Tokyo Olympics: Matt Walls wins omnium gold for Britain with dominant track cycling show

The Oldham-born 23-year-old added Olympic gold to his European crown with an impressive victory, leading from race one to race four in the Izu Velodrome

Lawrence Ostlere
Thursday 05 August 2021 15:22 BST
Matt Walls won gold for Great Britain
Matt Walls won gold for Great Britain (REUTERS)

Ed Clancy won bronze in London and Mark Cavendish won silver in Rio. In Tokyo the 23-year-old Matt Walls completed the set, finally delivering men’s Olympic omnium gold for Great Britain after Laura Kenny’s two triumphs in the women’s event, and he did it with a complete display of powerful sprinting and tactical nous.

Here, the omnium – a battle to accumulate points over multiple disciplines – was reduced from six events over two days to four packed into three gruelling hours, and what was so impressive was the apparent ease with which Walls dominated a highly competitive field.

Walls is the reigning European champion and he laid down a marker with victory in the opening scratch race, before finishing third in the tempo and second in the elimination, to lead the 20-man competition heading into the points race finale. And despite the early attack of reigning Olympic champion Elia Viviani, Walls stayed calm to clinch comprehensive gold.

He racked up 153 points, well clear of his nearest challenger Campbell Stewart of New Zealand, who finished with 129 and snatched silver from Viviani in the final lap. The disappointed Italian took bronze with 124.

“Coming in here, everything was a bit of an unknown,” Walls said. “The last track race I did was the European Championships last year, which is a long way away. I came in knowing I was in good shape but I didn’t know how it would translate to the track or my tactics from the track. I came into the scratch race feeling good and won it. I thought then, ‘I have a chance now as long as I play it smart’.

“Before I got on the track I was a mountain biker with my dad, just having fun. When I was at primary school I was doing a lot of different sports, I did a bit of triathlon and enjoyed the cycling. Someone said about going down to the velodrome, which was close for me because of where I live. I went there, tried it and loved it.”

The Oldham-born rider has enjoyed a rapid rise with impressive wins on the road and omnium bronze at the world championships, as well as that European title. Here he knew he would have to beat a tough field, though, which included Viviani as well as the world champion, Benjamin Thomas of France.

The omnium can be a head-scratcher at times but the condensed format in Tokyo made things a little simpler. At the end of each event the winner is awarded 40 points, with second taking 38, third 36 and so on, and in the opening scratch discipline – a 15km race around the velodrome – Walls swept up maximum rewards. He made sure to get into a small breakaway pack which lapped the peloton, and then out-sprinted his co-conspirators at the finish to get 40 points on the board.

The tempo race, involving 36 competitive laps with the goal to be leader of the pack on as many of those laps as possible, was an intriguing tactical affair won by Netherlands’ Jan Willem van Schip. But after pinching a few early laps, Walls once again rode clear in a small group and lapped the field, worth an additional 20 points, to take third place behind Van Schip and the Frenchman Thomas.

Walls, Van Schip and Thomas were the leaders going into the third event, the always entertaining elimination formerly known as “devil takes the hindmost”, where the rider at the back of the pack after each lap is cut from the race, like a cycling Royal Rumble.

Matt Walls won gold ahead of defending champion Elia Viviani
Matt Walls won gold ahead of defending champion Elia Viviani (AFP via Getty Images)

This brought out the best in Walls’s powerful sprinting legs, as he lurked at the back seemingly in trouble before repeatedly surging to knock out his rivals. Most effective was his move with six riders remaining when he attacked invisibly around the outside to cross the line and eliminate an oblivious Thomas languishing on the inside.

Walls finished second on the elimination behind Viviani, but by this point the Italian’s Olympic crown was slipping, having finished 13th and eighth in the first two races. The Briton led on 114 points, with Van Schip on 110 and Thomas on 106 heading into the finale.

The points race is the most chaotic of the lot, a wild 25km 100-lap ride in which sprint points are on offer every 10 laps. More significant is the 20 points on offer for lapping the main bunch, wherever the officials deem the centre of the bunch to be in what becomes a stretched and divided peloton.

Viviani lapped the field early to haul himself back into contention, but Walls was part of a subsequent group who also picked up a crucial 20-point haul and that effectively secured gold. New Zealand’s Stewart lapped the field twice, the second of which was confirmed only in the final metres, and that was enough to leapfrog Van Schip and Thomas, as well as a disheartened and dethroned Viviani. The omnium had a new king, and finally he was draped in a British flag.

“I came into the points race with a bit of a lead and that was nice to have a bit of breathing room,” Walls said. “I got a gap and committed to it, I got the lap (and 20 points) and the legs were sore after that.”

Earlier Jason Kenny was well-beaten by Dutchman Harrie Lavreysen in the men’s sprint quarter-finals as the defence of his title came to an end. Kenny still has one more chance in Tokyo, in the keirin, to win a British record seventh Olympic gold medal. His teammate Jack Carlin was excellent and the Scot will threaten the strong Dutch contingent in Friday’s semis and final, after Netherlands beat Britain to team sprint gold earlier in the week.

Katy Marchant was involved in a nasty crash in the women’s keirin quarter-finals which saw Dutch rider Laurine van Riessen carried off on a stretcher and taken to hospital for assessment. The eventual winner of the race, Hong Kong’s Lee Wai-sze, pulled wide on a bend forcing Van Riessen to react on her outside, and she lost control of her front wheel and slid into the path of Marchant, who had no time to avoid a collision as they both went to ground.

Marchant managed to get up and finished the race, although she was a long way behind and did not qualify for the semi-finals. “It’s not my day is it,” said Marchant. “I’m not sure what happened. We were all fighting a bit on the inside and I’m not sure if someone hit into Laurine or what but she came down in front of me and I had nowhere to go. That’s bike racing.”

She will return for Friday’s sprint, the event in which she won bronze in Rio. “I think I feel all right, a bit battered and bruised but I’m all right.”

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