USA unmasks strong track squad

News feature, August 13, 2008

The United States of America track team's press conference, just days prior to the start of competition at the Laoshan Velodrome in western Beijing, opened with inevitable questions surrounding their arrival in China wearing breathing masks a week earlier. The topic of air quality turned into controversy when four American riders disembarked from their flight in Beijing wearing protective masks.

While the general media jumped onto the topic and the US Olympic Committee felt the need to applogise on the rider's behalf, it did little to phase the American track team's preparations for this weekend. Both Sarah Hammer and Jennie Reed said they have put the matter behind them, although are still using the masks.

"For me, I've just tried to surround myself with my family and friends," said Hammer. "This is my first Olympics, so it's overwhelming already, and the more attention that is made, the more stressed out it I got. But I have put it behind me now, and moved on to training, and I'm looking forward to racing Friday."

Reed was more succinct. "It's sort of like a bad race, you have to put it behind you and refocus," she said. "There was no malicious intent, we were just taking precautions."

Hammer also said that she continues to use the mask. "I feel healthy after taking these precautions, just like I am coming into any other race," said Hammer. "Yes, I still wear it when necessary, but for the last couple of days it hasn't been necessary."

Hammer's pursuit competition will be spread over three days at this year's Olympic Games. While she outlined Great Britain's Rebecca Romero as her largest threat, after she won the World Championship in May, Hammer also believes she's well prepared for the new format of racing.

"Romero is definitely one of my strongest competitors, but for me it is best just to focus on myself," said Hammer. "The Pursuit has no tactics, you can only go as fast as you can go.

"Spanning three days is different, for sure, and it will come down to who can recover best," she added. "We have all known about this format for a long time, so we've been preparing, I've been training for racing three days in a row. Personally, I think it suits me, because it allows me to refocus."

Hammer's coach Andy Sparks spoke about Hammer's back injury, which has impacted the last World Cup season. "It was an L4/L5 disc tear, which was hard to diagnose," he said. "Sarah spent nearly three months completely off the bike, then started training right through the World Cups and the Worlds. At the Worlds she was at about 65 percent. But the back injury is no longer a factor in training volume."

Reed is coming off an extremely strong World Cup and World Championships season, culminating in a bronze in the sprint and a World Championship in the keirin. The recent results have helped Reed build her confidence.

"It just got me more excited, and helped my confidence, and now with five months of training, I'm here even better than I was at Worlds," said Reed. "But you need to keep in mind that there are only 12 women starting the sprint, and seven or eight have won a world title. But, if everything goes right, I can have an awesome performance.

"I've been in Los Angeles since the Worlds, for five months, and the training hasn't changed too much," she added. "But I have been working on acceleration a lot because that is so important in the sprint."

The majority of questions for youngster Taylor Phinney focused around his famous cycling parents, Connie Carpenter and Davis. The young Garmin-Chipotle rider said he dreams of being America's next Levi Leipheimer or George Hincapie and has enjoyed the chance to be around them.

Asked what influence having such accomplished cyclists as parents has had on his development, Phinney stated honestly: "I don't know how to answer that ... they are my parents," said Phinney. "Of course I have heard the stories. Unfortunately my parents can't get access to the track here, like they do at other races to help me prepare, but I'm 18 now, so I'm supposed to be a man [laughs - Ed.]."

"I don't feel a lot of pressure here, I'm more of an underdog, I think, because of my age and [lack of] experience," he added. "I'm just here to learn. It's been cool to be around the road guys, and meet Levi and George. That's what I want to be like."

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