As Sir Bradley Wiggins discovered in June when he took the world hour record, you can be pedalling around an indoor velodrome in dry, warm conditions, yet fall foul of the British weather.
On Wednesday, when he, Steven Burke, Owain Doull and Jon Dibben ride the qualifying round in the world 4,000m team pursuit championship at the London velodrome, the world record of 3min 51.659sec will be in their sights as well as the title.
“We’re all quite excited we could break the record [in London]; if the conditions are right,” Wiggins said last week, but it will partly depend on whether low pressure turns up from the Atlantic.
The forecast is for around 1,000 millibars or just below in London for both Wednesday and Thursday, which is well down on the 1036mb recorded on 7 June 2015, which Wiggins said made it harder to ride and cost him at least 600 metres in his hour record ride. The team have been training at record pace recently in Manchester but, as he said last week, “as I learnt with the hour you can’t compare anything you do on here”.
Wiggins added: “You go down to London, you just don’t know what the conditions are going to be like on the day, if it’s sticky in there, whether they get the temperature up, if people are lagging behind before the start of the session and wandering in and out of doors and things.”
Heiko Salzwedel, the Great Britain endurance coach, also believes the record will fall, with one caveat. “I’m certain that the record will be broken next week, if not by us, then by someone else.”
Wiggins has been saying for a while that he believes the record will go below the magic 3min 50sec barrier either this week or in Rio, but that would be just the icing on the cake. The qualifying session on Wednesday afternoon will make it instantly clear whether the GB quartet will be going for a medal in Thursday’s second round and final against their old rivals Australia and the defending champions, New Zealand. The team pursuit is just one major moment on Wednesday, with both the team sprint squads on the boards. Qualification for Rio is at stake for Jess Varnish and Katie Marchant, while for Philip Hindes, Jason Kenny and Callum Skinner, there is a need to prove they are finally gelling as a trio.
As for Wiggins and company, their fortunes in Rio do not depend directly on winning gold in London, but they know – as do their rivals – that in 2008 and 2012 en route to Olympic domination they took the world title along the way, hence the need to improve on last year’s silver medal. Moreover, in 2012 they took that world title on Australian turf, in Melbourne with a world record, striking a major psychological blow in the buildup. If Australia come out top dogs on Thursday, the boot will be on the other foot.
It seems a lifetime since Wiggins took his first major medal in the team pursuit, bronze in Sydney nearly 16 years ago. He is now racing against the sons of former rivals such as France’s Philippe Ermenault, and some of his team-mates were just out of nappies when he won his first world title, the junior pursuit in 1998. Times have plummeted, and training has changed radically as teams look for pure speed.
“The first time I rode the event in the Olympics 16 years ago we broke the Olympic record in qualification with 4min 04sec,” Wiggins said. “We are travelling round here in 14sec laps consistently, 3min 50 pace. Eight years ago when I was doing it for Beijing we were going half a second slower per lap. The event has got faster and faster and we are now training like sprinters through the winter, in the gym and everything. It’s brutal.”
That said, he clearly relishes the switch from “losing weight and being miserable” en route to winning the Tour in 2012. “This winter I didn’t have to go out in freezing cold conditions for six‑hour rides. We were in [Manchester] six times a week, in the gym three times a week on the leg press, trying to put weight on, and then on the track in the afternoon. That’s a complete change.”
In what is set to be his last world championship appearance, Wiggins will be reunited with Mark Cavendish on Sunday evening, when the duo will attempt to repeat their world title triumph of 2008 in the two‑man madison. The event will be a climax to the five days of racing, whatever the outcome. Even though for both men it does not quite have the significance of their respective Olympic disciplines, the script calls for a repeat of their dramatic world title in 2008, which had the Manchester crowd on their feet cheering the riders to the echo. It is pressure, but nothing to do with millibars.
FIVE KEY EVENTS
Women’s team sprint – Wednesday evening
A race with massive implications for GB. Jess Varnish and Katie Marchant have to finish two places in front of France to earn Olympic qualification; that, however, is largely dependent on how other teams perform. If it works out, GB take two women sprinters to Rio and will have two places there in the match and keirin, boosting their medal hopes. If not, the next few months will be tough ones as the women sprinters battle for a single slot.
Men’s team pursuit – Wednesday (qualifications), Thursday (final)
Sir Bradley Wiggins and company go for the title that means most to the GB management, and which offers the 2012 Tour winner a chance of taking the ninth rainbow jersey of his career. A tight battle beckons, with Australia the perennial rival, and often the winners outside recent Olympic Games. Gold medals on home turf mean the team is set fair for Rio; anything less and someone else has bragging rights.
Women’s keirin – Thursday
A vital stepping stone for Abergavenny’s Becky James, world champion in the discipline in 2013 and on the comeback trail since autumn 2014 due to a nasty knee injury and a cancer scare. James does not need a medal to prove she is back on the right track, as the key indication is that she can still cut the mustard at world level and maintain her progress towards Rio, but the team will be hoping nonetheless.
Men’s omnium – Friday and Saturday
Two days that could help define Mark Cavendish’s season as the multiple Tour de France stage winner needs a medal – or at least to get close to one – to help him decide whether to commit fully to the six-event discipline, with potentially big implications for his Tour build-up. The key test could be Friday afternoon’s individual pursuit; this is potentially a weak spot. If he has ground to make up, Saturday’s closing points race could be a cliffhanger.
Men’s match sprint – Friday and Saturday
Four years ago, Jason Kenny was defending world champion in this discipline, competing with Sir Chris Hoy for the single GB slot in London. With that impetus gone, since that Games he has finished seventh, fifth and 14th at world championships. He has an Olympic title in this discipline to defend in August, and needs something – anything – to put him back on track. If he falls short, he has a chance to redeem himself in Sunday’s keirin, possibly his best discipline.
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