Sarah Hammer rode to the first world title for an elite American track rider since 1996 with a narrow victory in the women's 3000 metre individual pursuit at the 2006 UCI Track Cycling World Championships on Thursday.
Hammer clocked a time of 3:37.227 in the gold-medal final to edge Olga Slioussareva of Russia to become the first athlete to medal at the world championships since Marty Nothstein sprinted to a gold medal in the men's keirin in 1996. It's been 11 years since Rebecca Twigg earned the last women's elite track world title for the U.S. - also in the individual pursuit - in 1995.
"I'm blown away," commented Hammer. "My goal coming in here was to get into the medal rounds. I thought it (a world title) might have been possible and I remember a month ago driving home from the track and thinking that I want to be the world champion. After my world cup ride in L.A. earlier this year, I gained a lot of confidence knowing what the world championship times were there last year, so I think I knew it was possible."
Hammer began the day by posting a personal best time of 3:37.194 in her qualifying heat, the fastest mark of all 24 competitors.
In the ensuing head-to-head final against the second-seeded Slioussareva, Hammer went out with a plan and opened up a 1.2 second advantage after the first 1000 meters. Throughout the remainder of the race, Hammer's advantage dwindled but she managed to maintain enough momentum to hold on for a slim .072 second victory.
"My first six laps I kind of just stuck to my schedule which was to start pretty fast," explained Hammer. "Then from then on it was just going to be a race between me and Olga. They (coaches) were telling me I was up a second, then I was getting down and I could hear the crowd. They like to see someone come back and I could hear them getting louder and louder, so I knew it was close."
Hammer's success comes when USA Cycling's track program is undergoing upgrades and additions after a zero-medal performance a year ago. After a medal in her elite world championship debut, Hammer hopes ending an 11-year drought will contribute to the ongoing improvements.
"It's nice to kind of step into possibly the next endurance woman's shoes and hopefully this is a step up for American cycling. Hopefully this can help jumpstart us again."
After her performance on the second-largest stage for track cycling after the Olympic Games, Hammer has already tabbed the 2008 Beijing Games as a legitimate objective.
"I thought 2012 was going to be my main goal, but obviously now my plans my have changed a little bit. Now maybe 2008 can be something too."
The US team sprint team managed a 10th place finish, with the team of Ben Barczewski (Breinigsville, Pa./Team Spike) Giddeon Massie (Colorado Springs, Colo./Team Spike) and Christian Stahl (Bethany, Conn./CKR Racing) clocking a time of 46.146 seconds in qualifying. The team lacked one of its top sprinters, Michael Blatchford (Cypress, Calif./Team Spike), who was injured to the world's. Leadoff man Barczewski was also recovering from a recent injury.
"We did the best job we were capable of, injuries not withstanding," explained Massie after the race. "The fact of the matter is that the time was consistent with what we've been doing all year. And I think it's within a tenth of a second of our best time for the season. Obviously there's a little disappointment because we always want to do better, but at the same time, given the circumstances, it wasn't a bad ride."
In the final of the team sprint, host country France clocked a winning time of 43.969 seconds over runner-up Great Britain who turned in a 44.194. Australia claimed the bronze with a mark of 44.600.