Number 10: Sarah Storey
There can be little doubt that Sarah Storey is Britain’s greatest ever Paralympic athlete, but this year she exceeded even her own sky-high standards.
Twenty years ago, as a swimmer, Storey won two gold medals at the Barcelona Paralympics. In Atlanta in 1996, she won three. In Beijing in 2008 as a cyclist, she won two, and in London, four, taking her all-time tally to 11.
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Wheelchair athlete Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and swimmer Dave Roberts also have 11 Paralympic gold medals, but Storey’s achievement is spectacular because she switched sports. From the water to two wheels, she has been sensational.
Until the end of last year, Storey harboured hopes of riding the Olympics as well as the Paralympics. She had slotted into the team pursuit squad at World Cup events and not looked out of place. That puts into context the performances she has attained.
Although Storey did not make the cut for the Olympics, her form for the Paralympics could not be called into question.
Her first event was the 3,000m individual pursuit. Storey’s time in the qualifying round was 3-32.170, a world’s best time for the C5 category. Notably, her Paralympic qualifying time would have put her among the top seven at the World Championships in Melbourne.
It was no surprise, therefore, when she caught Poland’s Anna Harkowska at around the midway mark in the final.
Storey’s second event on the track was the 500m time trial, which she won by almost a second ahead of Jennifer Schuble of the United States.
From the velodrome, Storey headed to Brands Hatch for the road events. In the 16km time trial, she again crushed the field, defeating Harkowska by the best part of two minutes.
If that had been a decisive victory, the road race was almost a one-woman show. She attacked after two kilometres of the 64km race. By the second lap, she’d caught and passed the men’s peloton, which had started two minutes ahead of the women. She drove on, and won, seven minutes clear of Harkowska.
She summed up her ride in typically understated fashion: “The Americans went off to send everyone up the road one at a time. I decided to test some legs. I had a bit of gas to spare, so I dug in – 62 kilometres on my own.”
She had bagged four Paralympic golds out of four, adding to the two golds she won at the Para-cycling Track World Championships in Los Angeles, and she was rightly nominated for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.
Even so, the less said about her appearance on Celebrity Mastermind – in which her specialist subject was the American TV show Sex and the City – the better.
Number 9: Ed Clancy
Ed Clancy is the beating heart of the British team pursuit squad. The 27 year old from Yorkshire is the man who fires them out of the starting gate and sets the tempo for the entire effort.
If Clancy misjudges things, he can put the whole team into the red. He rarely misjudges. Perhaps that’s why successive British Cycling coaches have described him as the greatest team pursuit rider the world has seen.
Having been part of a squad that has repeatedly lowered the world record for the 4,000m event to the point where they stand on the cusp of breaking the 3-50 barrier, Clancy deserves those plaudits.
His strength is that he is a freakish hybrid of sprinter and endurance rider. As the British Cycling boffins have redefined what a 4km team pursuit ride is, Clancy has been the essential cog. He’s fast out of the blocks, like a kilometre rider, but has the endurance to put in long turns at key stages.
The team pursuiters were shocked in their own backyard in February – defeated by the Australians in their first competitive outing on the new track in London.
But like a boxer who has just felt the canvas on his backside, the British squad picked themselves up and hit back. At Melbourne, they gave the Aussies a taste of their own medicine, with interest – winning the world title and breaking the world record.
By the time of the Olympics, the team was running like clockwork. They broke the world record in qualifying and again in the final. The way they made it look so effortless was extraordinary. In years to come, when the times inevitably plateau, we’ll look at this four-year period, with Clancy in the driving seat, as the golden era of the team pursuit.
Clancy’s ability in the timed events – whether the flying lap, kilometre time trial or individual pursuit – made him the automatic choice to take Britain’s place in the omnium.
Although his weaknesses in the bunch races are obvious, his consistency against the clock always makes him a contender. A fourth-place finish at the World Championships in Melbourne was followed by a brilliant bronze medal-winning performance at the Olympics.
In London, he won the flying lap and the kilometre time trial and was second in the individual pursuit. The points race (11th) and scratch race (10th) were his undoing and, considering he was only three points off the winner Lasse Norman Hansen of Denmark, a gold medal was within touching distance.
Clancy is now switching his attentions to the team sprint. As Dave Brailsford said, even if the experiment comes to nothing and Clancy returns to the team pursuit in time for the Rio Games, the challenge will keep him fresh and motivated.
The signs are encouraging. At the Glasgow World Cup in November, Clancy stepped into Sir Chris Hoy’s position in the team sprint.
In the team pursuit, the other three riders have to get on Clancy’s wheel – suddenly Clancy had to hang on to Philip Hindes and Jason Kenny but he did it.
OK, so the time of 44.175 seconds shows there is a long way to go from here, but one moment in Glasgow sticks in the mind: Frenchman Kevin Sireau standing in the track centre, his jaw almost on the floor, watching the team pursuiter turned team sprinter.
Number 8: Mark Cavendish
It’s tempting to think that Mark Cavendish’s year in the rainbow jersey was a bitter-sweet experience, just as it may appear, on the surface, that his season with Team Sky was a failure.
But that would be to overlook the fact that Cavendish won six Grand Tour stages this season. Six. Only Mark Cavendish has won more in a single year. By any standards, that should be seen as a fantastic campaign.
Of course, the 2012 season was supposed to be all about the Olympic Games. The script had been written – Cavendish was going to deliver British gold on the first full day of competition in London.
Having dominated the World Championships in Copenhagen last year, the British team was confident, despite having only four riders to support Cavendish. However, just when it looked like they had everything under control, the race slipped away and the sprint finish Cavendish needed failed to materialise.
