The UCI Track World Cup begins in Melbourne this week as track cycling's focus turns to qualification ahead of the 2012 London Olympics. Points are on offer and the quality of the field lining up in Victoria's capital is proof of this fact.
There's a plethora of world and Olympic champions making their way to Australia, not least of all Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton, the duo spearheading Team Great Britain's sprint squad.
"The team sprint is the important one in terms of qualification. We look to try and get as many points this season as we can in team sprint," said Hoy.
"If we qualify top four in the European nations at the end of the qualification period you get a team sprint place, a sprint place and a keirin place so we don't really have to worry about the individual placings as such at the moment."
The British team will be up against both the Team Jayco AIS squad of Shane Perkins, Daniel Ellis and Jason Niblett plus the Australian national squad that boasts Commonwealth Games kilo champion Scott Sunderland.
Sunderland has enjoyed fantastic form of late and the 22-year-old goes into the opening round of the UCI Track World Cup Classics as a rider to beat.
And British coach Shane Sutton isn't hiding the fact that the British team knows how important the event in Melbourne is to his team. "We brought a strong team and it's at an early phase of the preparation but people have to understand this is a major event and for us its probably bigger than most because we are driving towards the Olympic Games in London," he said.
Sutton's charges include Victoria Pendleton, the reigning Olympic sprint champion beat Anna Meares to the title in Beijing and will be up against the experienced Australian again in Melbourne. It will surely produce one of the racing highlight of the three days of competition.
The Briton goes into the competition slightly underdone due to an injury, although she was quick to brush off the implications it had for her racing. "[It's] just a little bit of a training injury at the moment. It's just normal, you expect it with the training load of what you do in preparation for competition," she said.
"It's still early season so there is a lot of gym work and stuff like that but hopefully it won't cause too many problems. I'll just try my best and see what I can do. You haven't got control over these things and as I say they can happen, especially early season when you are putting in a lot of weights work."
Meares, who took silver behind Pendleton in Beijing, knows that the Briton is a marked woman as she has been in her pet event, the 500m time trial, since winning gold in it back at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
"The world is trying to beat Vicky and I think the gap is closing. I certainly feel like the gap is closing," she said.
"Vicky’s favourite event is the individual sprint and she has dominated the competition over the last five years winning multiple world championships. She is extremely quick like all the top Great Britain riders and the crowd really will be watching the world's best do what they do best," said Meares.
"It will be really interesting to see the match ups that come out of the qualification seeding. The way it has gone in the past, I only lined up against her once in two years in the lead up to Beijing."
The list of endurance riders lining up in Melbourne also boasts plenty of world champions, including the Australian women's team pursuit squad and the Australian men's equivalent, who won their titles in Copenhagen in March this year.
The Australians will be up against the US women's pursuit team, which set the world record in Aguascalientes, Mexico earlier this year.
Marianne Vos returns to the track after another successful road season that included silver in the UCI Road World Championships in Geelong, Australia, in October. She'll be riding the omnium as the programme does not include the points race, the event in which she won gold in Beijing two years ago. The omnium has replaced the individual endurance events for the 2012 Olympic Games.
But it's Meares who sums up best the standard of racing that fans can expect in Melbourne: "We get very few chances to ride against the world's best here in Australia, so the Melbourne Track World Cup is the biggest race outside of the world championships for us this year.
"You don't have to add Olympic qualification into the mix, that's how important the event is for the Aussies."
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