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The fine balancing act of a winning combination
It cannot be easy being Kaarle McCulloch. In team sprint partner Anna Meares, she has one of the best athletes the world of track cycling has ever seen. But also, in Meares, she has a fierce rival.
"It's no secret to anybody that I want to win and that she wants to win," McCulloch told Cyclingnews of the delicate balancing act. "I think that that is the reason why we were both so competitive on the international level because we've got each other to train with and we ride against each other so much and push each other to our limits. We both know that so we're not going to let that affect our relationship or our riding in any way because we know that having each other around is only to the benefit to our personal careers."
McCulloch and Meares claimed their third-straight team sprint world title on Thursday evening with a start-to-finish performance over Great Britain's Jessica Vernish and Victoria Pendleton in the Apeldoorn velodrome. Meares lead the way out of the gate with a solid first lap of 18.688 which was half a second quicker than Varnish. McCulloch added another tenth of a second to the lead in the next half lap and hung on against Pendleton's barnstorming final 125 metres to seal the victory.
McCulloch, 23, is still a relative new-comer to the sport having first tried middle distance running and then triathlon on her way to finding her calling on the bike at age 17. In 2006, McCulloch made her first Australian team and at the Junior World Championships she won bronze in the 500m time trial and claimed two fourth places in the sprint and keirin.
So far, her lone elite Australian titles in the keirin, sprint, and time trial have all come when Meares wasn't competing. At February's national titles, Meares took out both the kierin and the sprint. McCulloch finished fourth and second respectively handling each result with grace. Tough given one of the first questions asked by media is more often than not, about Meares.
"When I race anybody individually I try not to focus on the individual," McCulloch explains. "I'm just basically going out and riding against someone who's just an opponent and that's how I try and treat racing against Anna."
The day is coming when McCulloch will get the better of Meares individually, and she knows it. Meares, 27, is quick to acknowledge her younger partner's talent. "She is only young," she said. "I think that she is going to be an individual world champion, for sure."
When Meares describes her younger teammate and rival, she's frank, calling McCulloch "focussed", "determined" and "committed."
"Where Kaarle is fantastic, this is only her fourth world championship competition and she hasn't been in the sport that long, this is a girl who can hang on to an 18.7 lap and finish without dying in the second lap. She's challenging Vicky Pendleton and Simona Krupeckaite in the times she's putting out in second wheel and as much as some people say, ‘she's got a great starter,' if I didn't have a great second wheel rider we wouldn't even be in the contest for medals let alone top eight or 10 in the world.
"I think that's what's so unique with us that when it comes to team sprint, we are so committed to working together as a team that we're able to flick a switch when it comes to individual events but we don't put each other down much at all in the individual events because we know we need to keep that morale high for the teams sprint. So it's a unique balance that we've spent years working out together so that support level carries through all events not just in the team sprint."
It was however Meares' comment at the 2011 national championships that perhaps gave the greatest insight into this finely balanced, racing relationship.
"There's only been one spot at the Olympics and I've filled that in the past two occasions and I know that I've been what stopped her trying to achieve her goal of going to the Olympics such is the case with Kaarle..." Meares explained. "As much as I feel for her when I'm off the track, I can't feel that way when I'm on the track otherwise I'm going to be the one that's losing the races and the shoe's on the other foot.
"I'm hoping that I'm pissing Kaarle off because by the time I retire she's going to be one hard girl to beat."