Perhaps it was the images of the world champion carrying bottles and riding on the front of the bunch for Team Sky during the Tour de France that amplifies the feeling that 2012 was a disappointment for him. For a rider who expects to be top dog, the Tour did not pan out his way. At Tournai, early in the race, he stunned the other sprinters by winning the stage without a lead-out train. For a day or so, it looked like he could win a handful of stages and challenge for the green jersey.
But there was a crash on the road to Rouen and he was edged into fifth place in Saint Quentin. With Peter Sagan in searing form, Cavendish’s green jersey slipped away in the opening week.
Then came the mountains and Cavendish’s team-mate Bradley Wiggins took the yellow jersey. Several days went by before Cavendish would have another chance but then, on the road to Pau, Sky stopped chasing the break when they might have been able to set their sprinter up.
And so, as the Tour drew to a close, Cavendish was like a coiled spring. Was it any surprise that he won so convincingly in Brive, followed by his fourth consecutive win on the Champs-Elysées?
In the final analysis, it’s not overstating things to suggest that Cavendish could have won five Tour de France stages if he’d had more support from Sky or even if the cards had fallen in his favour a little more.
Now look at the Giro d’Italia and the way he hauled himself through the mountains to keep himself in contention for the points jersey, only to lose it to Joaquim Rodriguez by a single point at the death.
This was also the year that Cavendish clinched his first overall classification victory as a professional at the Ster ZLM Tour in the Netherlands.
He defied the so-called curse of the rainbow jersey, winning 15 races and honouring the jersey. In another team, he’d have had an even better season. If this counts as a mediocre year for Cavendish, that only confirms what a brilliant winner he is.
Number 9: Victoria Pendleton
Victoria Pendleton didn’t give the impression that she was sad to be retiring from cycling. For her, the stress of competing at the top level, coping with the high level of expectation, had taken its toll.
For the past four years, it’s as if the clock had been ticking down to London. In a way, her status as the reluctant champion makes her achievements this season all the greater.
Ever since the UCI and IOC altered the Olympic track programme so that there were an equal number of women’s and men’s events, the pressure was on Pendleton. She was expected to emulate Sir Chris Hoy’s Beijing heroics by winning all three sprint titles in the London Games.
But with Anna Meares, her great rival, also hell-bent on winning Olympic titles, plus the emergence of Guo Shuang from China in the past few years, it was always going to be a tall order.
The World Championships in Melbourne were wobbly for Pendleton. With Jessica Varnish, she finished only fourth in qualifying for the team sprint, then lost out to China in the bronze medal race. Pendleton was never truly in contention in the keirin, but did battle through to win her sixth world sprint title.
Heart on sleeve
Because she sometimes fails to hide her emotions during competition, the assumption is that she’s a brittle competitor. That was completely dispelled on a roller-coaster final day. Her victory owed much to her hidden reserves of defiance and determination. She qualified only fifth fastest, which meant she was on course to meet Meares in the semi-final.
That semi-final showdown was rocky, to say the least. Pendleton crashed hard in the first race. In the second race, Meares was relegated for drifting off line, which gave Pendleton a reprieve she was determined to take advantage of. The decider was one of the most thrilling races of the year. It went to a photo-finish – in real time, it was impossible to tell who had won. The final, against Simona Krupeckaite, was relatively straightforward.
There was more drama at the Olympics when Pendleton and Varnish were disqualified and denied a race for a medal when they failed to change over in the correct zone. It was a harsh decision, although perhaps not surprising considering the way the officials applied the rules at the Worlds earlier in the year.
Next was the keirin, and Pendleton looked good all the way through the competition and was able to win the gold medal, which, in a way, made the sprint even harder for her.
The final was, as expected, a clash between Pendleton and Meares. It didn’t quite end the way Pendleton would have wanted, however – she won the first race of the final by the narrowest margin but was relegated for coming out of the sprint lane.
That decision seemed to knock the stuffing out of her, as Meares took a deserved victory. Pendleton’s comment afterwards summed up her disappointment. “I would love to have won on my final race, but I’m just glad that it’s all done and I can move on.”
Pendleton may not miss competitive cycling – at least not at first – but cycling will certainly miss her.
British Riders of 2012
Number 1 – Bradley Wiggins
Number 2 – Laura Trott
Number 3 – Sir Chris Hoy
Numbers 6-4 – Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, Jason Kenny and Chris Froome
Numbers 10-7 – Sarah Storey, Ed Clancy, Mark Cavendish, Victoria Pendleton
Numbers 12-11 – Lizzie Armitstead and Geraint Thomas
Numbers 14-13 – Joanna Rowsell and Dani King
Numbers 16-15 – Philip Hindes and Elinor Barker
Numbers 18-17 – Steven Burke and Peter Kennaugh
Numbers 20-19 – David Millar and Lucy Garner
Numbers 22-12 – Steve Cummings and Ben Swift
Numbers 24-23 – Ian Stannard and Helen Wyman
Numbers 26-25 – Annie Last and Scott Thwaites
Numbers 28-27 – Mark Colbourne and Alex Dowsett
Numbers 32-29 – Sharon Laws, Liam Killeen, Neil Fachie, Rachel Atherton
Number 33 – David Stone
Number 34 – Emma Pooley
Numbers 36-35 – Nikki Harris and Russell Downing
Numbers 38-37 – Anthony Kappes and Andy Fenn
Numbers 40-39 – Josh Edmondson and Matt Bottrill
Numbers 42-41 – Luke Rowe and Michael Hutchinson
Numbers 44-43 – Sam Lowe and Jon Dibben
Numbers 46-45 – Rebecca James and Jessica Varnish
Numbers 50-47 – Alex Peters, Kristian House, Richard Handley and Wendy Houvenaghel