By Karen Forman
When United States gun Sarah Hammer "only" managed fifth place in the women's individual pursuit qualifying on the first night of this weekend's Sydney Track World Cup, there was a great deal of speculation over why the reigning World Champion hadn't performed better.
It must have been her back, it was assumed. After all, it wasn't so long ago that she was off the bike nursing a serious injury sustained in training. Perhaps the injury was troubling her.
Actually, the truth was anything but. Hammer's back is fine, thank you very much. And her fifth place was pretty much all the 24 year old and her coach Andy Sparks had hoped for at this event, give or take a position. Sparks, also Hammer's fiancé, told Cyclingnews during a break in Saturday's World Cup program that she had been pain free and satisfied with her ride. "Our goals for the first World Cup, which was our official start of the year, was to have fun with them," Sparks said. "It will be hard to remember that next year, when we are full-on for Beijing.
"Apart from having fun, we wanted to pick up Olympic qualifying points and get in the top four in the pursuit. With how the qualifying is, we don't want to leave it to the Worlds, because anything can happen – you can get food poisoning or something – but we're still in our early buildup, so our expectations aren't too high."
Of course, given her glittering return from retirement, the back injury certainly set her back with her preparation for the Beijing Olympics. But things are back on track now. Sparks concedes that doing six to eight races in a year – especially with long haul travel involved – isn't conducive to high performance or for setting world records. "At least the Sydney and Beijing World Cups are only a week apart, so it's virtually a two for one trip for us. Then it's the LA World Cup, the Worlds and then the Olympics.
"That's five events. Sarah will do all five. There is where the back injury might turn out to be a good thing. It forced us to start our training four months later, which might mean that she still has more to give by the time the Olympics come around and therefore an advantage over the riders who started training before her. She will certainly go into this year much fresher."
Sparks said that another oft-asked question was how the coach-rider relationship affected the couple's personal relationship and vice versa. They had met at the Olympic training centre in Boulder, Colorado at a time when both were talking about giving elite racing away. Hammer retired in 2004. "For us we didn't have a choice but to make it work," he said. "When she decided she wanted to come back we put a plan together to win Olympic gold and that was it. The issue was that the only indoor velodrome in the United States is in Sarah's home state California so we had to move back. "
Returning to training, Sparks said, wasn't just a case of flipping the switch. "We did three months of road work for a start, watched the 2004 Olympics, and then in November got into some serious training. In January 05 we moved to California. At her first return to serious competition at the US Nationals in 2005, Hammer won the pursuit in 3.41 – one second faster than Australian Katherine Bates' silver medal in LA – as well as the individual pursuit.
Hammer's next international contest was the Manchester World Cup, in which she qualified first in the pursuit and ran second to Bates in the final; while winning the points race.
The LA World Cup to follow netted gold in the pursuit, while the 2006 Worlds presented her with gold in the same event. Earlier this year (last season), she won all three at her only World Cup for the season in LA and won the world title pursuit in Spain. "We were going to the Pan American championships, but it was then she had the back injury and we took three months completely off the bike," Sparks said. "Until Sydney, Sarah hadn't ridden a pursuit since the March worlds. A lot of people were surprised she got fifth here in Sydney, but it was her first race of the year."
Sparks said the pair, who plan to marry after the Olympics, were thinking positive. "Until you have those sorts of injuries, you tend to take your health for granted," he said. "We knew taking time off the bike was the only way to deal with it at its root. We didn't want to resolve the superficial problem. And the treatment was time. We gave it time and now we are on track to Beijing."