The performance of Britain’s female team pursuiters in world championship qualifying on Thursday where they finished fifth wasn’t just disappointing, it was borderline shocking.
They’re still in with a chance of qualifying for the bronze medal ride (should they win their First Round race against China on Friday and post a time fast enough) but even that would represent their worst ever result since this event was introduced to the world championships in 2008.
Since then the British team has won six times and come second on the other two occasions. They also had a firm grip on the world record over both three and four kilometres (the event went from three riders over three kilometres to four riders over four kilometres after the 2013 world champs) until last year in Paris when the Australian quartet wrestled it from them and lowered it by three seconds.
With the absence of key member Katie Archibald (more on her later) it would be possible to excuse the performance if it wasn’t for one important detail. They’re five months away from the Rio Olympics.
In 2012, 2008 and 2004 the world championships before the Olympics was when the British team was finding it’s stride across the board. Riders were setting personal bests and winning medals. In the London 2012 cycle, the first time a women’s team pursuit featured, the trio of Laura Trott, Joanna Rowsell and Dani King were winning the team pursuit for fun, getting faster and faster, setting world record after world record. The momentum was unstoppable and their opponents knew it.
This is a crucial time in the life of an Olympic focused athlete. The top nations lay down their makers and post times that set out their stall for their Olympic performance. At this moment in the year they have to be on the upward curve of a graph that will take them to their four-year peak at the Games.
The thing with this performance graph is that it’s very hard to change the trend that line represents. If it’s not on an upward trend in March, if world records aren’t being threatened now, there isn’t time to turn it round before the Olympics come around. Everything that has gone before in the previous two years is the base they are building on.
There is no flick of a switch to suddenly turn on the form and there are few surprises from here on in. An elite rider can’t find an extra 40 watts in a couple of months. What they’re working with now, is 98 per cent of what they’ll be working with in Rio. A little bit of special equipment and a slightly longer taper aside.
If Thursday’s poor performance is a blip, there’s no need to panic. But if Great Britain’s time of 4.21.054 minutes is their bona fide marker, a sign of where they are in performance terms, it’s a very worrying one. A 4.21 doesn’t come anywhere near troubling the world’s 20 fastest times and is almost five seconds slower than they went last year in Paris. It’s slower in fact than they went in 2013 when this event was new and untested.
If the British team were looking for excuses, and to be fair to them they don’t seem to be, they could point towards Archibald’s absence. The Scot crashed her motorbike in December injuring her elbow and knee which put her out of these championships. Archibald is a key rider and was missed today, but injuries, illness and general mishaps are part and parcel of sport and it’s well known you need at least five riders on top of their game in Olympic year for a team pursuit squad. The GB men have six or seven riders in with a chance of making Rio.
Should the GB selectors have cut Dani King from the team when she was still battling back from horrific injuries sustained in a crash in training?
And where is the upward pressure from the junior talent? In 2013 Great Britain won the junior team pursuit title, and back then you would have put money on at least one of those riders bursting through the system and forcing themselves in to the team, as Laura Trott did for 2012 and Jason Kenny did in 2008.
This is no criticism of the riders, instead a question of the multi-million pound system that until now has done such a brilliant job of fast-tracking talent through the ranks.
With the power data at their disposal, Britain’s coaches will know more about where their riders are. But it’s data they’re not about to share with anyone else. The rest of us will have to wait until August to find some answers.