Rise of the British Track Empire

After the world championships in Manchester, it was clear that the track cycling team from Great...

Olympic Games feature, August 22, 2008

They came as prospectors and went home with the mother lode: seven gold medals, three silver and two bronze later, the British had taken the domination they displayed on their home track to a whole new level at the Beijing Olympic Games. Cyclingnews' Laura Weislo looks back at how Great Britain established its empire in the Laoshan velodrome.

After the world championships in Manchester, it was clear that the track cycling team from Great Britain was on to something. Little did their competitors know that they had only seen the start of what would be near-total domination of the track events by the British in the Olympic Games in Beijing.

By winning each and every non-mass start event and the men's keirin to boot, the Brits showed just what a programme which is well-funded, well-staffed and constantly developing new talent can do. Beginning in 1997, the country began using lottery funds to develop its Olympic sports. This bore fruit quickly in Sydney: Jason Queally took home gold in the kilo, Yvonne McGregor became the first British woman to medal in cycling, and medals in the team sprint (silver) and team pursuit (bronze) signalled the start of the new British empire.

In Athens, the Brits doubled the number of golds, taking top honours in the kilo with Chris Hoy and the individual pursuit with Bradley Wiggins, but was disappointed on several other fronts. Victoria Pendleton failed to make it past the first round in the women's sprint, and the men's team sprinters didn't make the final.

Fast forward to Beijing, and the Brits' years of work developing talent, training and technology along with an 8 million pound budget geared mainly toward success at the 2012 London Summer Olympic games left previously dominant countries such as Australia wondering where they went wrong.

The sprinters: Unbeatable finishes

The British team made a clean sweep of the sprint events, even going one-two in the men's sprint and keirin. In fact, the Brits never lost a single heat in any of the sprint events (except where they went 1-2)!

It all began and ended with a Scot named Chris Hoy. This muscle-bound fireplug of a man anchored the team sprint to a new (unofficial*) world record in the qualifying round, but gave much of the credit to the 20-year-old former BMX-er Jason Kenny whose second lap was one of the fastest ever recorded, and Jamie Staff, who went more than two-tenths of a second faster than the French on the opening lap.

They then went on to obliterate the heavily favoured world champion French team in the final, leading to the understatement of the week by French coach Gerard Quintyn: "It was quickly apparent that they [the British] had made much progress since the World Championships in Manchester."

Even in the chaotic and unpredictable men's keirin the British sprinters advanced through to the gold medal final with relative ease, winning their heats both in the first and second rounds. Athens winner Ryan Bayley failed to make the medal final and former world champion Theo Bos crashed out in the second round. In the final, Hoy and team-mate Ross Edgar made mincemeat of the rest of the field through smart team tactics to take gold and silver.

Hoy and Kenny then went on to unleash their vicious finishing speed on the men's sprint field. After qualifying 1-2 as the only riders to break ten seconds for 200m, they waltzed through the first few rounds with a now characteristic show of force. It wasn't a surprise that Hoy got the better of Mohd Awang in the semis, although the Malaysian put up a good fight. However, when Kenny bested Frenchman Kevin Sireau, it became clear that the Brits had discovered someone special.

Hoy then trounced France's last hope, Mickael Bourgain, while Kenny dashed Germany's hopes of going for gold by defeating Max Levy in two races, setting up an all-British gold medal round. Hoy schooled his younger team-mate in the final, but proudly declared afterwards that Kenny would be the man to fill his shoes in the future.

It wasn't until the third day of competition that Victoria Pendleton had her chance to shine, and the stress began to build for the world champion as she watched her team-mates take medal after medal. "To only have just one event and to also only have one risky event - meant the pressure I was under was unbelievable," Pendleton said. The women get four events in UCI competitions: sprint, team sprint, keirin and the 500m time trial, but after the latter was dropped in favour of BMX after Athens, the sprint was the only event left in the Olympics.

With just one chance to get it right, Pendleton relied on Steve Peters, the British team's sports psychiatrist, to help her learn to deal with the pressure. "I wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for Steve Peters," she said. After her breakdown in Athens, Pendleton needed a way to handle the nerves of major competition, and it was clear that Peters did the trick. She set a new Olympic record in the qualifier before systematically dismantling each and every one of her opponents - never losing a single race - to win the gold medal.

The heart-warming story of the women's sprint event was the phoenix-like rise of Australian Anna Meares, whose silver medal was her country's sole Olympic cycling medal - its least successful performance since Moscow in 1980. Meares, who fractured two vertebrae in a crash this past January, was within millimetres of becoming a paraplegic, but instead rode herself back to form and into the Games' most dramatic sprint semi-final against China's Shuang Guo.

