LONDON (AFP) — The British track team returns to the scene of its greatest triumph at the UCI World Track Championships in London this week with the rest of the world having closed the gap on the hosts ahead of this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio.
At its home Olympics in London 2012, the British team won a total of 12 cycling medals, an astonishing eight in the track events where its domination was near total.
The British still have the star power with former Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins lining up alongside 26-time Tour stage-winner Mark Cavendish and double 2012 Olympic champion Laura Trott, but the air of British invincibility has certainly slipped since the Lee Valley Velodrome hosted the London Games.
Other leading track nations — most notably France, Australia, Germany, and New Zealand, all of whom finished above Britain in the 2015 world championships medal table — will be aiming to lay down a marker in the 10 disciplines that make up the Olympic program in Rio.
The team pursuit remains a strong event for Britain’s men and women with Wiggins part of a squad that believes it is on course to better the world record of three minutes, 51.659 seconds, which they set in the last Olympics, although they will face stiff competition from defending champions New Zealand and an Australia team which remains a threat despite the absence of mainstays Jack Bobridge and Alexander Edmondson.
“I think it’s got to be the Kiwis, you can’t underestimate them,” said GB’s Owain Doull of the favorites for men’s gold.
“What they did last year was pretty special, winning gold. The Aussies are going to have a weaker team, but I think they’ll still be very much in the thick of it. I think it will be quite close … and there will be quick times.”
The British women team pursuiters, whose four-time winning streak in the world championships was brought to an end by Australia in France 12 months ago, will also start favorites, if only because of the advantage of the home crowd, although Australia handed them their first defeat at last year’s worlds since the event moved from three to four riders.
In the sprint events, veteran French star Grégory Baugé is seeking to add to the double world titles he won 12 months ago in his homeland in the individual and team sprints, although the 31-year-old insists he is approaching this week in casual fashion as he focuses his entire year on the Olympics.
Meanwhile, Australian sprinter Anna Meares, 32, is looking for a repeat of the Olympic gold she won in London as she returns to the scene of one of her career highlights as part of a strong team that also features Annette Edmondson, winner of two golds at last year’s worlds in the omnium and team pursuit.
There is also strong home interest in the women’s omnium with reigning Olympic champion Trott taking part in the multi-discipline event where consistent American Sarah Hammer and Canadian Alison Beveridge are also expected to contend.
The men’s omnium features Cavendish who has been told by GB management that he is expected to finish in the top three in London to continue with his aim of earning a spot on the Olympics team.
Italian Elia Viviani, who rides for the GB-based road team Sky, is considered his biggest threat.
Cavendish, 30, is being driven in part by his failure at the 2008 Olympics when he and Wiggins fell out of medal contention in the two-man Madison event — which is no longer in the Olympics but which he is expected to ride at the worlds on Sunday, reunited with Wiggins.
“I haven’t won an Olympic medal, and I would like to win one,” said Cavendish. “I like to represent my country. If I had won one previously, I don’t know if I would have been back.”