By Rob Jones in Beijing
The track portion of the Olympic program opened on Friday at the Laoshan velodrome in the west end of Beijing. Great Britain followed up their stellar showing at the World Championships by winning the first medal competition on the track - the team sprint. France, who was hoping for revenge after taking bronze in Athens, had to settle for silver, while Germany took the bronze ahead of Australia. In addition to the Team Sprint, the qualifying rounds of the men's and women's individual pursuit were held.
Great Britain was clearly remembering having been shut out of the medals in the Team Sprint at the 2004 Games and losing the world title on their home track in March. They smashed the existing best time for the event in the qualifying round, with a time of 42.950 seconds, the first ever under 43 seconds. All three riders - Jamie Staff, Jason Kenny and anchor Chris Hoy set new world times for their legs. (Note: there is no world record, since the event can take place on tracks of different lengths)
The top eight teams - Great Britain, France, Germany, Netherlands, Australia, Japan, Malaysia and the United States - moved on to the next round. The United States actually had the ninth fastest time, but after Poland was relegated for handing off between riders outside the designated zone, the Americans bumped into the final spot.
In the next round, It was again Great Britain and France head and shoulders above the rest to qualify for the gold medal final, while Germany and Australia would go for bronze.
The Brits were clearly riding at another level, as they trounced the French squad of Grégory Baugé, Kévin Sireau and Arnaud Tournant by over half a second.
"To beat them by half a second, made it just that bit more exciting," commented Hoy. "Honestly, it took every inch of effort in beating the French, who have been invincible in this event. Today, we really put all the pieces of the jigsaw together. To win as part of a team is totally different from the individual medal [in the Kilo, which he won in Athens]."
Tournant was philosophical about losing the title. "For me, it's my last time at the Olympics, except for tomorrow [in the Keirin], so it is a big moment and a big pleasure to be here. It was a good race, and it was so fast. It was a great time for our team, but they are fast boys, the British team."
Germany, after a slow start which saw them behind the Australians for the first two laps, clawed their way back into the medals by eight thousandths of a second with a superb last lap by Stefan Nimke.
Wiggins best in class
Wiggins was clearly the class of the field, starting in the final heat against Alexei Markov of Russia. Up until the last two heats, no one had manage to cra ck the 4:20 barrier, however, Hayden Roulston (New Zealand) served notice that he has brought good form to the Games with a strong ride of 4:18.990 .
But Wiggins was up next, and after a slightly slow start - second fastest behind Volodymyr Dyudya (Ukraine) - he moved into the lead after the halfway mark and continued to pull away from everyone else. His time of 4:15.031 was 0.134 seconds ahead of the previous mark, which he set in Athens, and is starting to make Chris Boardman's 1996 world record of 4:11.114 look attainable.
Roulston may be the biggest threat to Wiggins, but he is pragmatic about his chances. "I think anyone is beatable, but you have to cut your head off to beat Bradley..."
Worthy of mention was American Taylor Phinney's seventh plac, moving him on to the next round. The only Junior-aged rider on the track, Phinney is looking for experience at these Games.
"My goal was just to qualify. That was the hardest that I have ever pushed myself in a Pursuit. Today I went out a little hot. Watching Wiggins breaking the Olympic record on this track was incredible and inspiring."
Women add to British domination
The women's Pursuit saw a 1-2 finish by the Brits in qualifying, but it wasn't world champion Rebecca Romero in first, but her team-mate Wendy Houvenaghel, by two-tenths of a second. Houvenaghel had gone up against American Sarah Hammer in the second to last heat, which might have inspired her to dig deeper. Hammer, on the other hand, had a relatively poor ride, qualifying fifth fastest.
"It was ugly for me personally," Hammer said of her qualifying heat. "That's not how I hope to feel. My body wasn't handling it today. Four laps in I was like, 'oh, this is not going to be fun.' It was just a bad day. I was a little nervous, so I'm lucky the races are over three rounds and three days."
On Saturday, the pace of racing picks up, with three medal finals in the Men's Points Race, the final of the men's Individual Pursuit, and the men's Keirin.
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