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Track worlds analysis: Mammoth pain for marginal gains

Great Britain punched Australia in the gut on Wednesday, but the home team closed the first day of worlds with a win

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MELBOURNE, Australia (VN) – If the UCI Track World Championships on Wednesday showed anything, it was that Australia will not have its own way come the Olympic Games in London.

From 2009 to 2011, Australia topped the medal tally at each track world championships. Last spring in Apeldoorn, Holland, the Aussies rode away with an 11-medal haul, including eight gold medals.

While it may only be the first of five days, the signs are there that this year will be different.

In the afternoon session, where 15 team pursuit squads lined up against each other to qualify for the finals, the quartet from Great Britain produced the third fastest time in history, completing the 4,000 meters in 3 minutes 54.485 seconds — which also equated to the fastest qualifying ride in history.

Worst of all, at least for their competitors, was that they seemed to barely break a sweat. Australia was less than 2/10ths of a second slower, but they nevertheless had been rattled. Come the evening finals, it was GB vs. Australia and, fighting for the bronze medal, New Zealand vs. Russia.

Adding insult to injury, the British quartet of Ed Clancy, Steven Burke, Peter Kennaugh and Geraint Thomas broke their previous world record (3:53.314) set at the Beijing Olympics to stop the clock at 3:53.295 — translating to an average speed of 61.427 km/h. Even though they rode a faster second and final kilometer, Australia could only manage 3:53.401, while New Zealand made relatively light work of Russia to take bronze, recording a time of 3:57.592.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Jack Bobridge, the stalwart of the Australian team.

“We went over there and got one up on them on their home turf (at the London Track World Cup in February). They’ve come over here and kicked us back in the guts and beat us here. It was a world title and we lost.”

What does Australia do now, Bobridge was asked. “We definitely just have to rebound from here. Use it as positive energy,” he said. “Go away and every day we wake up, look to the (London) Games and put 100 percent into the pedals every day until we get back to their home turf, and hopefully get one back on them.”

No more than an hour later, reigning champions Australia would find themselves outdone again, this time in the women’s team sprint final.

The German duo of Miriam Welte and Kristina Vogel was simply too good, breaking the world record in qualifying, and later in the final, breaking the WR again to relegate world champions from the past three years, Anna Meares and Kaarle McCulloch, to the second step of the dais. In another surprise, China would best Great Britain to claim bronze.

“That we set the world record twice is awesome,” said Vogel. “I never would have allowed myself to dream, let alone think, about it.”

Great Britain would pick up its second gold of the night in the men’s scratch race, held over 15km or 60 laps of the Hisense Arena velodrome. Temporarily absolving himself of his road duties, Team Sky professional Ben Swift would net GB its first-ever scratch race world championship — unusual for a nation with such an illustrious track cycling pedigree — the 24-year-old beating South Africa’s Nolan Hoffman and Dutchman Wim Stroetinga in the last lunge to the line.

“I knew somebody was going to attack in the finish,” Swift said, “and (I) just tried to play it cool and make other people chase. It’s definitely the hardest I’ve ever had to work for a track cycling race.”

In the men’s team sprint, four nations including Germany, Great Britain, the United States and Greece would find themselves relegated by the commissaires for failing to execute a correct ‘exchange’ (defined as the 30-meter zone where the rider in front can peel off and the rider behind is permitted to take up the pace-setting). In the cases of Germany and GB, it thus ruled them out of the gold and bronze medal finals, respectively, which led to Australia facing off against France for gold and New Zealand against Japan for bronze.

“The guys’ times were on par with what I was hoping. It’s disappointing to be disqualified,” said Jamie Staff, USA Cycling sprint director.

“I’m proud of what the lads have done in such a short time. We gave it our best shot. As long you’ve tried your hardest and done everything you can, you can walk out of the arena with your head held high,” said Staff, also acknowledging that as a result, the United States has not qualified for the team sprint event at the London Games.

After the disappointment of the team pursuit and women’s team sprint, the Australian trio of Shane Perkins, Scott Sunderland and Matthew Glaetzer trumped France to finally give the home crowd something to cheer about in the final event of the night.

Although it was by the barest of margins — 1/1000th of a second, to be precise — and for all but the final 125 meters, the Aussies were behind the French, making the win all the more remarkable. Said Perkins: “Obviously to hear we were in the gold and silver ride off, our energy and excitement went up another level. We were pretty pumped. We knew we had the ability, we knew we had to bring our times down a little bit — and we did that.”

The margins may be miniscule, but to quote a much-used line by David Brailsford, the principal man behind British cycling, this is a sport of marginal gains.

Realizing life in advertising was nothing like Mad Men and buoyed by the Olympic Games in his Australian hometown of Sydney, Anthony Tan turned his back on a lucrative copywriting career in 2000 in pursuit of something more cerebral. Combining wordsmithing with his experiences as an A-Grade club racer and an underwhelming season competing in Europe, a career as a cycling scribe beckoned… More than a dozen Grand Tours and countless Classics later, it’s where he still is today. He has been a contributor to VeloNews since 2006. In 2010, he won Cycling Australia’s media award for best story. Follow him on Twitter: @anthony_tan