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‘Good days ahead’ for pioneering Kiwi sprinters

There was a time when New Zealand's dreams of Olympic gold in track cycling revolved around the endurance and pursuit teams. But that is about to change.

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By Justin Davis, Agence France Presse
There was a time when New Zealand’s dreams of Olympic gold in track cycling revolved around the endurance and pursuit teams. But that is about to change.

Despite the restrictions of a comparatively limited budget, and the demands of extensive travel, some ambitious young sprinters have forced the Kiwis to readjust their medal expectations for future Olympic Games.

Traditionally track sprinters, the sport’s muscle men, do not fully mature until they head towards their thirties, and so it normally follows that the London Games in 2012 may come a little too soon for Eddie Dawkins, 20, and 18-year-olds Ethan Mitchell and Sam Webster.

But the trio, along with Kiwi keirin specialist Simon Van Velthooven, have shown at this week’s world championships that they have every right to dream on.

A sprint trio composed of Dawkins, Webster and Adam Stewart finished just six tenths behind bronze medalists Britain in qualifying for the three-lap power event.

On his first world championships, Auckland’s Webster then made it to the men’s keirin final, finishing sixth, while Van Velthooven finished ninth in the final for seventh to 12.

Sprint coach Justin Grace, one of the few Kiwis to race the sprint at worlds level, still wishes he could tap into the country’s “huge pool” of power athletes” ─ most of whom “go to rugby or rugby league, for financial reasons.”

But he is happy they are now in a position to dream of Olympic medals in both the sprint and pursuit events.

“We identified a group of young riders that were riding at world level in their category and it’s just gone on from there,” Grace told AFP Friday a day ahead of the men’s sprint tournament. “Now we’re in a position that with five sprint guys they’re able to compete against each other and that helps to lift their level.

“It’s been proven to work,” added Grace, who points to the success of British, German and French sprint teams who each boast a wealth of promising young sprinters. “This is the first time we’ve had an opportunity to match that culture.”

New Zealand stuck a pin on the world sprint map last January when Dawkins beat experienced Frenchman Francois Pervis over two legs to win the Beijing leg of the World Cup.

That victory was noted by none other than Francois Rousseau, the French sprint coach who won Olympic kilometer gold in 1996 and sprint silver at Sydney in 2000, but for Grace it was all part of the plan.

“Dawkins, racing wise, is still at a very young age. But his win in Beijing gave him a lot of belief in himself, and in our training structure,” added Grace. “In the next few years I see him being among the major players in the world sprint scene.”

That projection was boosted by Dawkins going on to register a great time of 1:01.372 for Friday’s kilometer, finishing fifth and just out of the medals. While Britain boasts an annual cycling budget in the many millions of
Euros, New Zealand’s just edges towards the 1.5 million Euros ─ for all five cycling disciplines.

But that hasn’t stopped Webster from following in the footsteps of British sprinter Jason Kenny, who won three golds at the 2006 junior world championships in Belgium before winning Olympic sprint silver medal behind Chris Hoy in Beijing.

Webster won the sprint and keirin titles at the world junior championships in Moscow in 2009.

“He’s like a smaller Jason Kenny, and hopefully he’ll go on to be as successful,” added Grace. “He’s got an incredible amount of natural ability, technically he knows what he’s doing ─ and he’s still only a boy.

“I’m very confident we’ll have sprint success at world level in the coming years. There are some good days ahead.”