Points on offer for Olympic aspirants
By: Sarah Connolly
The world of track cycling descends on the Manchester velodrome next week for the fourth and final UCI Track World Cup of the season - and the last chance for riders to qualify to compete in the Track World Championships in March.
As the series hits European soil for the first time this season, riders will face added pressure as points won here will count towards Olympic qualification and national team directors will be taking the opportunity to try out new combinations of riders as they focus on preparing their best possible teams for 2012.
The Olympics influence the three-day programme, with non-Olympic events being dropped to make room for the omnium. There will be no points races, individual time trials or Madison, only the women will ride the scratch race, while only the men will ride the individual pursuit.
The missing events will still be contested at the World Championships but the eligibility and rankings will be decided from previous World Cup events.
Many of the stars of the track season so far have once again been Australians; from the opening round in Melbourne, in December, they have been stamping their authority all over the Cup, and although their Manchester team contains many younger riders, they will still be a force to be reckoned with.
Australia's biggest medal hope will once again be Anna Meares, who has been in blistering form this year, beating British star Victoria Pendleton in the sprint for the first time in seven years. In the team sprint, she will reunite with fellow world champion Kaarle McCulloch as they try prepare to defend their title next month.
The Australians' nearest neighbours will be out to steal their crown, however - New Zealand currently leads the World Cup standings for the men's and women's team pursuit, while Shane Archbold will be well worth watching in the men's omnium.
As this is the round where the European riders don't need to worry about the travel costs and jetlag, this is the World Cup to see all the big names, plus young talent for the future.
British Olympians return to the track
The home squad, Great Britain, will be riding with something to prove, as stars of the 2008 Olympics return to the World Cup for the first time since the Beijing Games. And they will be using every ounce of advantage provided by the sold-out home crowd and knowledge of their home track to try to dominate the event.
Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas return from their road duties at Team Sky to demonstrate that their ambitions on the track are still as strong as on the road, while the women's team pursuit squad sees double Olympic champion Rebecca Romero return to competition.
Joining them on the team for her first time on a World Cup squad is multiple Paralympic and Para-cycling World Champion Sarah Storey. Storey, who started her Olympic career at the age of 14, has won medals in five separate Paralympic Games in both swimming and cycling, and Manchester is an important step on her journey to try to win a spot in the able-bodied Olympic team for London.
The fight for places on the British women's team pursuit squad is so fierce that there will be two separate British squads entered into the event, with final details decided just days prior.
Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton will be leading the sprint team and there should be no repeat of the lapse in concentration that lead to Hoy being knocked out of the first round of the European Track Championships sprint. Crowd favourite Pendleton, who has been sprint world champion every year since 2007, will make the most of Manchester's support on her way to defending her title.
The British won't be allowed to have everything their own way, however. France is sending its formidable sprint squad, containing sprint world champion Grégory Baugé and the leaders in the World Cup rankings for sprint and keirin, Kévin Sireau and Sandie Clair.
Germany will also send a very strong team, and after winning medals in both sprint and endurance competitions in previous World Cup rounds, will be determined to repeat its success.
The Netherlands will be another team to watch. After winning this week's bike-off for the team slot with multiple World Champion Marianne Vos, the omnium will be ridden by Kirsten Wild, who won silver in the Beijing World Cup.
The Dutch should also be strong in the sprints, where Teun Mulder continues to shine, although Willy Kanis will be hoping to regain her form after a disappointing season.
Other international teams are yet to confirm their rosters, but we can expect to see a range of stars from all around the world - and although the riders will be conserving their absolute peaks for the World Championships in the Netherlands, in March, we can be sure of some excellent racing and hard-fought competition.
For more about this week's racing see Cycling News HD