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Is the UCI set to axe more Olympic track events?

The International Cycling Union (UCI) looks set to wield the axe again on the Olympic Games track cycling program. In cahoots with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), cycling’s governing body will deliver the verdict on the fate of the men’s Madison, points race and individual pursuit at the 2012 London Olympic Games on December 12.

While the proposal means that the men’s endurance program will be left with one event – the team pursuit – sprint racing will benefit, with the women’s team sprint plus the men’s and women’s omnium added.

The move aims to create greater parity between men’s- and women’s cycling at the Olympic Games. While the men’s 1000m time trial and the women’s 500m time trial were removed from the Beijing program, in order for Bicycle Motor Cross (BMX) to join the Olympic program, this time three events will be eliminated from the list of male events, leaving a massive gap for aspiring track endurance riders.

The decision will be a double-edged sword for Australian cycling: it boasts the world champion in the points race – Cameron Meyer – whilst the world champions in the women’s team sprint and the men’s and women’s omnium are also all Australians.

The proposed move threatens to eliminate men’s endurance track cycling, leaving behind a legacy of notable professionals who have made their mark on the road after taking their start on the boards. The likes of Garmin-Slipstream’s Bradley Wiggins, 2007 Paris-Roubaix champion Stuart O’Grady and Bradley McGee, the first Australian to wear all three Grand Tour leader’s jerseys.

The young world champion

Garmin-Slipstream rider Cameron Meyer is another road professional who has forged a reputation and delivered results on the track before building a career on the road. He is the current points race world champion, having also finished just out of the medals in the event at the Beijing Games.

“You work so hard over the years… I went to the Beijing Olympics, took fourth and the next year became world champion and all of a sudden it’s gone,” said Meyer. “It’s a hard thing to deal with at the moment and it really makes you think about what your goals are in the future, knowing that the event’s not there; do I continue with the track or do I solely focus on my professional road career?”

Meyer is undeniably one of the most talented Australian cycling exports in recent years – current UCI Road World Champion Cadel Evans recently told Cyclingnews that he watches the young West Australian with interest as a prospect for the future. The question needs to be asked: where would he be in his development had he not enjoyed pursuing track racing in the early stages of his career?

Meyer explained that he read about the proposed changes online and says that there was definitely no consultation of athletes on the proposal. “I thought to myself, ‘You’re killing endurance track cycling’. I couldn’t believe it when I read it,” he says. There’s a chance that riders coming through the system will now bypass the route taken by Meyer and his younger brother Travis – also a noted track rider and new road professional – because there’s no outlet for their talents in that area of cycling.

“That’s the way it could head,” agrees Meyer. “I don’t think they’ve considered that in too much depth before they’ve actually come to this decision and it’s going to limit riders who have a professional road career to just stay with the road and not be able to train for the track because a lot of the events aren’t there anymore,” he added.

“If this does happen, with the event that I’m world champion in gone, it really makes me double think whether I should start to focus [on the road] whereas I had previously thought I’d begin to concentrate on the road at 24 or 25, after the London Olympics. Do I do that or switch to being a full team pursuit rider?” said Meyer.

The team manager

Australian Cycling’s high performance manager, Kevin Tabotta, believes that those riders with professional road contracts may have to either concentrate on their road endeavours or make the switch Meyer spoke of and become one of the team pursuit specialists.

“There are a couple of guys out there who will be disappointed, particularly with the potential for the Madison; in saying that, those guys I see as dual specialists anyway,” said Tabotta. “The opportunity exists for a couple of those guys to centre and focus on other areas; they’re well in the picture for more than those events that are leaving and those that are staying.”

Australia may welcome the men’s omnium into the program, with that nation boasting the world champions in the men’s and women’s events in Leigh Howard and Josephine Tomic. “The addition of the omnium is the one out of left field that all nations will be looking at and saying, ‘How are we going to deal with this, what sort of program are we going to develop?’” said Tabotta. “It’s exciting, and we’ve just got to look at it and say, ‘What are the opportunities?’ We’re not going to sit here and lick our wounds – any nation that wants to do well in London is going to have to get on top of it quickly and well, and that’s we’ll do as a nation.”

The world champion who’s seen it before

Conversely, Anna Meares is another Australian world champion, although the Athens Olympic gold medallist stands to benefit from the changes. She endured the withdrawal of her event from the Beijing Games and after focusing on the women’s sprint took the silver medal in the final against Great Britain’s Victoria Pendleton.

With the addition of the women’s team sprint into the program, her and team-mate Kaarle McCulloch look set to potentially add an Olympic gold medal to the world title they captured in Poland this year. Both riders share Tabotta’s sentiment and are excited about this addition to the women’s program

Meares was terribly disappointed when her ‘pet’ event, the 500m time trial, but she was able to tailor her training and racing program to suit the lineup of women’s events. As the UCI looks to ensure parity between men’s and women’s events, the experienced Australian looks to be the real winner from the Olympic shakeup, with possibly three events to choose from for London in just over two years’ time.

Despite the potential damage the proposed changes could bring for men’s endurance track cycling, Tabotta remains optimistic about his nation’s chances in the British capital. The youth of Australia’s riders is the reason for this outlook and he is focused on capitalising on this, with some possible surprises in store.

“When you look at the average age of our guys, we’re well and truly at the start of another cycle,” he said. Whether that cycle holds something for those male riders in the Madison, points race and individual pursuit will be known on December 12.

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