Olympic Games: French confounded by British success in team sprint

'They don't exist for four years, then at the Olympics they outclass the whole world'

French technical director Isabelle Gautheron caused quite a stir when, struggling to come to terms with Great Britain's domination on the track at the London 2012 Olympic Games, she came to the somewhat paranoid conclusion that the host nation must have had 'magic wheels' they were keeping a secret from everyone else. Four years later, and nearly 10,000 kilometres away in Rio de Janeiro, it's a similar tale of French head-scratching.

"We are human beings like them, we are made of the same stuff, we have a bike like they do, so why are they better?" asked a disgruntled Michael D'Almeida on Thursday as Great Britain won team sprint gold – the first medal on offer on the track – for the third Games in succession. "If I had the explanation I wouldn't be here today with a bronze medal around my neck.

"I'm not in their camp, in their country, I don't know how it works, I don't know what goes on. I have a inkling about certain things but I'm going to shut up because it's not good to speak in the heat of the moment," added France's man-three in what was a cryptic interview with French media in which he went on to question the atmosphere and even the personnel in the French camp.

Over the last decade the British track riders have made a specialty of peaking in line with the Olympic cycle, flying somewhat under the radar at intervening competitions such as the World Championships but coming spectacularly good every four years. They won seven of the ten gold medals on offer at both London 2012 and Beijing 2008, and on the first day of racing in Rio there was every suggestion they've timed it perfectly once again, with fastest qualifying times for both the men's and women's pursuit teams - a world record no less for the women - on top of the sprint gold.

"They don't exist for four years, then at the Olympics they outclass the whole world," said a similarly bemused Michael Gané, the French sprint coach, as he watched Philip Hindes, Jason Kenny, and Callum Skinner triumph in an Olympic Record time.

That trio had lowly odds of 15/1 after Skinner struggled to hold the wheels of his teammates at both the past two Worlds – where GB haven't triumphed in the discipline since 2005. France have won five titles in that time, yet it's the Brits with three straight golds at the Olympics, and the French consigned to one of the lower steps of the podium on each occasion.

"You have to ask how they do it. Their man-three had never finished off a race before these Games, and now he's doing pretty much the best times of the competition. I don't know what they've done - you'd have to ask them. I'd really like to know, to understand."

While Gané and D'Almeida are unable to put their finger on how the British are so strong when it really matters, the latter hinted at discord within the French camp, with the nation underwhelming this year after a glittering home Worlds in 2015. 

"Decisions were taken and choices were made too late. We'd like to always have things in place earlier, but we have a different system to them, and that frustrates us a bit. The result is not only about the delays – it's the whole atmosphere, too, the personnel around us. That's my personal opinion," said D'Almeida. 

Asked to expand, the eight-time World Championships medallist remained cagey but appeared to criticise members of staff who've worked over the latest Olympic cycle. The French have had significant upheaval in the sprint camp over the past four years, with Florian Rousseau leaving in 2012, and his replacement Justin Grace lasting a year and now tasting success with GB. There was an interim in Franck Durivaux before Gané took over at the end of 2014.

"I can't tell you everything," said D'Almeida. "There's no anger. I'm fully satisfied with the preparation we've done since arriving. Hats off to the staff present here – they've done their jobs perfectly. What's overwhelming my thoughts is not just what happened this evening, but everything that has happened these past two, three, four years. In my eyes, there are things we need to revisit. It's…I risk saying too much. There are people who, thankfully, aren't at Rio – they didn't have the right to come – but they inflicted damage. That has to be sorted out."

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