By Timothy Carlson, VeloNews correspondent
It’s been a long road to the summit for Sara Ulmer of New Zealand.
As a callow 20-year-old in Atlanta, she was an anonymous seventh in the 3000-meter individual pursuit final.
Four years ago in Sydney, 24-year-old Ulmer finished the 3000-meter individual pursuit in the cruelest Olympic position — eight-hundredths of a second out of bronze. Ulmer lost third to 39-year-old Yvonne McGregor’s of Great Britain with just 125 meters to go, and remained deep in the shadow of Sydney’s golden girl of cycling, Leontien Zijlaard-van Moorsel, who crushed silver medalist Marion Clignet by five seconds in 3:33:360.
Ulmer’s time in her 2000 bronze medal final was 3:38.93.
But on Sunday Ulmer blasted finals opponent Katie Mactier of Australia and set her second world record in as many days to win the gold by more than three seconds in an amazing 3:24.537.
As usual, Mactier started fast and built a near-one second lead three laps into the race. Then the Ulmer express got going, pounding out an inexorable definitive victory.
“During the race, I never watch the time,” said Ulmer. “I didn’t know if I would break the record again, but I knew it was a very fast race. I feel proud an happy for satisfying my fans, family and friends who were here next to me, helping me win.”
Ulmer said the Athens velodrome, with its open-air slits leaving temperatures a boiling 94 degrees, was the fastest ever.
“It’s great to be a part of this record breaking spree,” said Mactier. “Sara and I have been good friends all around the world. So this time, she is buying the beer.”
Mactier’s 3:27.65 also smashed her own personal best set the day before.
In her competitive swan song, the 34-year-old Zijlaard-van Moorsel in essence threw the Australian Kathy Bates from a train, crushing her 22-year-old opponent 3:27.07 to 3:31.075. Zijlaard-van Moorsel ends her storied Olympic career with four gold medals, two silver and this bronze.
“I am retiring from competitive cycling and the pressure,” said Zijlaard-van Moorsel. “But I will be active coaching and stay involved in the sport.”
She added: “I am happy for Sara and Katie for breaking the records. But I cannot be sad — this was my fastest time ever in this event.”
Indeed, Zijlaard-van Moorsel’s time in her bronze medal race was faster than silver medalist Mactier’s.
Yesterday, in the qualifying round, Zijlaard-van Moorsel (3:30.422) and Mactier (3:29.945) slashed Ulmer’s recently set world record of 3:30.604, and van Moorsel’s Olympic record of 3:30.816. Then Ulmer took a quantum leap for the sport with an astonishing 3:26.400.
Sunday Ulmer trumped that with her 3:24.537.
Ulmer slashed the world record by six seconds. If that had been done in the 1500 meters running, an entire Olympic stadium full of running fans would have fainted.
Here in the heat where the Olympics were invented, on the day when endurance diva Paula Radcliffe was broken in the marathon heat, the fans in the velodrome merely roared for the two-wheeled Kiwi queen of the boards.
1. Sarah Ulmer (New Zealand), 3:24.537
2. Katie Mactier (Australia), 3:27.650Bronze medal ride
1. Leontien Van Moorsel-Zijlaard (Netherlands), 3:27.037
2. Katherine Bates (Australia), 3:31.715
Another record for the Oz squad
In men’s track action on Sunday in Athens, the Aussie men’s squad set a world recorder of their own in the first round of the team pursuit, clocking a 3:56:342 to erase the old mark which was also held by the men from Down Under, set at the track world’s in Stuttgart, Germany in 2003.
The foursome of Graeme Brown, Brett Lancaster, Brad McGee and Luke Roberts dominated the team from Lithuania, lapping the outmatched foe on their way to earning a berth in the gold medal round, which will be held Monday night. “All our guys stand by one another and you’re seeing the results tonight,” said Aussie team coach Martin Barras, whose program was rocked by a doping scandal in the months leading up to the Games. “We’ve put it all behind us and have moved on.”
