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From the pages of Velo: Britain takes center stage

Editor’s Note: The following cover story appeared in the March 2012 issue of Velo Magazine. For more on the London Olympics, visit our Olympics landing page.

Before voting began at the International Olympic Committee meeting in Singapore six years ago, London was considered an outsider to host the 2012 Games. But after four rounds of tight voting against the likes of Madrid, Moscow, New York and Paris, London came out on top by a dramatic 54-50 margin over Paris. The French were stunned.

Three years later, in Beijing, the world was stunned when British cyclists won eight Olympic gold medals — twice the number they’d taken in the previous 100 years. The experts said that one nation so dominating the cycling events was a feat unlikely to be repeated in a modern Olympiad — but for a country that shocked the world in Singapore and again in Beijing, who would bet against four-time Olympic champ Sir Christopher Hoy and his British team equaling, or even topping, its 2008 medal haul before home crowds?

An Auspicious Beginning

British cycling was at low ebb in 1948 when the Olympics last came to London, at the so-called Austerity Games. London was recovering from World War II, with the populace still subject to food rationing, so there were no resources for new sports facilities. The Olympic road race was held on a circuit in Windsor Great Park, and the four track events were raced at the Herne Hill Velodrome, built in 1891.

Remarkably, the modest Great Britain cycling team earned medals in all five Olympic events: silvers for Reg Harris in the sprint and tandem sprint (raced with Alan Bannister), a team silver in the road race (for Bob Maitland, Ian Scott and Tiny Thomas), and bronzes for Tommy Godwin in the kilometer time trial and 4km team pursuit (with Wilfred Waters, Dave Ricketts and Bob Geldard).

The team’s stars, Harris and Maitland, are no longer with us, but Godwin is an ambassador for this year’s London Games. Before one recent television preview, Godwin rode his 1948 Olympic track bike around the Herne Hill track and showed off the white, knitted-wool Great Britain team jersey he wore 64 years ago.

Godwin, British Cycling’s first national coach, clearly remembered the enthusiasm generated by his bronze-medal rides. “It was unbelievable,” he told the BBC. “The crowd was fantastic. After we won the race for the bronze medal in the team pursuit, a cycling magazine reported, ‘There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.’”

Godwin is fully expected to be “in the house” at the state-of-the-art, $152 million London velodrome when Britain’s track racers seek more gold medals later this year. As it happens, the only track event that remains from the previous London Games is the team pursuit. “Back then, we were complete amateurs,” recalled Godwin, who worked in a factory when he won his two bronze medals. “We raced for clocks and medals. Now, they earn thousands of pounds every time they put their leg over a bike.”

Bradley Wiggins has been a sponsored athlete on the British national team since he was 18 and he earned Olympic team pursuit medals in 2000, 2004 and 2008. This year, his focus is on the Tour de France, which ends six days before the July 28 Olympic road race — but he’ll also be standing by to ride the team pursuit in case of an emergency.

The pursuit squad trains at the Manchester Velodrome, which is also the headquarters of British Cycling, where the federation’s performance director and Team Sky general manager Dave Brailsford has his office. The boss likes to keep an eye on his charges, as he did at the track team’s December boot camp, where pursuit coach Dan Hunt worked his riders as much as seven hours a day at the velodrome, with motor-paced sessions and full-out drills in team pursuit formation. Other days saw the riders training on the hilly roads of the nearby Peak District or undergoing speed work on the track.

Hunt and his riders know that their likely rivals in August — Australia, New Zealand and Russia — are doing similar preparation. Russia has revived its pursuiting traditions under new German coach Heiko Salzwedel, who previously coached the Australian, Danish and British teams to world and Olympic successes. Anchored by longtime road racer Alexei Markov, the Russians took silver at the 2011 track worlds and, in round one of this winter’s UCI Track World Cup, clocked a world-class time of 3:56.127.

Back in 1948, when Godwin raced, the Olympic record in the team pursuit stood at 4:41.4. Sixty years later, the gold-medal British team of Ed Clancy, Paul Manning, Geraint Thomas and Wiggins set the current world record of 3:53.314 in Beijing. That’s an average speed of 61.179 kph, but the British coaches believe that the winning team in London will have to approach 63 kph, perhaps breaching the 3:50 barrier.