Guo took the first race by attacking from the front, but the same tactic didn't work on the second race, where Meares was able to get onto the Chinese rider's wheel and then power past at the line, setting up a tension-filled third contest. Meares drew the lead on the final round, and as the pair headed into the bell lap and began to pick up the pace and manoeuvre for position, Guo lost traction and crashed down the banking.

At the re-start, Guo was given the lead position, and with the bronze medal on the line and the deafening cheers of the Chinese crowd lost sight of the rules of engagement; Meares got the jump heading into the final lap and took the pole, but Guo muscled into her lane in full view of the judges at the start of the bell lap. She bumped Meares, who nearly lost control of her machine, and despite coming across the line first, was relegated and Meares was awarded the win to advance to the final.

In pursuit of gold

The success continued at the opening session with a new Olympic record in the men's individual pursuit by Bradley Wiggins. Going nearly four seconds faster than his closest competitor, Hayden Roulston (New Zealand), it was clear that Wiggins would walk away with his second consecutive Olympic gold in this event, and he did.

The surprise of the men's individual pursuit came in the form of 20-year-old Steven Burke, who was well outside the top eight after three kilometres of the qualifying race, but then pulled off an unbelievable final kilometre to move into fifth. He then put in far more consistent times to move into the bronze medal final in the first round, and then pulled off another scorching final kilo to overhaul Russian Alexei Markov to take the bronze.

The talent identification aspect of the British programme was put on display when first time Olympian Wendy Houvenhagel and Athens rowing silver medallist Rebecca Romero qualified in the top two times in the women's pursuit. The pair practically shamed the competition, catching their opponents in the first round and then going on to take silver and gold.

In the marquis event, the British team pursuit squad put their mark on the competition at the outset, bettering their own world record, set in Manchester in March, in the qualifying round. Their 3'55.202" was more than a second faster than the previous mark, but nobody - not even the foursome of Brad Wiggins, Ed Clancey, Paul Manning and Geraint Thomas would have predicted that they would shatter that time in the final.

Facing off against Denmark, the Brits eclipsed their previous time by a shocking margin - 3'53.314" - and nearly caught the Danes on the final lap. In contrast, Athens champions Australia fell to the New Zealand team, who’s best effort was a full four seconds slower than the Brits.

Mass start races offer room for improvement

The only area where the British team failed to dominate was in the mass-start events, the men's and women's points races and the Madison. Bradley Wiggins and four-time Tour de France stage winner Mark Cavendish were expected to medal in the Madison after winning the World Championships. But despite an early exit from the Tour, it was clear Cavendish lacked the freshness needed to contest an hour long event which averaged a blistering 56.475 kilometres per hour.

The British pair's best result in that race would be a second place on the fifth sprint, but in a race where gaining a lap up on the field is an important goal, the British duo fell flat. Wiggins, perhaps fatigued from setting Olympic and World Records in all of his previous events, never even got a gap on the field.

Instead, it was the team from Argentina, Juan Curuchet, 43, and Walter Perez, ten years his junior, who took the lap, followed by Russia and Spain. They then racked up the most points to take home the gold medal ahead of the experienced Spaniards Joan Llaneras and Antonio Tauler. Mikhail Ignatiev and Alexei Markov took bronze.

In the men's points race, former world champion Chris Newton gave the Brits a bronze medal by being one of just three riders to lap the field twice. Spaniard Juan Llaneras took home his second gold medal in this event after Sydney by focusing all of his sprint efforts on the second half of the race. German Roger Kluge took the final sprint to push himself past Newton to take the silver.

The women had just one mass-start event, and it was one of just three events for the fairer sex in track cycling. Pursuit gold medallist Rebecca Romero tried and tried to get away to lap the field, but was heavily marked and was unable to gain any ground. Her efforts did serve to tire out the field, allowing the Netherlands' phenom Marianne Vos to attack. Vos was the only rider to lap the field, and, after having tallied ten points in the sprints, had an unbeatable margin going into the last lap.

Cuban Yoanka Gonzalez put in a huge surge on the final lap to take the last points and move herself into the silver medal, while Spaniard Leire Olaberria dashed in second to pull ahead of Colombian Maria Luisa Calle for the bronze medal.

All told, Great Britain's 12 medals may not even signal the peak of their dominance in track cycling. On top of their Olympic Podium Programme, they also have support for the 18-23 year olds under the Olympic Academy Programme, and for juniors with the Olympic Development Programme. On top of that, they have a specific organisation devoted to development at the 14-16 year old range, which could mean the British will be a force to be reckoned with for many years to come.

* The team sprint does not have an official world record as the distance of the event is dependent on the length of the track.

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