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Successful start for home team in key Olympic test
Hosts Great Britain topped the medal table in the fourth round of the UCI Track Cycling World Cup, which was staged in the Olympic velodrome in London between Thursday and Sunday.
The Brits won five gold medals of the 14 that were on offer, also picking up a silver and two bronzes to take their total to eight. Close rivals Australia finished second with seven medals: two golds, three silvers and one bronze, while Germany won two golds, two silvers and a bronze to finish third on the table with five medals.
Sprinter Sir Chris Hoy was the standout performer for Team GB, winning both the individual sprint and keirin, as well as teaming up with Ross Edgar and Jason Kenny to take bronze in the team sprint. Although Hoy won his events well, he gave the strong impression that there was more to come before the Olympics.
In Britain's womens' sprinting stakes, Victoria Pendleton succeeded where Hoy failed, pairing with Jess Varnish to win the women's team sprint against Australia in a world record time of 32.754. Pendleton, however, was unable to back up in her individual events, finishing fourth in the individual sprint and fifth in the keirin. A similar fate befell her Australian rival Anna Meares, who ended with a silver in the team and individual sprints and sixth place in the keirin. Both riders struggled to back up for every race, a likely sign of a heavy training programme.
In the endurance events, Team GB came away with a mixed bag of medals. Their biggest disappointment was not beating Australia in the final of the men's 4000m team pursuit on Sunday. The clash was dubbed The Ashes of the Track World Cup, mimicking the rivalry between the two countries in cricket.
Australia drew first blood on Thursday, with their team of Jack Bobridge, Rohan Dennis, Alexander Edmondson and Michael Hepburn qualifying fastest in 3:57.885. Team GB's Steven Burke, Ed Clancy, Peter Kennaugh and Geraint Thomas were half a second slower in 3:58.446, setting things up for a close final on Sunday.
In the final the hosts had the upper hand at the 1000m mark, clocking 1:02.586 to Australia's 1:02.625, but then the tables gradually turned. Australia, spearheaded by the impressive Jack Bobridge, rode the second kilometre in 56.462 seconds to take the lead by 0.7sec. From then on they increased their advantage to finish in 3:54.615 (the second fastest time ever) to GB's 3:56.330. Both teams will improve before the Olympics and the race is on for the first team to go sub-3:50.
The British women's 3000m team pursuit squad fared better than the men, with Jo Rowsell (who also won gold in the individual pursuit), Dani King and Laura Trott defeating Canada in the gold medal final. The Brits clocked 3:18.148, setting another world record in this relatively new discipline in women's track racing.
Hammer on top in omnium
In the omniums, which comprise six different endurance and sprint events raced over the course of two days, the take home message is that there isn't a clear favourite for the Olympics. Colombia's Juan Esteban Arango won the men's omnium, thanks largely to his consistency on his own against the clock: he won the individual pursuit and placed second in the flying lap, points race and kilo time trial. He managed fifth in the elimination and ninth in the scratch race to finish a clear winner overall ahead of Ho Sung Cho (Hong Kong) and Zach Bell (Canada). Home crowd hopes were with Ben Swift, who raised the roof when he won the scratch race and finished third in the elimination, but clearly lacked the speed required for the flying lap and kilo and ended sixth overall.
The women's omnium saw USA take its only gold medal of the meet with Sarah Hammer triumphing overall. Hammer didn't manage to win any of the events but was the most consistent performer - marginally more so than Australian Annette Edmondson, who finished with the same number of points as Hammer. Third went to Britain's Laura Trott, who won both the 500m time trial and the elimination race, finished second in the individual pursuit and flying lap but had a poor ride in the points race and finished 17th. That cost her the top spot overall but should give her encouragement for the Olympics.
The London meet concluded the fourth round of this season's Track Cycling World Cup. The next stop is the World Championships in Australia between 4-8 April, where it's expected that Australia will claw back some of the gold medals they lost to GB and other nations in London. But all nations have their eyes on the big prize, the track cycling at the London Olympics from 2-7 August. The pressure to perform there is the highest, not just for personal glory and national pride, but also for determining funding for the future, such is the value of Olympic gold medals compared to everything else.