Clancy and Thomas are favored to again lead the four-man British squad, with likely support from two younger men on Sky’s ProTeam roster, Peter Kennaugh (pronounced “Kenn-ock”) and Ben Swift, while newcomer Andre Tennant and Wiggins will be standing by. After winning the individual pursuit title in Athens and Beijing, Wiggins talked about scoring an Olympic hat trick in the city where he grew up, but the individual pursuit was infamously dropped from the Olympic schedule by the UCI two years ago so that the 10 track races could be evenly divided between men and women (see Track, page 31).

Instead, Wiggins will focus on the road time trial, which takes place before the track events and four days after the opening day’s road race. “Cycling is going to be the major sport in London,” predicted UCI president Pat McQuaid. “Like Beijing, the road race will showcase the city, with the start and finish at Buckingham Palace.”

McQuaid actually helped choose the course for the road races through the southwest London suburbs, passing the historic Hampton Court Palace on its way to the Surrey countryside and multiple laps around a challenging 9.7-mile (15.5km) circuit at Box Hill before returning to the city center. McQuaid knows the area’s roads well, having ridden them as an amateur cyclist while he studied for a degree in physical education at St. Mary’s University College, which is just down the road from Hampton Court.

Beijing began the “tradition” of showcasing the Olympic hosts with a course that started near the Forbidden City and ended on a loop traversing the Great Wall of China. The huge difference between that road race and London’s will be the crowds. Security in Beijing was such that spectators were physically stopped from lining the finishing circuit, whereas London may see a repeat of the Tour de France’s grand départ in 2007, when an estimated four million fans witnessed the opening stages.

The casual fans this year are all expecting Britain’s most popular sportsman, Mark Cavendish, to win the elite men’s gold medal — given his 2011 world title, Tour green jersey and last August’s victory in the test event on the Olympic course. But there will be three big differences with this year’s race. It will cover nine laps of the Box Hill circuit (rather than just two in the test event), increasing the distance from 87 to 155 miles (250km); the full field of 145 riders will feature all of the world’s best classics riders and sprinters; and the major teams will be only five riders strong, and without race radios.

Commenting on the course after the test event, Brailsford said, “It’s a heavy sort of road surface in places and the circuit is definitely not to be underestimated. It gives you very little time for recovery.”

The British official’s fear is that, over nine laps, the race will split apart on the Zig Zag Road climb up Box Hill and his team won’t have the strength to keep Cavendish with the leaders in the 50km run-in to the London finish. “Cavendish will have to be in the shape of his life,” Brailsford added. “I would say that riding and finishing the Tour de France would be a big part of [his] preparation.”

Cavendish knows that, especially as the Tour finishes in Paris only six days before the Olympic road race. At the Tour, expect to see Cavendish working harder on the hills, and should he be dropped on a hilly stage, expect him to get his new Sky teammates to pace him back to the peloton before a sprint finish.

There’s been talk that Wiggins might not be able to fully support Cavendish in the Olympic road race, as he did so outstandingly in Copenhagen, because his main event, the time trial, is only four days later. But all of the TT riders (one per country) have to race the road race first; and because Fabian Cancellara will again likely be shooting at medals in both events (as he did in Beijing), and world TT champ Tony Martin will probably play the “Wiggins role” for his German teammate André Greipel, all these TT contenders will also have to be motivated for the road race.

There’s a chance that Britain could win gold in both the road race (Cavendish) and TT (Wiggins), while the British women are also medal contenders in both events. Another home gold could come in BMX competition, but the burden of living up to the media and public expectations remains in the velodrome.

“I don’t think that we will ever be able to replicate what we did in Beijing,” Wiggins said. “It’s not a case of having to do better than we did last time. Things have changed.”

The three-time Olympic champion was referring to the major changes in the track schedule, which have eliminated two of Britain’s gold-medal events, the men’s and women’s individual pursuit, and replaced them with the six-event omnium for both categories. But with three medal events for sprinters (team sprint, match sprint and Keirin) of both sexes, and with defending sprint champions Hoy and Victoria Pendleton still on top form for Britain, an eventual eight-gold bounty for the home team is again possible.

As Britain’s Olympic ambassador Godwin said, “The 2012 Olympics, I think, are going to be absolutely wonderful.”

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