and they need to put two places between themselves and the French sprinters to book an additional rider in the individual sprint and keirin in Rio.
All eyes in that event will be on Becky James as she returns to the worlds, which she dominated so brilliantly in 2013, but after which she has been troubled repeatedly by illness and injury. Whether she can be the force she was at Minsk in 2013 is another matter.
There is a sense of the unknown about this week’s worlds, not least with Cavendish, who knows that his appearance in the omnium represents Rio or bust.
“For Cav to be in Rio he needs to perform well,” said Sutton. “If he can’t make the top three in the world I would think he would put his hand up and go back and pursue his dreams of the leader’s yellow jersey and winning stages on the Tour de France. He needs to know he can go to Rio and get the medal.”
Likewise the rest of the squad.
Braking news: ones to watch in Team GB at the Championships
Sir Bradley Wiggins Having switched from road to track in search of a fifth Olympic gold medal, he goes in the team pursuit and then teams up with Mark Cavendish in the Madison.
Mark Cavendish London will decide whether Cavendish, also focusing on the road in 2016, can make the British Olympic team. As well as the Madison, he lines up in the omnium.
Women’s team pursuit Once the dominant force of British Cycling, their crown slipped at last year’s World Championships and they have been hit with the absence of Katie Archibald after her motorbike accident.
Becky James The Welshwoman has been hit by illness and injury since storming to glory at the 2013 World Championships. It remains to be seen if she is back to her sprint best.
Laura Trott One quarter of the pursuit line-up, Trott also goes in the omnium and will have her sights set on wresting back both world titles at the scene of her double gold in the London 2012 Olympics.
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