Great Britain finished the first night of the track world championships with two gold medals and a world record, but also with a lot of work still to do.
While the team pursuit squad came good on their plan to gradually get better all the way to London the team sprinters were a little off the pace in an event decided by hundredths, if not thousandths of a second.
But the work the sprinters have to do to shave off such minimal margins is no easier than the work the team pursuiters have to do to shave three seconds off the world record. That’s what they think they’ll have to do if they want to win the Olympic title in London this August.
They have however made a good start; setting a new world record here in Melbourne to take the world title back from the Australians in front of their home crowd. It was a bitter pill to swallow for the ‘Boy band’, so called because of their average age of 21, even though they were just 0.106 of a second behind.
“I thought we’d get beat here,” said Geraint Thomas afterwards. “I thought we’d definitely close the gap and I thought there’d only be half a second in it, and I didn’t think we’d break the world record.”
There had been lots of talk of the world record being beaten tonight, and the pre-event hype was building nicely. It almost turned nasty when the Australians filmed the GB team in training and posted it on Youtube, but maybe that was the incentive they needed to come here tonight and win.
It became clear that the record might go when the British quartet of Ed Clancy, Pete Kennaugh, Andy Tennant and Geraint Thomas rode the third fastest time in history in qualifying (the fastest ever qualifying ride), without another team on the track to help with circulating air.
Just three hours later they were back on the track for what Dave Brailsford said was the best team pursuit he had ever watched. Having replaced Andy Tennant with Steven Burke, after Tennant slowed in his final lap in qualifying, the British quartet got themselves ahead in the first kilometre and never lost their lead.
They came close though, at one point their lead was down to under one tenth of a second. But the Australian team hinges on Jack Bobridge. Whenever the GreenEdge rider hits the front the Australians take a big chunk out of the Brit’s time, but the other three riders can’t sustain it. The undulating performance profile that this creates is far from perfect for team pursuiting, and ultimately Great Britain’s more even approach won out.
It wasn’t easy though. “The last three laps I didn’t know what was going on, I was just trying to get to the line it was the hardest team pursuit I’ve ever done. Usually it’s really controlled but that was a real battle all the way to the line.” Said Peter Kennaugh, who took his first senior world title with the ride.
If that event was a kick in the teeth for the Australians (who have dominated the last two world championships) more was to come in the women’s team sprint. This is their event, and Anna Meares is their golden girl.
But Meares, along with erstwhile team mate Kaarle McCulloch were upstaged tonight by the German pair of Miriam Welte and Kristina Vogel who set a world record in qualifying and then bettered it in the final to win gold. It was the first time they had won a medal since 2008 when they won bronze.
The British pair of Jessica Varnish and Victoria Pendleton couldn’t repeat their world record breaking ride from London, and finished out of the medals in fourth place, only the second time they haven’t made the podium in this event since it’s inception in 2007.
“I was seven hundredths off my PB, it’s not a lot but you’ve got to PB to win now,” said Varnish. “I have been [PBing] almost consistently at every competition I’ve ridden in. I expected to, as I’ve been PBing in training. Its just a fine line.”
The British men fared worse in the team sprint after being relegated – along with Germany, the USA and Greece – for changing riders more than 15 metres from the line. Phil Hindes, who rode an encouraging 17.5 second first lap, swung up a little early and Kenny went through too soon. “We were outside the changeover box area by quite a long way – it’s not even worth appealing against.” a philosophical Sir Chris Hoy said.
“It was a very easy mistake to make. I still think he did an amazing ride today and we should be pleased with his progression. We’ve all made mistakes – it’s just a shame it’s his first experience of the big occasion.”
Missing out on a medal brought to the end an incredible record in this event. A British team has stood on the podium every year since 1999 when Hoy, Craig MacLean and Jason Queally won silver in Berlin.
The Australians ran out winners, pulling off the surprise of the night by beating the French in what is their event.
Australia, who only qualified third fastest but were promoted in to the gold medal final after the relegation of the Germans, beat the French by one one-thousandth of a second. It was the first time they have won this event since 1996 when the Worlds were in Manchester. It saved the day for the host nation, who may have been expecting a couple of golds from today’s action.
The night also ended on an unexpected high for Great Britain as Ben Swift won the scratch race to secure his first track world title. Swift, who didn’t make the team pursuit line-up, won it in a do or die effort as the bunch split up in the final laps.
Austrian rider Andreas Mueller had taken a flyer and had half a laps advantage with some six laps still remaining. that’s when Swift made his move. with a few riders in between Mueller and the bunch, Swift jumped up to each one, until he was bearing down on Mueller who was visibly tying up.
Martin Blaha (Czech Republic) was glued to Swifts wheel, but the Yorkshireman didn’t want him to come through, and held him on his hip. With two laps to go Swift had to accelerate again as he sensed the peloton closing down on him. On the line South African Nolan Hoffman was closing fast, but Swift had just enough left in his legs to hold him off.
The win provided confirmation that the coaches were correct to put endurance riders in to non Olympic events, something they rarely do nowadays.
Swift will also ride the points race and Madison (with Geraint Thomas), and while more non-Olympic wins would be nice, the British coaches will hope any more medals that come their way will be more relevant to this August.