Australia's men's team pursuit squad knows that a gold medal will not be won easily with an almighty battle expected to get underway when Olympic Games qualifying begins on Thursday afternoon, UK time. The men's team pursuit which gets underway in the London 2012 Velodrome just might be one of the most highly-anticipated events of the track cycling program, with Australia's two-year run in the rainbow jersey coming to an end in April.
Great Britain set a new world record (3:53.295) in the gold medal ride off at the UCI Track World Championships, pipping Australia by .106 of a second in Melbourne. Their old world mark, set at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games (3:53.314) would be relegated to the annals of history while Australia also set a new personal best time. It was not the result that Glenn O'Shea, Jack Bobridge, Rohan Dennis and Michael Hepburn wanted but in retrospect, it was needed Dennis told Cyclingnews.
"I didn't actually think it was too bad of a thing for us," the 22-year-old explained. "We won in London at the World Cup against the exact same team and we probably got a bit far ahead of ourselves.
"I think we all thought we could have won, not easily, but within a second or so and it ended up being a point-1 [second] loss. We hadn't lost for a number of years; some people look at it differently. We did need that kick up the old butt - it shows that we're not invincible."
Australia began to re-build its men's team pursuit following the Beijing Games after failing to figure in the medals with its previously successful line-up which included Luke Roberts, Graeme Brown and Brad McGee joined by Mark Jamieson and Bobridge. The event delivered one of eight gold medals for the Great Britain team, with Denmark claiming silver and New Zealand bronze. By the 2009 world championships in Poland, the nucleus of the current team began their road to London with Bobridge and Dennis leading the way with a silver medal behind Denmark. Hepburn joined the squad for the 2010 world title which was backed up in 2011 in Apeldoorn. Leigh Howard, Cameron Meyer and Luke Durbridge have all since turned their back on the track to focus solely on their road careers.
The current squad will have five riders to choose from this week with Glenn O'Shea and young-gun Alex Edmondson fighting it out for fourth man but regardless of who makes the final selection, the battle between Australia and Great Britain is expected to lower the world record.
"To win in London it will be quicker than Melbourne," said Dennis. "Everyone will lift that little bit more because it is the Games. It should be a second or two quicker for sure.
"That's a lot on a four-k effort but both teams have been working towards this for the last four years since Beijing. Everyone's going to be throwing all their weapons at each other. There's a lot at stake. We don't them to win; they sure as hell don't want us to win. It's a friendly rivalry but this is definitely one we don't want to lose."
As a team, Bobridge, Dennis, Hepburn and O'Shea worked well in Melbourne with fine-tuning set to make a difference in London. The question remains as to whether O’Shea will be left to only compete in the omnium elevating Edmondson into the starting four. In the Melbourne final, Great Britain's Andrew Tennant was replaced by Steven Burke with Ed Clancy, Peter Kennaugh and Geraint Thomas taking it to Australia from the gun with around three tenths of a second separating the two teams over the opening laps. With 1500m down, Australia had closed the gap and the teams were on equal terms. Australia then edged ahead over the next 1000m before the Brits put their noses slightly back in front.
Seven tenths of a second separated the teams on the bell lap with Great Britain surging for the line with Thomas at the front of the train helping the reigning Olympic champions to an average speed of 61.7km/h.
It hasn't exactly been plain-sailing for the team between the worlds and London however with Jack Bobridge and Hepburn at the centre of a drink-driving incident just over a month ago which had the potential to derail the Australian campaign. Bobridge was fined 700 euros (A$880) and his drivers licence was suspended for eight months after he was arrested in the resort town of Lloret de Mar following an accident in a car park. Hepburn, a passenger in the car, broke a finger and was forced off the bike for several days while he recovered. Cycling Australia found both athletes guilty of misconduct, fining Bobridge A$2500, with A$2000 of the penalty suspended, and he is now on a 12-month good behaviour bond. Hepburn was given a 12-month good behaviour bond and a A$1000 suspended fine.
There's been talk over the use of 'hot pants' - battery-powered tracksuits to keep the rider's leg muscles warm with both teams developing the concept separately in the lead up to the Games only to find that their technology would not be a unique advantage, but Dennis fixed on what could be done during the race.
"Our start was a little bit slower than the Great Britain team so we were always chasing," he explained to Cyclingnews. "There's a positive mentality from knowing that you're up from the word go. Otherwise you're always fighting to get that lead."
The rest is fine-tuning, the one-percenters that will save the energy to really deliver in the back half of the four kilometre race. Should Australia win gold in the final, just over a day after qualifying begins, they will have bucked a trend - the team that has won the last three World Championships in an Olympic year have become Olympic champions.
"It wasn't a disgraceful time it was a .1 loss to a world record," Dennis said of the team's Melbourne experience. "That was the quickest time we've ever done. Our coach Ian [McKenzie] wasn't happy, but no one is happy when you lose, but I think he was satisfied with where our form was considering that Jack had a few injury problems earlier on in the season and not the best preparation.
"Their last kilometre was a little bit slower than ours and we brought back a lot of time even in the last lap. We just hope they don't fix those things."
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