To misquote TS Eliot’s famous line, Team GB’s dominance of the team pursuit ended not with a whimper but with a bang.
It was inevitable that, at some point, British hegemony in track cycling’s blue-riband event would come to an end, but even so, no one could have predicted exactly how it would happen with retirement, controversy, world records and finally a crash.
Track cycling at the Olympics is unrelenting and in the space of just over an hour at the Izu Velodrome, the most successful team pursuit rider ever, Ed Clancy, retired, GB levelled accusations against Denmark for irregular kit and then Clancy’s replacement Charlie Tanfield got rear-ended by those same Danes as the men’s team pursuit reign ended in tatters.
That was not even meant to be the story of the night. This, after all, was the first opportunity for Jason and Laura Kenny to win medals in Japan. They both did so, but both won silver rather than gold.
But back to the men’s team pursuit. The chaos started when Clancy, who had struggled in qualifying on Monday, announced he was pulling out of the Games and calling time on his Olympic career, an ongoing back issue finally winning a seven-year battle with the three-time Olympic champion.
That was quickly followed by Stephen Park, performance director at British Cycling, revealing that there had been some fraught discussions with the UCI (cycling’s governing body) and official appeals over Danish use of shin tape and undervests. Those appeals were rejected, but Denmark had to lose the tape and vests.
It all made for a mouth-watering clash with the Danes in the first-round match-up, but it was not a contest. GB’s team of Ollie Wood, Ethan Hayter, Ethan Vernon and Tanfield trailed at once and, when already down to three riders, Tanfield lost the wheel as GB’s challenge faltered. There was more drama to come though as the Danes failed to spot Tanfield off the back, Frederik Madsen crashing into the back of him.
Both ended up on the deck, with Madsen getting up and shouting at Tanfield, who eventually rose to his feet and finished the race. A long wait ensued to see who would progress; Denmark had caught GB, but would they be disqualified for the crash?
The decision finally came: Denmark progressed, GB pushed down to the battle for seventh against Switzerland. An ignominious way for a golden run to end. For the first time since Athens in 2004, someone else will be on the top step of the podium in the men’s team pursuit.
Until today, no one other than GB had done so in the women’s equivalent, introduced in London. Laura Kenny had won gold in all four events she had entered at the Olympics, but three times in as many races, Germany broke the world record.
The GB team of Kenny, alongside Katie Archibald, Neah Evans and Josie Knight, did not give up their crown without a fight, breaking the world record themselves only to see the Germans beat it a matter of minutes later.
When the two met in the gold-medal match-up, there was only one winner. Germany took another two seconds out of the record, leaving Kenny and co trailing in their wake.
She said: “As an athlete, you want to win everything. We set our hearts on gold, we wanted to win gold, so yeah, we are going to feel disappointed.”
Kenny also revealed that husband Jason had admitted to being nervous before it all kicked off, the first time he had ever done so.
There was good reason for that. GB’s men’s team sprint have won three successive Olympic golds but faced a Dutch team who had not been beaten in four years.
The Britons gave it everything to make it to the final, but knew they were second best and a last throw of the dice by upping the gears did not work in a one-sided final.
Silver takes Kenny level with Sir Bradley Wiggins for most Olympic medals on eight, while only he and Sir Chris Hoy have six gold medals.
He could in theory break those ties in the individual sprint or the Keirin, but the 33-year-old Lancastrian was not so optimistic.
He said: “I think personally my best chance of being on the podium was probably in that event, so I’m really happy to be there and now moving forwards over the next few days we will empty the tanks and give it all we have got, and see if we can get something out of it.”
Asked about what it meant to become Britain’s most decorated Olympian, he joked: “It’s nice. I limped over the line with a silver. The main thing is that I beat Chris [Hoy], obviously, because I know it will annoy him. He’s probably going to make a comeback for Paris now.”
Laura Kenny still has two more chances to become the first British woman to win gold medals at three successive Olympics, and on today’s form, that still looks eminently feasible.
But after the total dominance in the velodrome since Beijing 13 years ago, this certainly felt like a changing of the guard.
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