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Hammer ready to roll

By Fred Dreier

Track events begin in Beijing on Friday.

Track events begin in Beijing on Friday.

Photo: Agence France Presse

In the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, American track pursuit cyclist Sarah Hammer graced the pages of both Sports Illustrated and ESPN magazines. As her sport’s world champion in both 2005 and 2006, Hammer was touted in print as America’s best shot at grabbing a medal in track racing.

And the press greeted Hammer as soon as she set foot in Beijing’s airport. The ensuing photos of her and her compatriots donning black face masks to ward off the effects of Beijing’s notorious air pollution set off the kind of media frenzy neither she nor USA Cycling were hoping for.

The shy Californian admits she’s not the best when it comes to attention — positive or negative. At a pre-race press conference, Hammer said she’s done with masks, media and hype. She wants to get the competition rolling.

“It’s been exciting — it’s great to get attention for myself and for track cycling, but I’m ready to get racing,” said Hammer, who celebrates her 25th birthday on Monday. “I’m trying not to get too wrapped up in it. It’s been overwhelming at times. I’m not the kind of person who just goes and does a photo shoot. I have to remember why I’m here — it’s about the competition. That’s what I’ve been training for.

Hammer has been focusing on preparation and trying to ignore the hype.

Hammer has been focusing on preparation and trying to ignore the hype.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

“Being a first time Olympian I’ve never been in a situation like this,” Hammer continued. “It’s been overwhelming to even come here. Adding more attention on myself for [wearing the masks] did a little bit to stress me out. For me I just try to surround myself with close friends and talk with my family.”

Hammer said she skipped last week’s opening ceremonies to keep her head clear for her races, and to keep her body rested. Hammer has fought a nagging back injury for the majority of the season, and she says walking and standing for extended periods of time aggravated the injury.

“I can’t be walking around that much. I need to keep it loose, and keep myself working mechanically,” Hammer said. “For some people [the opening ceremonies] pumps them up. I was just taking time to prepare. I watched it on TV.”

As for the mask, Hammer is unwavering in her decision to put it on — she still wears it on occasion. It’s part of her plan, she says, to keep her body in the best health for racing.

“The whole point of what we were meaning to do is to have the best performance. If I feel it’s necessary I wear it,” Hammer said. “I have hand sanitizer and I’ve been washing my hands a lot too.”

Hammer faces stiff competition in Beijing, most notably from Australia’s Katie Mactier, Lesya Kalitovska of Ukraine and Rebecca Romero of Great Britain. And unlike World Cup competition, in which riders race twice, in Beijing Hammer and the rest of the pursuiters face three rides. The qualifying round is on Friday evening, the opening round is Saturday, and finals will be held Sunday night.

Romero grabbed the world title from Hammer at the 2008 world championships in Manchester, Great Britain — Hammer finished second. Still, the American said she’s not going to base her racing in Beijing off of Romero’s results.

“The pursuit is pretty straight forward. There’s no tactics involved. The fastest person wins,” Hammer said. “I think it’s going to come down to who can recover. The race spans over three days. It’s going to come down to who comes into each race ready to go.”

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