By Jeremy Whittle

On or off the track, you don’t mess with Arnaud Tournant, the powerhouse French sprinter who remains one of the most feared sprinters in the world and perhaps the best kilometer rider ever to take to the track.

After 13 years at the top of the track racing tree, the Frenchman’s powers may be on the wane, but he remains an imposing personality. It was Tournant who in 2004 refused to speak at a post-race press conference at the Athens Olympics until Stephane Mandard, French anti-doping campaigner for Le Monde newspaper, left the room. Mandard looked stunned: Tournant held his ground. After a long pause, during which Tournant glared ferociously at Mandard, the journalist walked out.

Yet Tournant also has a sensitive side. Mandard’s reporting of the Cofidis doping scandal left its
scars, (even though Tournant was not involved) and despite his prodigious track record, the 29 year old has never quite been the same since experiencing the heartbreeak of a narrow defeat by British rival Chris Hoy in the world championships kilometer time trial in 2002.

Ironically, Hoy is one of his best friends and has even been invited to Tournant’s wedding in September this year. But by that time Tournant will not longer be an active athlete. The Frenchman hangs up his wheels after the Beijing Olympics, a little prematurely to most minds, after a golden career that began as a teenager in 1996 with a silver medal for junior sprinting in that year’s World Championships.

But Tournant, who has been a somewhat ill-tempered member of the French team in these Worlds, is not yetguaranteed a seat on the plane to China. Fighting to the last, he yesterday made the most of his chance in the team sprint, seizing the moment in the final for his ninth team sprint gold in the World Championships.

Incredibly, Tournant has ridden in every French gold medal winning performance in the discipline since 1997. You might think that in itself would be enough to guarantee him a role in Beijing, but by his own admission, his participation hangs in the balance.

“I had thought that maybe it would be my last race,” Tournant said, still smarting from his exclusion from the individual sprint selection. “I’m happy but it’s hard to really enjoy it, because I haven’t played a full part in the championships.”

In fact, Tournant, who will be 30 next week, may be getting out at the right time, head held high. The strength in depth in French sprinting was powerfully illustrated this afternoon when Tournant’s younger teammates filled the top three places in the men’s sprint qualifications.

Kevin Sireau, Gregory Bauge and Mickael Bourgain were all faster than 32 year old Hoy, and Dutch defending champion Theo Bos. Once again, Tournant’s timing may be spot on.