After a few days of reports chronicling his conspicuous non-appearances at the velodrome, there were sarcastic sighs of relief when Cavendish finally turned up.
Having failed to win a medal at Beijing 2008 or London 2012, he was an unused reserve on the victorious Team GB pursuit team here so his quest continues. Not getting any younger, the 31-year-old has previously hinted this will be his last tilt at the Olympics. “If it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be,” he recently mused.
The cycling equivalent of a heptathlon, the omnium is a multi-discipline event staged over two days and was introduced to the Olympics in London four years ago. Competitors ride in five events – a 15 kilometre scratch race, a four-kilometre individual pursuit, an elimination race, a one kilometre time trial, flying lap and 40 kilometre points race – all of which must be completed. Points are awarded at the conclusion of each event and whoever gets the most points wins. If it sounds complicated, that is because it is but since the velodrome opened its doors last week no other event has kicked off to a louder cheer. Quite simply the omnium is tremendous fun.
Cavendish was one of 18 riders to line up for the day’s first event, the scratch race. The track equivalent of a Grand Tour stage, it is a long and cagey affair in which cyclists race over 15 kilometres. Theoretically, sprinters such as Cavendish might collaborate to keep the bunch together, while those more equipped for endurance riding attempt to maximise their chances of winning by going on energy-sapping and occasionally suicidal breakaways. Having survived what appeared to be a serious speed wobble on lap 32 of 60, Cavendish finished a reasonably respectable sixth in a race won by the defending champion, Lasse Hansen, from Denmark.
His performance in the individual pursuit was little short of sensational, catapulting him into second place overall and serious medal contention after two events. Starting on the opposite side of the track from Fernando Gaviria, he put in a shift over the 4,000 metres, chasing the world champion down and overtaking him. It was not quite good enough and he finished second in the event after another imperious performance from a great Dane who would later come a surprising cropper.
Once known by its vastly superior name Devil Take The Hindmost, the elimination race is unquestionably the pick of the events and the speciality of the reigning world and Olympic women’s omnium champion, Laura Trott. A game of cycling musical chairs, the field pedal their way round the track and the one in last place at the end of every second lap is eliminated until only one remains. Riders to the fore of the bunch control the pace to keep themselves safe, while stragglers must time their sprints to perfection to avoid being eliminated at the pivotal moments.
Astonishingly Hansen was first man out, finding himself at the back with nowhere to go after 500 metres. Spotting an opportunity to riff on his angry rival’s very apparent pain, Cavendish looked to capitalise and seemed in no danger as, one by one, nine more rivals came a cropper in the following laps.
With a high finish and the overall lead there for the taking, disaster struck and he was next to go, in circumstances that left him seething. Swooping down the banking to take an inside line and avoid elimination, he ran into traffic and briefly strayed out of bounds on to the blue band bordering the track referred to as the Cote d’Azur. Spotted by the judges, the lights on his handlebars were duly illuminated and he peeled off the bunch in a fury.
In the day’s other event, the women’s sprint, Becky James and Katy Marchant qualified first and second for the competition proper, with James setting an Olympic record with her flying 200 metres. The duo’s high placings earned them an easier route through subsequent rounds and their progress to the last eight was duly serene. Their competition continues on Monday before concluding the following day.
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