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Simon Jones: Australia’s first Olympics goal is making it to the start line

TOKYO JAPAN JULY 19 A worker paints the start ramp at the Cycling BMX racing venue at the Ariake Urban Sports Park ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games on July 19 2021 in Tokyo Japan The Ariake Urban Sports Park will host skateboarding and BMX cycling events Photo by Cameron SpencerGetty Images
Putting some finishing touches on the BMX start ramp at the Tokyo Olympic Games (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Simon Jones was brought into AusCycling to turn around the nation’s Olympic Games medal performance, but regardless of how well the athletes have been prepared for Tokyo the Brit is acutely aware that even having a shot at a medal winning performance can’t be taken for granted.

The team is hitting its ambitious targets on the track, while the road selection includes riders that have delivered top results in some of the biggest races on the calendar and worn the rainbow stripes. There is a mountain biker that stood on last year’s World Championship podium and the BMX squad boasts a recently-crowned world champion. Though, with the Tokyo Games being held in the middle of a global pandemic, ensuring those riders actually get a chance to race is no simple matter.

“This Games is unique and extraordinary, getting on the start line is actually a goal. All it takes is one close contact with COVID,” Jones, AusCycling's performance director, told Cyclingnews in an interview last week, before he announced that he’d be leaving the role after the Olympics. “Everyone has got to travel internationally … we've got to make sure people are healthy and we are really strict with social distancing and preventative measures.

“If we get to the start line, I think we've got a chance and we've got multiple chances across the 22 medal events."

The shifting landscape too, has had an impact that extends beyond the unprecedented uncertainty for making it to the start line, with the change of the Olympic Games from 2020 to 2021 shifting the goal posts as the team was in the middle of its run up. 

"We have won some and we've lost some I would say,” said Jones of the delay. “If you take a pure outcome perspective we are probably slightly worse for the extra year ... across the board.”

One of the biggest factors on the negative side that Jones pointed to was the loss of track sprinter Stephanie Morton, with the four-time world champion retiring. That left Australia one short for the team sprint, an event where Morton and Kaarle McCulloch had taken gold and silver during the 2019 and 2020 World Championships, so the nation went from being a favourite to not even lining up.

There’s also been the emergence of strong new rivals in the men’s time trial, with Australia’s Rohan Dennis, the world champion in the discipline in 2018 and 2019, but slipping back to fifth in 2020. Though there’s also been some emerging riders from Australia that have helped balance the scale, among them Australian time trial champions Sarah Gigante and Luke Plapp, the latter who is part of the track endurance squad.

The medal chances

When asked about the medal chances, BMX was one of the first opportunities to which Jones pointed, where Logan Martin in June claimed the title of BMX Freestyle World Champion. It’s the first time the discipline has been included in the Olympics and only nine riders take part, which for a start leaves a one-in-three chance of a medal, but it is hard not to see the medal potential when you are fielding the rider who has recently been named the world’s best.

“He's a world champion, he's trained he's healthy and so I think we've got a good chance there,” said Jones. “That's going to potentially be the strongest chance for gold, but I don't want to put pressure on anybody. He's just going to go and do his absolute best."

The track racing has the most medals available, so it's not surprising that it provides one of the biggest opportunities for success. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the cycling medal tally of two – a silver and bronze – came from track, while in London in 2012 it was five from the track and one from BMX. 

This time, though, it has been an unusual run-in with the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting strict quarantine requirements in Australia making it impractical to compete overseas. The lack of international competition makes it harder to gauge how the track team – made up of Matthew Glaetzer, Nathan Hart, Matt Richardson and McCulloch in the sprint squad and Annette Edmondson, Ashlee Ankudinoff, Georgia Baker, Maeve Plouffe, Alexandra Manly, Sam Welsford, Leigh Howard, Kelland O'Brien, Luke Plapp and Alex Porter in endurance – stacks up. 

“In the timed events we have progressed,” said Jones. “We haven't raced for such a long time, so all I know is we're going significantly quicker than we have gone before. I guess the question is, what's everybody else doing?

“We set some quite lofty targets and we are meeting them but again, that gives you no guarantee, so we'll find out in two weeks where we sit. But I do know we've physically progressed and we've technically progressed."

Day 5 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Pontal n Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rohan Dennis riding the time trial at the Rio Olympics in 2016 (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

On the road, the more predictable of the two events is the time trial. However, there’s still very little certainty with the 44.2-kilometre men’s course, including the added challenge of nearly 850 metres of elevation and also the likelihood that the weather will play a part.

Dennis will be lining up for Australia in the event and Richie Porte is also on the start list. Dennis had looked to be heading toward a medal in Rio 2016 when he had to change his bike in the time trial because there was a crack in the aero bars, but is he in with a chance this time?

“I think the gap between fifth and podium is going to be really, really, really tight, or even fifth to the top space,” said Jones, adding that the heat could be a real leveller.

For the women, who race half the distance with half the elevation gain, Grace Brown and the 20-year-old Gigante will be lining up. Brown placed fifth in the race against the clock at the World Championships and recently delivered third place in the mountain time trial at the Giro d’Italia Donne. Gigante hasn’t had a chance to see how she fares in the discipline on the world stage before, but the fact that she has twice beaten Brown to the Australian title bodes well.

“They've progressed and they are better than they were ... but we can't control the others,” said Jones. “Let's get on the start line healthy and I think we're in with a shout, but it is going to be tiny margins of error. I think a bronze in the time trial is not an unrealistic target.”

The road is always unpredictable, and the men are lining up with a squad of four, with Dennis, Lucas Hamilton and Luke Durbridge supporting Porte “because he’s got the climbing form”. The women have the maximum team size of four – with Amanda Spratt, Brown, Gigante and Tiffany Cromwell – but they have a formidable Dutch squad to contend with as it contains four of the world’s top five riders.

“You have got to race your own race, and you have got to race to your strengths and I think the way that you get an edge over competition,” said Jones. “You've really got to know the enemy and my view is that if we're responding to the Dutch then that's going to be pretty difficult so we've got to be proactive.

“We've got to actually go with some tactics where it may be a bit of a gamble but equally, if we don't, then there's a good chance we're not going to get anything anyway. We've got nothing to lose.”