The road to Olympic glory goes through Berlin this week for Tokyo-bound track cyclists.
The world’s best track cyclists hit the boards in Berlin, from Wednesday to Sunday, for the 2020 UCI track cycling world championships. With the Tokyo Olympic Games just a few months down the road, teams and riders will be pushing hard to assure final Olympics qualifying points, tweak out rotations and strategies, and race for important confidence and momentum.
Racing begins Wednesday and continues through Sunday in Berlin’s expansive velodrome. The 12 members of Team USA started arriving late last week ahead of one of the most important events on the calendar.
The U.S. riders will be competing in a mix of endurance and sprint events across the action-packed schedule.
Big test before Tokyo
Any track world championship is an important stand-alone event, and the pressure and intensity will be ratcheted up to peak levels this week with the allure of Olympic glory waiting in Japan, in six months.
Track powerhouses such as Great Britain, Australia and Germany will be favorites across several events.
How will the U.S. team measure up? Both coaches and riders alike will have a better idea by the weekend.
“Any worlds before an Olympics has a different feel,” said Gary Sutton, USA Cycling’s program director for track. “The good thing about this worlds, you leave knowing exactly where you sit, and what you need to work on.”
The Olympic Games are the ultimate honor for any track cyclist, and Sutton said there is plenty of time between Berlin and Tokyo to hone condition and heighten expectations.
“We’ll leave here knowing where we are against the best in the world,” Sutton said in a telephone interview. “We will have room to move and get even better between now and Tokyo.”
Best U.S. medal chances
The U.S. brings 12 athletes—eight women and four men—across a variety of disciplines.
On the men’s side, Ashton Lambie will be trying to make the medal round in the individual pursuit. He’s already set a new world record in the IP this year, and after the men’s team pursuit failed to qualify, he’s all-in for the prestigious one-on-one event. Adrian Hegyvary and Daniel Holloway hope for a top ride to hone in on Tokyo in the Madison, while Gavin Hoover will line up for the four-event omnium and scratch race.
“At this level, it’s never easy, but they’re all over-achievers,” Sutton said. “I normally don’t like to make predictions as to not put too much pressure, but these riders will do us proud, no question about that.”
Valente will join Megan Jastrab in the Madison, set to make its debut as an Olympic sport in Tokyo. Valente also races team pursuit, scratch race and points race.
Madalyn Godby races Keirin and match sprint, while Mandy Marquardt also races match sprint. Kendall Ryan is alternate for the women’s pursuit.
All eyes on women’s team pursuit
It’s the women’s team pursuit where the U.S. has its best chance of medaling. The Americans have won three world titles, and won silver in both London and Rio de Janeiro, both times against Great Britain.
Valente and Chloe Dygert return from the Rio de Janeiro team, with Lily Williams and Emma White coming on for Tokyo. The U.S. team won the first and final rounds of the 2019-20 World Cup, and enters Berlin looking to beat back Great Britain and Australia.
“The work ethic has been outstanding,” Sutton said of the women’s team pursuit squad. “It’s going to be the first worlds for a few other riders [team pursuit and others], so it’s important for the team to perform here under the pressure and exposure of the worlds.”
Two-time Olympic champion Great Britain remains the team to beat.
Racing for Catlin
The track worlds will be especially poignant for the women’s team pursuit squad following the death of Rio silver medalist Kelly Catlin, last March.
Sutton said the memory of their former teammate will be with them when the riders and staff step onto the boards in Berlin.
“Everyone’s been dealing with it in their own way. Everyone needed their time and space to grieve the best way they wanted,” Sutton said. “It’s been tough on everybody, for all the staff as well. She was such a beautiful person.”
Riders will be competing with Catlin’s initials painted on their bikes in Berlin.
Berlin track is fast, steep and (relatively) new
The Berlin track is one of the newer and larger velodromes in the world. The multi-use facility, which also hosts concerts and features an Olympic-sized swimming pool, opened in 1997. It was part of Berlin’s failed bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games. It hosted the 1999 world track cycling championships, and has been the site of Six Days of Berlin track event since 1999 as well. Seating is ample, and up to 12,000 fans can pack in, especially during the popular six-day event.
Every track is different. Sutton said Berlin presents some unique features that will impact competition.
“It’s a magnificent complex,” Sutton said. “The transition into the bends could have a big affect in the Madison. It’s quite steep as you go into the turns compared to other tracks, and the straights are a fraction longer.”
The U.S. team arrived over the weekend, and some riders and staff are familiar with the boards from other events. The team also studies film to formulate the best strategy to meet the demands of the track.
Will there be some world records set? It’s hard to say. Records are typically set at Olympic competition, or at altitude. With this being an Olympic year, riders will be racing at near-peak fitness, so some records could fall.
Madison is back
The two-rider Madison is one of the most spectacular disciplines in cycling. In 2020, it will makes it Olympic debut as a women’s event, and return to the men’s side after being phased out after the 2008 Olympic cycle.
All eyes will be on the Madison races, especially for the women ahead of Tokyo.
“It’s going to be an amazing event at the Olympics,” Sutton said. “The standard has lifted so much in women’s cycling. It’s going to be a real fight for that first medal in Tokyo, and these worlds will tell us a lot of who the favorites will be.”
Check back all week for coverage and reporting from Berlin from the 2020 world track cycling championships.