|MEDAL RUSH HAS ALREADY STARTED|
It couldn?t have started any better, from a British perspective, could it?
An avalanche of medals on the track has been anticipated since the World Championships in March, but the one thing Great Britain?s performance director Dave Brailsford wanted was a medal away from the velodrome.
Yes, Nicole Cooke was one of the favourites for the road race, but a gold and a silver from the road events exceeded expectations.
The gameplan for the women?s road race was drawn up months ago, but whoever planted the idea for Cooke to ride against her natural attacking instincts got it spot on.
Don?t get me wrong, women?s racing needs aggressive, exciting, attacking riders like Cooke. But too often she has done too much too soon and ended up missing out on the major prizes. Fifth in Athens four years ago, a collection of silver and bronze medals from the World Championships. Gold had eluded her.
The addition of Emma Pooley and Sharon Laws to the Great Britain team cannot be under-estimated. For the first time, Cooke had back-up. In particular, Pooley?s attack as they started the final lap of Sunday?s road race softened up the rest of the field and allowed Cooke to sit and wait.
However, there seems to be an assumption that Pooley?s attack was merely a marker laid down for the rest to follow. That was not the case. We are told by BC that if Pooley had got away, by herself or with others, she would have been given the chance to fight for a medal in her own right.
All of which makes Cooke?s ride even more admirable. It must have been killing her to ride against all those instincts, set down during her childhood. That winning streak, that desire to get out in front and attack the rest that has marked her whole career had to be placed on the back burner for 90 per cent of the race.
But when her moment came, she took it. Even in the heat of the final kilometre she rode calmly, easing off on the wet descent to avoid crashing or being brought down if any of the others fell.
In the end, Pooley?s reward was silver in the time trial. BC kept their strategy for the women?s time trial under wraps. Initially they had led people to believe no one would take up the two places Great Britain had earned. This was never likely to be the case, but it did deflect attention away from Pooley, who had been preparing specifically for the event.
With Cooke, Pooley and also Sharon Laws, who had the misfortune to fall twice, but picked herself up to finish within a minute of the leaders, Britain could hardly be in better shape.
Expect them to be major players in the World Championships over the next few years, particularly as the youngsters like Catherine Hare, Jessica Allen, Jo Rowsell and Emma Trott continue to develop.
|CUMMINGS COMES GOOD|
Looking at the strength of the top-end of the field in the Olympic Games time trial, a top 15 result on that course would have been considered a success for Steve Cummings.
So he deserves full credit for an excellent 11th place.
It wasn?t until Samuel Sanchez, the road race champion, went through the first checkpoint that Cummings? time was toppled.
And the 27-year-old British rider spent much of the afternoon sitting in one of the ?medal hot seats?. That?s one of the more bizarre developments in international time trialling of late, they make the top three sit on small plastic chairs for the general amusement of the television cameras. Then, when the times are beaten, they play a version of musical chairs in Lycra.
The medal dream only died when Sanchez, the 13th from last competitor to complete the course, crossed the finish line.
Anyway, a more unassuming man than Steve Cummings you could not hope to meet. I remember seeing him win the national junior road race title in the Midlands in 1999 and arranging to call him the following day for an interview. The race finished at the top of a little hill and the way he powered away to win on his own was immediately impressive.
When I rang he was taking a tea break from his recovery ride at the famous Eureka café in the Wirral, a hub for cyclists in the area and a place that could count Chris Boardman among its regulars. He was quietly spoken, a bit shy, but nevertheless had very fixed eyes on what he wanted to do in his cycling career ? and that was to be a success on the road.
In the early years his power and poise made him part of the track squad. Cummings won silver in the team pursuit in Athens four years ago, but in the past couple of years he has decided to concentrate more on his road career. And each year he steps up another level. Although not greeted with a great fanfare, his ride at the Giro d?Italia was superb. He was fourth on one of the toughest mountain stages of the race and eighth in the time trial on the last day.
