It's crunch time for Edmonton, Alberta's Tara Whitten: the 2011 UCI Track Cycling World Championships are about to get underway, and next weekend she will defend her title in the women's omnium - a gruelling six-race event that encompasses all of track cycling's disciplines: the flying lap and 500m time trial favour sprinters, the 3km individual pursuit the endurance riders, while the elimination, points and scratch mass-start races lend an element of chance and chaos into the mix.
In order to prepare for this year's championship and her search for Olympic glory in the 2012 London Summer Games, Whitten put her studies toward a PhD in Neuroscience on hold last September.
"I plan to return to finish my PhD after the Olympics, but for now I felt that I really needed to put all of my energy and focus into cycling," Whitten told Cyclingnews.
The singular focus has yielded strong results: two second places and a win in the omniums in the three World Cups she competed in this season.
"I am happy with the schedule that I chose this season. I wanted to hit the first three World Cups in order to put myself in a good position for Olympic qualification, and get a feel for the new omnium format. I then chose to skip the last World Cup in Manchester in order to have two solid months of training going into the World Championships."
When Whitten took the omnium title in 2010, the format did not include the elimination race and the pursuit was only 2km. Now the world championships take in the full schedule that will be in place for the Olympic Games.
Coming from a background in cross-country ski racing and having far less mass-start experience than the likes of her closest competitors Sarah Hammer (USA), Kirsten Wild (Netherlands) and Leire Olaberria (Spain), Whitten's strengths lie in the timed events.
Before focusing on the omnium, Whitten made her entry into track cycling by winning national titles and World Cup medals in the pursuit, but her savvy in mass start races has come quickly and last year she not only won the omnium, but the points race world championship as well.
"The mass start races have been good as well as long as I race smart and use my strengths well. I have felt that the 500m TT has been a bit weaker, but I have been working on it for the last couple of months so I have confidence in that now, too."
Indeed, Whitten's 500m time cost her the omnium title in 2009, when Australian Josie Tomic pushed her from the top step of the podium by one slim point.
Last year, Whitten dropped a whopping 1.5 seconds off her 500m time to take third in the race and secure her country's first world championship in nearly 17 years.
Yet as defending world champion and one of the favourites, Whitten has the pressure of being her country's biggest hope for a gold medal but will also be a marked woman in the races.
"There is a bit of pressure and expectation that goes with being the defending World Champion, but I have been using that pressure as motivation all year to really push myself to be at my best.
"I expect everyone to raise their game for the World Championships. Sarah [Hammer] will obviously be the one to watch, but there are many strong riders here including Leire Olaberria from Spain and Kristen Wild on home turf in the Netherlands. I am looking forward to some really great racing and some close battles."
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