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Anna Meares leads Kaarle McCulloch and the Australian team go fastest in the women's team sprint qualification round
The game of poker leading to the 2012 London Olympics has begun, and this year's world championships in Copenhagen, Denmark, will be full of intrigue as the big players look for medals whilst keeping their cards close to their chest.
One of those riders playing down their chances with an eye on London is Sir Chris Hoy, the famed Scotsman returning to the world championships after missing the titles in Warsaw last year due to injury.
"You see riders really dominating their events in the period between Olympics," explained Hoy recently, "but you don't want to do too much in this period. I don't want to burn myself out in these interim years. I'm trying to hold something back, because what really matters is in two years' time.
"The world championships are important," he continued, "but London is more important. If you think back to the Bordeaux world championships [in 2006, at the equivalent stage of the Olympic ‘cycle'], a lot changed between then and Beijing.
"I'm very conscious of the fact that these world championships, though they're important in their own right, will be long forgotten by the time London comes around."
Despite this last statement, Hoy will still be out to beat all comers, which includes the French, who will again arrive at the world titles with a quality quartet of sprinters - Grégory Baugé, Michael d'Almeida, François Pervis and Kévin Sireau - intent on recovering some pride lost in recent years.
Add to the mix the Australians, which include Shane Perkins, Jason Niblett, Dan Ellis and Scott Sunderland, and the men's sprint events promise to melt the ice around the Ballerup Super Arena after a particularly cold European winter.
Another notable sprinter who will be competing in Denmark but looking towards London is Australia's Anna Meares. The 26-year-old is the reigning women's team sprint world champion and will be taking on three events in Copenhagen. One of those is her 'pet' event, the 500m time trial, in which she has been world champion and won the gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
"From a personal perspective I think I have a lot of ground to improve on at this worlds in comparison to the last," said Meares. "I only had three months preparation for Poland after having a break post-Beijing. I won a silver in the 500m in 33.7 seconds which I'm hoping to improve on from both fronts but that will not be easy in any case given Lithuania's Simona Krupecaite is the defending world champ and world record holder."
She added that fans could possibly see a record fall. "The track is extremely fast and the 500m is the first event so fresh legs from both parties could result in a mammoth clash between us two but also on the clock."
Of the track, Meares explained, "It has been sanded recently and so has changed dramatically in terms of grip and speed on the boards. The temperature is cranking inside the velodrome and the combination is making it seem very fast, or at least a lot faster than Copanhagen has been in the past."
Meares is also the Olympic silver medallist in the women's sprint, and she'll be up against the woman who won gold in Beijing, Victoria Pendleton, whose form is largely unknown after a long break following her heroics at the last Olympics.
"The sprint is going to be hotly contested between Victoria [Pendleton], Willy [Kanis], Guo [Shuang], Simona [Krupecaite] and myself and the fast conditions will make that all the more intriguing. I'm very much looking forward to this event. I didn't ride it at last year's worlds so alot to be gained here for me," said Meares.
As for the endurance events, the men's team pursuit promises to be an interesting three-way battle between the Anglophones, with Australia, Great and New Zealand proving to be the form sides of the past 12 months.
Looking at the British sextet for the endurance events however, one aspect stands out: Jason Queally's inclusion, likely to be the beginning of that team's experiment with using a kilo rider in the team pursuit ranks. The South Australian team at the Australian national track titles in February did it with terrific results; look for the British to step that up a notch in Copenhagen.
The 40-year-old veteran will be matched with Steven Burke, Ed Clancy, Ben Swift and Andy Tennant in the team pursuit while Chris Newtown will be back to try and wrestle the points race title off talented Australian youngster Cameron Meyer. The event may have been controversially taken out of the Olympic program but still makes for a great race at world championships level.
In usual style, Meares sums up the approach - and the chances - of many of the teams at this year's UCI Track World Championships in Copenhagen, including that of the Australians. "I think everyone is looking - and should be - to always improve. Both on their own personal results and on the overall team performance," she explained.
"What makes this hard is that everyone else in the world is attempting to do the same. Do I think we can repeat last year's performances? Yes. The British are re-strengthened in the men's sprint with Sir Chris Hoy this year, but in saying that I think that slowly but surely that gap between him and the world is closing. Across the board, I think we are in for a fair showing."