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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor
In the battle for supremacy at the Olympic velodrome in Athens, the men from Australia beat back the challenge of Great Britain, claiming gold in the team pursuit. The Aussies’ effort didn’t match their world record time from qualifying the day before, but their mark of 3:58.233 on Monday was easily enough to outclass the Brits, who trailed throughout on their way to a 4:01.760.
That left the gold medal count for the two countries at two apiece, with Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins having each taken wins for Great Britain, while Anna Meares and now the team pursuit squad of Graeme Brown, Brett Lancaster, Brad McGee and Luke Roberts earning top honors for Australia.
The latest Aussie win was expected, as the team has won the last three world titles in the 4000-meter event, and beat the Brits for gold at the last Commonwealth Games.
“Going into the Olympics as the favorites brings an unbelievable amount of pressure,” said Roberts. “To win is an unbelievable feeling. We’re very happy to finish the job off.”
In the battle for the bronze, the Spain quartet of Carlos Castano, Sergi Escobar, Asier Maeztu and Carlos Torrent recovered from a slow start to beat the Germany team of Robert Bartko, Guido Fulst, Christian Lademann and Leif Lampater.
Following a day with perfect conditions — no wind, lots of heat — a light breeze cooled things off just a hair, making another record-setting team pursuit performance too much to ask for. But the Aussies weren’t all that concerned with topping their mark on Monday. Gold was the only thing that mattered.
With another packed house of mostly Australians and Brits battling for decibel supremacy, McGee, Brown, Lancaster and Roberts were off fast from the start, and led at all three intermediate splits, finishing with an average speed of 60.445kph.
The toughest part of the whole event for the Aussies was picking the four riders that would contest the final. In the qualifying round Peter Dawson and Stephen Wooldridge joined Brown and Lancaster to earn top honors. But the team’s coach made a switch for the next round, inserting McGee and Roberts. The move worked, with the team breaking the world record, and there was no way things were going to change back after that.
“It was something that I’d worked toward for four years and to be told I wasn’t going to be a part of it was devastating,” said Dawson, who watched from the infield, then joined the four winners up on the podium for a tearful photo op.
The omission was simply a testament to Australia’s depth in the event. Dawson and Wooldridge had helped power the green-and-gold to a world title just months earlier, but were now left to watch.
“They’ve got so much depth,” said Great Britain’s Rob Hayles, who earned the silver along with Steve Cummings, Paul Manning and Wiggins. “We’ve got enough guys for one and a half teams, but they could probably field two and a half.”
Sprinters hold form
There were no surprises on the second day of men’s sprint action in Athens. All four quarterfinal match-ups were decided in the minimum two heats, led by Aussie Ryan Bayley who posted the fastest flying 200-meters on Sunday, before easily dispatching Barry Forde of Barbados on Monday.
Also moving through to the semis were reigning world sprint champ Theo Bos (Netherlands), German Rene Wolff and Frence’s Laurent Gane. On Tuesday Bayley will face Gane in the semifinal opener, followed by Boss versus Wolff.
Forde, the U.K.’s Ross Edgar, Pole Damian Zielinski and France’s Mickael Bourgain will race for 5th-8th.
Meares, Grankovskaya on collision course
In the battle to see who would inherit the crown worn by retiring French star Felicia Ballenger, the queen of the last two Olympic sprints, Anna Meares of Australia and Svetlana Grankovskaya of Russia seem headed for a rematch of their finals duel at Worlds in the women’s match sprint.
In quarterfinal match-ups, 2004 world champion Grankovskaya fought back from an uncharacteristically necessary repechage win, with a two-and-out slam (11.945 and 12.085) of Belarusian star Natalia Tsylinkskaya.
Meares, still fresh off her world record sub-34 last week in the 500-meter time trial, had a harder time than she would like dispatching Germany’s Katrin Meinke, who also emerged from Sunday’s repechage with tons of spunk and fight. In the first round, Meinke tried high and low and made a late rush but fell a wheel short as Meares took the win in 11.916. In the second round, Meares kept a wary eye on all of Meinke’s cat-and-mouse moves before closing with a powerful, definitive rush in a tactical 12.048.
World sprint bronze medalist Lori-Ann Muenzer of Canada took out Venezuela’s Daniela Greluis Larreal Chirinos in convincing fashion, 2-0 (12.064 and 11.888), but all the intrigue and drama surrounded the duel in heat 3 between Tamilla Abassova of Russia and Simona Krupeckaite of Lithuania.
Abassova started things out with a conventionally tough win over the Lithuanian 500-meter 2004 world sprint bronze medalist in round one with a 11.993 time. Things got intense and complicated in round two, where the Lithuanian came from way back to take Abassova to the line. She took her so well, the race committee studied a photo finish for before deciding, temporarily, that Krupeckaite had won. The video was amazing — both of their front and rear wheels, hitting the line at near 60kmh, matched to microscopic levels.
At the point where judges temporarily awarded Krupeckaite the round, the Lithuanian went to rest and clean up, awaiting an anticipated third round after some men’s sprint races intervened. However, the judges then had a change of heart, correctly calling the round a tie and ordering a re-run of round two.
“They didn’t tell me they had called to run the round again and I wasn’t ready,” said Krupeckaite. “It wasn’t fair.”
For her part, Abassova told Russian journalists, “I thought she was pulling a trick not showing up for the start.”
Once they got rolling, the Lithuanian gathered herself and cleanly won a close round to tie things up 1-1. At this point, intrigue, betrayal and patriotism entered the fray. As recounted by Abassova afterwards, one of her Russian coaches, who also coaches the Lithuanian Krupeckaite, “gave me great strategy. He told me to go out in front — I could beat Krupeckaite if I went hard from start to finish.”
Krupeckaite should now weigh the hidden costs of using a Russian coach who has a higher loyalty to his national team riders — the strategy worked like a charm as Abassova won wire-to-wire in 11.914. On the final lap, the two tough competitors bumped, but neither cried foul.
Tuesday, Meares faces the Canadian Muenzer and the two surviving Russians, Grankovskaya and Abassova, must fight to get the inside tactics from their coach — or just ride like hell.
In the race for 9th through 12th, Great Britain’s Victoria Pendleton covered all of Jennie Reed’s moves to take 9th in 12.699 seconds. Since worlds, Reed fell from 5th to 10th while Yvonne Hijgenaar of Holland took 11th, and the Bulgarian Evgenia Radanova rounded out the four-woman consolation. Timothy Carlson
Track action in Athens continues Tuesday with the semis and finals of the men and women’s sprint, and the men’s points race. The points race likely offers the U.S. its best shot at a track medal, with Colby Pearce having an outside shot to get on the podium.
Track racing concludes on Wednesday with the men’s keirin, women’s points race and men’s Madison. Friday and Saturday bring the last of the cycling events with the men’s and women’s cross-country.