Joining then in the finals will be the team from Great Britain, who crushed France in their first round match-up. Brits Steve Cummings, Paul Manning, Chris Newton and Bradley Wiggins lapped the French, posting a 3:59.866.
The bronze medal match-up in the team pursuit will pit Germany against Spain. The Germans bested the Netherlands in their first round heat, while the Spaniards had little trouble with the Ukrainians.
Men’s sprint action was also contested on the third of six nights of Olympic track racing. Aussie Ryan Bailey posted the No. 1 mark at the event’s only morning session. Reigning world champion Theo Bos of the Netherlands and German Rene Wolff were second and third.
In the afternoon session that threesome had little trouble moving through the 1/16 and 1/18 finals, and are set to race in the quarterfinals on Monday.
The day’s real sprint drama played out in a pair of repechage rounds, where riders either moved on or saw their Olympic dreams end. Malaysian Josiah Ng, who trains in southern California, managed to escape the 1/16 repechage. But after losing to top qualifier Bailey in the 1/8 finals, Ng was found himself in another must-win match-up against Aussie Sean Eadie and Britain’s Ross Edgar.
The three-up battle would turn out to be the night’s most exciting sprints, as Edgar came from behind to take the win, while Ng and the hulking Eadie banged shoulders on the run to the finish.
“Sean wasn’t really prepared for this,” said Barras, of the 2002 world sprint champion who had to leave the national team for five days during the lead-up to the Games because he’d been accused on importing illegal drugs. Originally Eadie wasn’t planning on contesting the sprint, but was a last-minute replacement for Jobie Dajka, who was dropped from the Aussie Olympic team after being found to have lied to a doping inquiry.
Ng was coming back from a broken arm he suffered while training in Switzerland. He hadn’t raced in four months and the rust showed.
“I had the form and good speed,” the 24-year-old said. “But my tactics were rusty.” — Jason Sumner
Reed ousted in sprint
Australia’s Anna Meares, following her world record setting win in the 500-meter time trial Friday, leading all qualifiers in the women’s sprint.
Coming off her record-setting 33.952 in the 500, Meares stayed red hot in the boiling Athens heat with the top 11.291 seconds qualifying time in the sprint.
Unlike Friday, Meares’ Sunday best for the 200 meters flying start timed portion was well off Olga Slyusareva’s 1993 world mark of 10.831 and a sliver away from Michelle Ferris’ 1996 Olympic record of 11.212.
After morning qualifying, Meares obliterated her first round opponent, Evgenia Radanova of Bulgaria, not bothering to do the usual cat-and-mouse setup for the final sprint. Radanova’s qualifying time was 1.2 seconds off Meares’ standard. With no resistance, Meares could ease through her round in a leg-saving 11.927, far off the first round best of Tamilla Abassova of Russia, who dusted Victoria Pendleton of Great Britain to advance.
In the first round, Canada’s Lori-Ann Muenzer powered past the U.S.’s lone hope, Jennie Reed, with an 11.881 finish which was not close.
In the repechage, Reed pulled out all the stops, trying high and low lines, veering into an acceleration with 200 meters to go, bravely maneuvering like a last lap NASCAR finish, but ultimately falling second to the heat winner, Svetlana Grankovskaya of Russia, who closed with a tactical 12.015.
“I tried very hard to set it up to be second to the Bulgarian (Evgenia Radanova), but Svetlana is very good and put herself in place to win,” said Reed. “The Olympic experience was great, but I am very disappointed after finishing fifth at world’s. Back to the drawing board.”
Racing at the Olympic velodrome continues Monday with more men’s and women’s sprint action, and the finals of the men’s team pursuit. The Americans will be back on the track starting Tuesday when Colby Pearce takes his shot in the points race. Erin Mirabella and Marty Nothstein will take to the track on the event’s final night, with Mirabella racing in the points race and Nothstein contesting the keirin. — Timothy Carlson