Few teams personify that hoary old saw about the fleeting nature of form compared to the permanence of class than the British men’s track cycling sprint team.
Having failed to win a medal in any of the four world championships they have contested since winning gold at London 2012, the latest incarnation of Britain’s fast men came from behind in the final of the men’s team sprint to beat world champions New Zealand by one tenth of a second. In the bronze medal match, there was also disappointment for the southern hemisphere as France saw off Australia to take bronze.
Led off by Philip Hindes, the British trio were behind until the penultimate time split following a sensational opening lap by New Zealand’s Ethan Mitchell. An even more astonishing ride by Jason Kenny in the second of three laps overhauled the deficit to put Britain in front and showing nerves of steel the Olympic debutant Callum Skinner finished the job.
The British had earlier signalled their intent by setting an Olympic record of 42.562 seconds in qualifying, only to see it broken by the Kiwis soon after. Advantage New Zealand, but it was not to last.
“Today was really special,” Kenny said. “The team event’s the best to win, because you get to win it with your mates. It’s always best because you’ve got somebody to share it with. It’s a bit lonely when you’re on your own.”
Having completed her qualifying in the women’s team pursuit, Kenny’s fiancée Laura Trott had left the velodrome with her team-mates to prepare for her own assaults on gold, but did tweet her appreciation of her boyfriend’s latest Olympic heroics.
Following the retirement of Sir Chris Hoy, his former team had endured a woeful slump in form. The tall order of bringing home a third consecutive Olympic gold was given to Kenny, Hindes and Skinner, the 23-year-old Scot tasked with filling the intimidatingly large cleats of his compatriot. Frustrated by Kenny’s often patchy form, the former Team GB technical director Shane Sutton once likened the enigmatic cyclist from Bolton to a bear going in and out of hibernation. He arrived at these Games with the opportunity of equalling Hoy’s tally of six Olympic golds. With four down across two Games, he has just two more to go.
Asked if there was any aspect of their performance that surprised him, Kenny did not beat around the bush. “Yes, all of it to be honest with you,” he said. “We’ve been going quite well in training so we kind of had a rough idea of what we could do. We went into the final as second qualifiers with nothing to lose and just left it all on the track.” Asked to compare the team’s inability to win at the world championships with their equal inability to lose at the Olympics, Kenny said it was “bizarre”.
Trott and Joanna Roswell-Shand were joined by Katie Archibald and Elinor Barker as they began the defence of the women’s team pursuit title they won four years ago. Racing in a new format with a longer distance of 4,000m and four riders instead of three, the quartet finished third at the world championships behind the USA and Canada but were reported to have been close to world-record time in the buildup to Rio. The British cyclists began quickly and finished like an express train as they rumbled around the 250m track 16 times in 4min 13.260sec to shave almost half a second off Australia’s world record as they qualified for Saturday’s first round.
Aiming to break Hoy’s record for the most Olympic medals for Great Britain in any sport, Sir Bradley Wiggins looked in typical “Wiggo” form as he appeared to flick jobsworth officials the Vs as they measured him in relation to some potential aero handlebar infringement. Having previously told anyone who would listen to “put your house on us winning gold in Rio”, Wiggins claims he will be satisfied with nothing less than gold and his team-mates, in the pursuit, Owain Doull, Steven Burke and Ed Clancy laid down the mother of all markers in qualifying for Saturday’s denouement. Completing their 16 laps in a time of 3min 51.943sec at an average speed of 62kph. They qualified in first place ahead of Denmark by a chasm of almost exactly four seconds.
A tip of the teardrop helmet is due to the Rio 2016 organisers, who got there in the end. Despite genuine concerns that the velodrome would not be built on time, the delayed Olympic venue other delayed Olympic venues called “The Guv’nor” seemed decidedly ready for action. In May, a Rio city government that almost certainly had more important things to do cancelled its contract with the company tasked with its construction, stating Tecnosolo “did not have the conditions to continue being technically responsible for the construction of the velodrome”. They subsequently handed the reins over to Engetécnica, previously a subcontractor at the venue and this commendable decisiveness appears to have borne fruit even if a cacophony of nocturnal drilling noises could be heard emanating from the building less than 24 hours before the first race was due to commence.
Having hosted the training sessions of those competing in the 10 days leading up to the Games, the clean, well lit track constructed from specially imported Siberian wood showed some signs of wear and tear and was randomly splattered with the kind of conspicuous white splodges of filler you might see adorning a painter’s radio. On the subject of decor, two massive screens were positioned at each end, looming over the Rio 2016 green, orange and yellow-coloured infield with the media mixed zone hosting the good and great of track cycling past, separated from the myriad cyclists’ cabins by a large raised green rectangular platform on which stood the podium that so many competitors hope to climb. Britain’s sprinters were the first to test the sturdiness of the top step at the end of an evening that bodes well for Britain.
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