There is considerable doubt over the future of his team, with Barloworld set to pull its sponsorship at the end of the year following the positive drug tests at the Tour de France.
Cummings need not worry if the team does not find a replacement sponsor because some big teams have been watching him closely.
|DON?T WRITE OFF THE ROAD|
While we?re on the subject of the men?s road riders, it was predictable that there was disappointment and bemusement that none of Britain?s four riders ?even managed to finish? the men?s road race, as the BBC?s news bulletin put it.
Casual observers can be forgiven for not understanding that riders often pull out of one-day events, but cycling fans should at least attempt to understand the situation. For a start, the heat and humidity were oppressive and the race was 245 kilometres long, making it one of the hardest one-day events ever. As my colleague Edward Pickering reported, he had never seen riders so tired at the finish of a bike race.
Jonny Bellis did exactly what was asked of him, he went with the 25-rider break that shaped the middle section of the race.
The course didn?t suit Hammond but few could argue he should not have been picked given his status as the best one-day rider we have and his seventh place in Athens four years ago. Based on his Giro d?Italia rides, Cummings under-performed, but he made up for it in the time trial. And Ben Swift, just 20 years old, looks to be on the verge of a fine career. He stayed with the peloton until one lap ? just 24 kilometres ? to go. That was a sensational ride in the circumstances.
Perhaps the only criticism of the team selection was that Dan Lloyd didn?t go. He?s a climber, he has experience of riding in China, having finished second in the Tour of Qinghai Lake last year, and he probably would have finished.
|ANOTHER SPANISH DOPE|
The first athlete to fail a dope test at the Olympic Games was a cyclist.
And it probably did not surprise too many that it was a Spanish cyclist. Maria Isabel Moreno travelled to Beijing, failed a drug test for EPO, and did not start the women?s road race.
?This is not good news for Spanish cycling,? said the general secretary of the Spanish Cycling Federation, Eugenio Bermudez. That?s an under-statement, Eugenio.
Not for the first time, UCI president Pat McQuaid criticised the Spanish authorities for allowing a doping culture to continue. In the past he has likened Spain to the Wild West.
The initial excuse for Moreno?s withdrawal, that she was suffering from ?anxiety? was a new one on me. Then the truth came out and the Spanish said how shocked and surprised they were at this ?isolated? incident.
But the problem with Spain is that it is dragging its heels in embracing an anti-doping culture. The government and the Spanish Cycling Federation have both been obstructive over Operacion Puerto. Riders have been cleared and investigations simply shelved. Only this week the Court of Arbitration for Sport over-ruled the Spanish Cycling Federation on the case of Iban Mayo, which it refused to judge, and banned the rider for two years.
The Spanish simply don?t seem to get it.
|BBC?S QUESTIONABLE TASTE|
The BBC prides itself on its Olympic coverage. Quite right too. It is, generally speaking, excellent. The advent of interactive television services means the Beeb can offer blanket coverage of all the events.
As the national broadcaster the BBC enjoys unrivalled access to the athletes and a film crew were in south Wales to film features with the British cyclists.
CW mentioned at the time that Sharon Laws? crash occurred when she was being filmed by the BBC. Laws was riding along on wet roads while a cameraman sat in the boot of the car filming. Laws also had a camera fixed to the handlebars of her bike to get a different angle.
Then, Laws hit a pothole and went down, breaking a bone in her ankle and jeopardising her Games. These things happen. It was an accident and the presence of the film crew did not cause the crash.
We?re not being squeamish and didn?t expect the BBC to bury the footage, but did anyone tuning in to the pre-race build-up on Sunday feel it was unnecessary to show the crash over and over again, from both angles? It was a heavy fall, with a thud and the unmistakable sound of carbon fibre going flying, not something that needed to be showed with such relish.
|BETTINI?S LACK OF CLASS|
As we mentioned in the report of Saturday?s Olympic road race, there were an unedifying few moments involving the defending champion.
Those who decided not to get up at 4am to watch the whole thing didn?t miss much in the first hour or so as the peloton made its way out of downtown Beijing.
