Was versatility the catalyst for World Cup omission
There were always going to be three disappointed members of the British team pursuit squad for this weekend's UCI World Cup in London.
Step forward Ben Swift, Andy Tennant and Sam Harrison.
In the line-up that has been selected, the experienced Ed Clancy and Geraint Thomas will be joined by Steven Burke and Peter Kennaugh in what is set to be one of the most entertaining of contests, with the qualifying round in the opening session, on Thursday evening, and the final on Sunday.
"It's the Ashes, isn't it," said Shane Sutton, the GB performance manager, of the team pursuit. That's a reference to the prestige of the event as well as an expected showdown with Australia, the reigning world champions. But Sutton corrected himself:
"That's how people look at it, but I see the team pursuit as just one medal. We've got to be careful as a team that we don't just live and die by that one result we get in the TP."
With Tennant and Harrison missing out altogether on a ride in the World Cup, Swift will at least have the opportunity to race in the omnium. But, as he sat with his fellow team pursuiters and looked ahead to that, it didn't seem like much consolation.
"I tried to get in to the team pursuit here but it didn't quite work out," said Swift. "I was quite disappointed. It was always going to be hard to get selected for the team but it does give you extra motivation to get selected for the worlds. I will give it a go."
Sutton admitted that Swift had perplexed the selectors, who, he said, picked the team on the basis of the "numbers" they had produced in training, in particular during a couple of trials last week. "We saw a couple of things that we felt needed to be addressed," said Sutton, "and we thought the sooner we narrow it down, the better."
One "problem" with Swift, suggested Sutton, could be the sheer versatility of a rider who won five races on the road last season, including stages of the Tour Down Under, Tour de Romandie and Tour of California.
"It's a difficult one for Ben at this moment in time. It concerns me that Ben just hasn't hit his straps in this block [of team pursuit training]," added Sutton, who pointed out that Swift was in the team pursuit quartet that posted a rapid 3.55 in narrowly losing the world title final to Australia in 2010. "I am a bit concerned that Ben hasn't stepped back up to that level.
"The problem is, is he too versatile?" Sutton continued. "He could go out and win ProTour races, he's a [grand] tour rider - he can do everything. He just hasn't come back to the boards the way I thought he would have.
"But that doesn't rule him out for the Worlds, either. He's going to ride the omnium here, and get a bit more board time."
Sutton stressed that the team pursuit squad should not be judged on their
performance this weekend - a point echoed by Clancy, who, with Thomas, has taken on the role of elder statesman.
"Obviously it would be nice to win, but the most important thing is that we do a good time, get a bit of confidence from that, go quicker at the worlds, then head to the Olympics," said Clancy.
With the Australians set to field their strongest team, Clancy acknowledged them as their main rivals: "You can look at that two ways... It will either be to send a message out by beating us on home turf, or just to check out what it's like over here. I don't know what their training has been like. They might not be on 100% form. But they have sent their A-team. Chances are that they are going to mean business."
Thomas, like Swift and Kennaugh, has put his road career on hold to pursue gold in London, though he described this as "an easy decision." As he explained: "It's a home games, it means a lot to me. The team pursuit is the best chance I have of winning a gold medal, so that's what I decided to do."
Not that Thomas has abandoned the road completely; he rode the Tour Down Under and will ride Paris-Nice. "If I didn't race between now and the worlds I would definitely start to crack a bit," he said. Kennaugh, though, said he is likely to join Thomas and Swift at the Giro d'Italia with only one road race in his legs. Otherwise, the team pursuiters are locked into a semi-permanent training camp.
"The track is completely different training to the road," said Thomas. "You live on top of each other really. The coach is on your back 24/7, telling you when to eat, when to train, what times to be doing. It's like being back at school, really."
The target that has been mentioned ever since Beijing is the magical time of 3.50 - more than three seconds quicker than the world record the British team, with Clancy and Thomas in the line-up, set on their way to gold in Beijing. "At this World Cup it's not going to happen," said Clancy. "I don't think. If it does, then it won't be by us.
"When teams really get their heads on, when they prepare for the track, it could happen at the Olympics. But times are funny. It depends on the atmospheric pressure, the temperature and how the boards are running as much as your legs. We could go two or three seconds quicker [than Beijing]. Potentially it's on. Perhaps not this weekend, but potentially."
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