By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor
In a battle of grace and finesse versus brawn and power, the brute force of Australian Ryan Bayley was the ticket to gold in the men’s sprint at the Olympic velodrome on Tuesday.
After losing the opening heat of the best-of-three final against Dutchman Theo Bos, Bayley stormed back to take two straight, giving Australia its fourth cycling gold medal of the 28th Olympiad. It’s the best ever showing for the green-and-gold clad team that had been shadowed by a drug scandal on the lead-up to the Games.
“After I lost the first heat I just got really agro,” said Bayley, who fits the part of a tough-man sprinter, his stubbly face framed by a shaggy mane of dark blond hair. “Everyone on this team has learned to deal with adversity. But we’ve also learned to block it out. We all put a lot of hard work into this and now everyone is getting to see the results.”
In the sprint for bronze, German Rene Wolff swept past France’s Laurent Gane, 2-0.
But Bayley was the story of the night, on a day when medals were also handed out in the women’s sprint (Canadian Lori-Anne Muenzer) and the men’s points race (Russian Mikhail Ignatyev). The 22-year-old, who’s known for his love of junk food (KFC and coke are his favorites), now owns the title of world’s fastest man on the bicycle.
“His style doesn’t matter,” said Wolff about Bayley’s to-and-fro gyrations, a stark contrast to Bos, who seemed to glide to victory in the final’s opening heat. “Bayley has the punch like an animal. For sure he was the strongest in the tournament.”
It looked like things might go the other way after the finals opener, when reigning world champion Bos reeled in Bayley just before the line for a narrow quarter-wheel-length win. But after some “choice words” from his coach between heats, Bayley wouldn’t be beaten again.
In the second heat, he simply overpowered Bos, lifting his wheel off the ground after closing down the Dutchman in the final meters. Bayley would repeat the performance in the gold-medal decider, raising one arm in triumph just before crossing the line. From there it was the ceremonial victory lap, then a climb up on to the track’s railing where he raised his arms again, much to the delight of the boisterous Aussie cheering section.
“I was very disappointed at world’s,” said Bayley, who lost to Bos in Melbourne. “I thought he had chopped me, but the judges didn’t agree. This time I wasn’t going to leave it up to any judges.”
Bos seemed to take it all in stride, and said he might have hurt his chances for gold by riding in the 1km time trial and team sprint.
“I did not have the best legs today, but Ryan was just too good,” Bos said. “He deserves to be Olympic champion.”
Bayley’s day began with a semifinal match-up versus Gane, but the Frenchman had little hope. In the opener Bayley simply powered away from the Frenchman. In round two Bayley came from behind, storming past Gane to win the decider by a wheel.
Bos faced off against Wolff in the other semi, riding at the front for a pair of wins.
“I was very stupid to let him make the tactics,” lamented Wolff of his semis loss. “But we rode the Japanese keirin circuit together, and I saw what he was capable of. I was not surprised he rode so strong.”
Bayley’s men’s sprint win was the first ever for Australia. Prior to that the closest they’d come was Gary Niewand’s silver at Barcelona in 1992.
Pearce 14th in points race
Between the semis and finals of the sprints, Russian Mikhail Ignatyev took a runaway win in the men’s points race, with defending Olympic champion Joan Llaneras of Spain settling for silver and German Guido Fulst snagging bronze.
Ignatyev scored 80 of his 93 points, by lapping the field following the fifth, ninth, 11th and 15th sprints. That plus another 13 sprint points was more than enough to beat Llaneras, who finished with 82 points. Fulst scored 79.
“I didn’t expect a medal,” said Ignatyev. “This is the best day of my life. First I need to understand what happened to me, and then I can start to relax.”
American Colby Pearce seemed to have a good understanding of the day, which simply didn’t go his way. The medal hopeful never got in the mix, settling for 14th and just 23 points.
“These races are a bit like predicting the stock market,” Pearce said. “Today I bought high and sold low.”
Pearce said his day had been the exact opposite of the world championships in Melbourne.
“At world’s I tried to go in all the early moves and got nowhere,” he said. “Today was the exact flip-flop. The important moves were going right from the gun, but every time I jumped in it was with guys who weren’t going anywhere.”
While Pearce lapped the field just once, Ignatyev’s four times was all but unprecedented. The gold was the first cycling medal at the Games for Russia, who added silver in the sprint courtesy of Tamilla Abassova.
The points race, which was contested over 160 laps (40km) of the Athens track, lasted 48 minutes, 32 seconds. Riders collect points at intermediate sprints every 10 laps (5, 3, 2 and 1) and by lapping the field (20 points).
Ukrainian Milton Wynants had the early advantage, making the first break to lap the field, but Ignatyev would take over the lead after the fifth sprint and never looked back.
“It was a difficult race to read tactically,” Pearce said. “There were five favorites going into the race and 10 others that could have won the race on any given day so it was hard to decide which breaks to go with. Normally, my strength is to get in a break and lap the field and then try and go again right away. I tried to do that at the end and that was the final bullet in the gun. I raced the last 20 laps cross-eyed.”
The Olympic track program concludes Wednesday with the Madison, keirin and women’s points races. It will also mark the final chance for the U.S. to salvage something from what has been a lackluster showing in Athens. Former Olympic sprint champion Marty Nothstein will contest the keirin, while Erin Mirabella takes on the women’s points race.