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Track Worlds preview: Rumble in the Melbourne jungle

Meares vs. Pendleton headlines final big-time track event before the London Games

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MELBOURNE, Australia (VN) — Forget Armstrong vs. Contador in 2009. Forget Boonen vs. Cancellara in the spring classics — at least after last weekend, anyway, where the latter broke his collarbone at the Tour of Flanders. No, the ultimate expression of mano-a-mano cycling pugilism is set to take place this week at the 2012 UCI Track World Championships, from April 4-8.

And for once, it is not the men’s events that are most eagerly anticipated. It is the match sprint between two Olympic champions, Anna Meares and Victoria Pendleton, a microcosm of a 200-year-old rivalry between host nation Australia and Great Britain.

The press conferences each gave last week — held separately, of course — provided a harbinger of their Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman-like enmity towards one another, and what is to come when they meet on the boards of Melbourne’s Hisense Arena, the same venue that staged the track worlds back in 2004.

Last Tuesday, Pendleton, 31, said that the genesis of their rancor came at the 2006 world championships in Bordeaux, France, when Meares “hooked” her in the keirin, arguably the most rough-and-tumble of the 10 events to be contested this week, and where pushing and shoving are de rigueur. The Briton, who appeared on the cover of men’s magazine FHM after she won gold in the sprint event at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and bears more than a passing resemblance to countrywoman and model Elizabeth Hurley, did not qualify for the finals in Bordeaux as a result, while Meares was relegated for her actions.

“That (incident) really shocked me because she apologized for doing it afterwards,” Pendleton said, “saying, ‘I’m sorry I hooked you, I didn’t mean it to be dangerous,’ and I was like, ‘well, ok then, I wouldn’t do it, you might do it.’”

Meares, three years her arch rival’s junior and who held her press conference two days later, fired back a retort: “I am very proud of the way that I ride. I have so many people come up to me and tell me how exciting it is to watch me in a sprint match.”

Clearly, one of those “many people” is not Pendleton, who, aside from last year’s track worlds in Holland and the final round of the UCI Track World Cup in February, has dominated her opponent. However Meares’ recent performances suggest times may be a-changing.

“Anna and I are very different riders — she’s someone who kind of likes to push the rules and I definitely don’t,” said Pendleton. “I’ve heard her make some comments about how she dislikes me and I dislike her — I’m not entirely sure where it’s come from because we used to be quite good pals.

“I remember going out with her for a few beers in Stuttgart after the world championships in 2003. I don’t think she’d want to have one with me (now), which is sad. At the end of the day, this isn’t war, this is sport.”

One gets the feeling that for Meares, sporting feuds are no different than war. “The rivalry is a rivalry, and it’s a great one between Victoria and I,” she said.

“We meet when we are in good form and that is always generally in the semis or the finals and when we race each other, we literally turn each other inside out.

“Sometimes with great rivalries, you can’t have a great friendship because there is so much riding on the line for those involved. It’s an uncomfortable situation to try and be able to switch off and open yourself up to that person when you do need to beat them on the track.

Olympic implications

Besides the Meares-Pendleton showdown in the women’s sprint, to be held over two days from Thursday to Friday, another 341 athletes from 45 nations are in Melbourne to stake their final claim for selection to the upcoming London Olympic Games, now just four months away. Aside from the team pursuit and team sprint events, each country will be allowed only one rider per discipline at the Olympics, creating conflict not just between nations at the track worlds but also among teammates.

For most, the blue ribbon event will be the men’s team pursuit. Staged on Wednesday, it will be the first world championship medal to be decided, and unless New Zealand or Russia pulls a rabbit out of their toolbox, prepare for another Australia vs. Great Britain face-off.

Another firecracker will be the men’s sprint. It’s one event British rider Sir Chris Hoy, a four-time Olympic champion, has on his radar as well as the team sprint and keirin, where in Beijing, he took home gold medals in all three events and was later knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his efforts.