But anyone who did make the effort to get out of bed would have been treated to seeing Paolo Bettini spend two uncomfortably long spells hanging onto the Italian team car, chatting to a member of his team?s staff.
He didn?t even pedal. He just sat there, chatting away with an irritating, smug look on his face, enjoying his free ride.
Okay, so it was only a couple of minutes each time but the commissaire should have been over wagging his finger and getting him to stop it.
Good on the television cameraman for not discreetly switching away ? as they did when the peloton stopped en masse to answer the call of nature.
It was particularly blatant of Bettini, and not befitting the defending Olympic champion.
The Olympic Games are a chance to showcase sport to the widest possible audience. People all over the globe were watching. Perhaps a great many were switching on to cycle road racing for the first time.
And what did they see? One of the competitors hanging on to a car.
Seasoned fans may know the activities that go on in the grey areas at the back of the bunch. They may turn a blind eye to the largely harmless practices of taking a pace from a team car after a puncture or hanging onto the car while a ?mechanical problem? is theatrically dealt with by the support staff.
But what impression would casual viewers have got? That cyclists hang onto cars when they?re not doping? Great.
|IT?S NOT EASY ON THE MIKE|
You had to feel a bit sorry for the BBC?s commentator Hugh Porter during the road races.
I bet he?s looking forward to getting into more familiar territory at the Laoshan velodrome because calling a road race is not really his strength. After the road race, I expect he?s even looking forward to the chaos of the Madison.
It?s not a task to relish, commentating for almost seven hours on riders he couldn?t recognise because they were all wearing unfamiliar jerseys. So come the closing stages he was reduced to saying things like: ?It?s Russia on the attack now. And Italy are following them!?
I do sympathise, though. Many years ago, during the fledgling days of my journalism career, I spent a season commentating on non-league football matches for a (very) small cable television channel. This was in the days before every player had his name plastered on the back of his shirt, and I can say that no amount of time learning the names and positions of the players can prepare you when 22 similar-looking blokes start rushing about in front of you.
Less understandable was the lack of insight offered by Porter and his co-commentator Gary Sutton, particularly during Sunday?s women?s race.
They assumed too much prior knowledge of cycle road racing meaning the event probably passed in a blur of confusion for many.
?There?s Cooke,? or ?There?s Pooley? he said, frequently, without actually explaining that Great Britain were in the white with blue flashes on the shoulders.
He didn?t talk about the tactical implications of such small teams and twice he failed to spot that Sharon Laws had fallen, when it was quite obvious to see.
Everyone?s an expert, though, and it?s easy when you?re sat at home with a cup of tea and can pop to the toilet if you need.
But someone should telly Sutton that he?s not commentating for Australian television. His brother Shane is an honorary Brit and an integral part of the British Cycling coach set-up. Gary, if you?re going to work for Auntie Beeb, you need to cut out the Aussie bias, old chap. People in Surrey and Hampshire won?t like it.
His pronunciation of Stefan Schumacher?s name ? Stefan Shoe Maker ? almost, but not quite, made up for it, though. We won?t even mention the classic during the road race ? Fabian Candelabra, indeed.
|LAST CHANCE FOR PREMIER GLORY|
It’s easy to forget, while the eyes of the sporting world are on the Chinese capital, that sport is carrying on elsewhere.
Olympic medallist Rob Hayles, who had hoped to make the trip to Beijing as part of the British team, was instead in action at the Tour of Pendle road race.
He won it, wearing his trademark skinsuit ? something that his Halfords Bikehut team-mate Nicole Cooke also did in the Olympic women’s road race.
And as he wryly pointed out, it’s nice to be the only person from outside the Downing family to win a round of the Premier Calendar this season.
Nine rounds have been run. Russell Downing has won six, his brother Dean one, and Hayles two.
There’s just one race left, the Richmond GP in Yorkshire next month. One last chance for the rest of the peloton to break the stranglehold enjoyed by the Downings and Hayles.
PREVIOUS WEDNESDAY COMMENTS