Standing in his way will be countryman Jason Kenny, who is the defending champion, after Frenchman Grégory Baugé (2009, 2010 world champion) was stripped of his title for failing to provide information as to his whereabouts for possible out-of-competition doping tests. Baugé was handed a retroactive one-year ban starting on December 23, 2010. He was stripped of his individual sprint title and France also lost their team sprint crown, which went to Germany.

While the majority of nations have been playing the long game in the lead-up to London, in Olympic years at least, what previous world championships have shown is that it is nigh impossible to turn around a set of mediocre performances and four months later, somehow magically make them superlative.

Shane Sutton, British cycling head coach and chief sports director of the Team Sky professional road team, told the Sydney Morning Herald last weekend: “You want to go to the Olympics knowing you’re the best in the world. Not a lot is going to change before then. You’re not going to see someone come out of nowhere and be Olympic champion.”

Australia, following their abysmal outing at the Beijing Games that netted just one silver medal (Meares finished second to Pendleton in the match sprint), has topped the medal tally at the last three world championships. Last year in Apeldoorn, the squad produced 12 medals, including eight gold from a possible 19.

However, at the most recent round of the Track World Cup at the new Olympic velodrome in London, it was Great Britain who finished on top, followed by Australia and Germany.

“The world saw us step up a little bit (at the London World Cup),” said Sutton. “We are not going to hide the fact that (otherwise) we haven’t been great since Beijing. But we are on a journey to London, and for us (the track worlds) is all about London.”

More than likely, as it will be for the rest of the athletes here in Melbourne.

The Americans

The United States sends a strong squad to Melbourne, led by current individual pursuit champion and world team pursuit record-holder Sarah Hammer. Hammer will join Dotsie Bausch, Jennie Reed and Lauren Tamayo in the latter event before setting her sights on the omnium.

“Sarah had a very strong showing in London, winning the omnium in the final round of the World Cup at the Olympic test event in February,” said USA Cycling high performance director of endurance programs Benjamin Sharp. “The team pursuit women earned the silver medal at last year’s world championships in Apeldoorn and we are working to take another step up the podium in Melbourne.”

On the men’s side, the team sprint squad of Michael Blatchford, Kevin Mansker and Jimmy Watkins will battle with Venezuela for the final Olympic selection. The Americans trail the Venezuelans by 75 points going into the worlds.

“The track sprint team heads into the world championships full of optimism, but realize it’s going to take a perfectly executed effort in the men’s team sprint for them to challenge Venezuela, who has performed tremendously this season,” said sprint program director Jamie Staff. “We need to get every ounce out of the athletes on race day, and get them mentally ready for the race.”

Finals schedule

April 4
Men: Team pursuit, Scratch (15 km), Team sprint
Women: Team sprint

April 5
Women: Team pursuit, Points race (25 km)
Men: Kilometer time trial

April 6
Women: Scratch (10 km), Sprint
Men: Omnium

April 7
Women: Omnium, Keirin
Men: Individual pursuit, Points race (40 km), Sprint

April 8
Women: Individual pursuit, 500m time trial
Men: Keirin, Madison

Note: Men’s and women’s Olympic events are sprint, keirin, team sprint,
team pursuit and omnium

Current world champions

Sprint: Gregory Bauge (FRA)
Team sprint: France
Keirin: Shane Perkins (AUS)
Kilometer time trial: Stefan Nimke (GER)
Individual pursuit: Jack Bobridge (AUS)
Team pursuit: Australia (Jack Bobridge, Rohan Dennis, Luke Durbridge,
Michael Hepburn)
Madison: Australia (Leigh Howard, Cameron Meyer)
Points race: Edwin Alcibiades (COL)
Scratch: Kwok Ho Ting (HKG)
Omnium: Michael Freiberg (AUS)

Sprint: Anna Meares (AUS)
Team sprint: Australia (Anna Meares/Kaarle McCulloch)
500m time trial: Olga Panarina (BLR)
Keirin: Anna Meares (AUS)
Individual pursuit: Sarah Hammer (USA)
Team pursuit: Great Britain (Wendy Houvenaghel, Danielle King, Laura Trott)
Points race: Tatsiana Sharakova (BLR)
Scratch: Marianne Vos (NED)
Omnium: Tara Whitten (CAN)

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