There’s always a sense of uncertainty over Great Britain’s Olympic cycling team: have the right selections been made? Are those riders in the best shape? That uncertainty has been magnified for the 2016 Olympic Games (August 5-21) with a rather rocky run-up to Rio that saw British Cycling technical director Shane Sutton resign from his post and GB shockingly fail to qualify a place in the women’s team sprint.
The two events are linked, of course. It was GB’s failure to qualify a place in Rio for the women’s sprint at the World Championships that sparked Jess Varnish’s public airing of doubt over selection procedure during qualifying events.
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Varnish lost her place on the GB team on grounds of performance, and a chain of events were set in motion – very publicly – that made it look like the GB cycling camp was in a shambles. Varnish alleged sexism and bullying in the GB camp, and an independent investigation into the allegations is still currently underway. It was, and still is to an extent, a very dark period for the GB cycling team.
It got worse. The list of riders representing GB in Rio was leaked ahead of the official announcement, with a few big names controversially absent – notably Dani King, Steve Cummings and Matt Crampton.
Mark Cavendish had also been selected for the multi-discipline omnium event, rather than 2012 bronze medallist Ed Clancy or points race world champion Jon Dibben. Could Cav really match the best in the world and finally get the one thing missing from his palmares, an Olympic medal? Many thought not…
After dominating the cycling events in the 2008 and 2012 Games, it really looked like GB was struggling to put a cohesive squad together to meet the huge expectation loaded upon it.
But suddenly, it’s looking like the GB team has come together.
Any doubts about Cavendish’s shape have now been roundly dispelled, as the Manxman looked on his best form for years at the Tour de France, winning four stages and increasing his tally of Tour stage wins to 30. As a morale boost, there can’t be anything that beats that.
And then there’s the men’s road race team. The original five-man selection of Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, Adam Yates, Ian Stannard and Peter Kennaugh has been altered as Kennaugh voluntarily withdrew after struggling to regain top race shape after breaking his collarbone in the Tour of California in May.
Instead, Steve Cummings – who was so obvious an omission – has been handed a spot. Not only is Cummings on quite evidently the best form of his life, but he’s also found a successful niche as a late attacker over hilly terrain. A stage win at the Tour de France followed stage wins earlier this year in Tirreno-Adriatico, Tour of the Basque Country and Critérium du Dauphiné.
That is quite possibly the strongest male road team ever assembled by Great Britain for an Olympic Games. At the time of writing (after stage 16), Froome is in the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, and Adam Yates is third overall. Thomas and Stannard are also in great form, and assisting Froome at the Tour.
The Rio road race route is a hilly one, but the GB team looks like it has a rider for which ever way the race pans out. GB has always had limited success in the men’s road race, with Max Sciandri’s bronze in the 1996 Atlanta Games its last medal. Time for change.
The GB women’s road team consists of only three riders, but again the selection has been made with the hilly route in mind. World champion and 2012 silver medallist Lizzie Armitstead is joined by trade team-mate Nikki Harris and a returning Emma Pooley. Few will quibble that Armitstead will be the rider to beat, even with defending Olympic RR champion Marianne Vos of the Netherlands bouncing back from injury and into top form just at the right (or wrong, for her rivals) time.
Pooley took a silver medal in the 2008 time trial and will represent GB against the clock, with Froome tackling the men’s event. Given that Froome was the only rider to get anywhere near Dutch front-runner Tom Dumoulin in the Tour de France’s hilly time trial last week, he’s also in with another chance of a medal.
After the retirement of Olympic track cycling greats Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton after the 2012 Games, it looked as though GB’s track sprinters were floundering – which in turn seemed to have a knock-on effect with the rest of the squad.
There seemed to be almost endless experimentation with various line-ups in the men’s team sprint, with limited results. But the trio of Jason Kenny, Philip Hindes and Callum Skinner looks good for a medal, even if it’s not a gold one. Kenny is evidently back on form, having claimed the world title in London in the individual sprint. It’s often over-looked that Kenny’s four Olympic medals, including three gold, place him as the eighth most successful British athlete in any Olympic event.
Not so successful in the 2016 world championships were the GB team pursuit squads. For so long both the men’s and women’s quartets have been crushingly dominant in the discipline. Silver for the men and bronze for the women at the Worlds in March was something of a shock.
Rather than panic, GB selectors have stuck with the same line-ups as used in the Worlds: Laura Trott, Elinor Barker, Joanna Rowsell-Shand and Ciara Horne – with the addition of Katie Archibald – for the women; and Sir Bradley Wiggins, Ed Clancy, Owain Doull and Steven Burke for the men. Cavendish is the fifth man for the GB endurance line-up, but is unlikely to take part as be focuses on the omnium.
The teams have been working hard since the worlds, and we can expect something special in Rio – not least because it’s Wiggins’s final chance for an Olympic medal to bring his total to eight. That would move him ahead of Hoy and Sir Steve Redgrave to be the most decorated British Olympian in history. You can absolutely count on Wiggins to give it everything, and that will inspire the rest of the team to do the same.
Trott will return to the omnium as defending Olympic champion as well as world champion. Trott has made the event her own and it’s hard to see past her getting another medal. You can almost guarantee that Trott’s performance in the omnium elimination round will be one of the most entertaining anywhere in the Games.
Great Britain hasn’t got a certain gold medal prospect in every event, however, as there’s still a question mark over the form of Becky James in the women’s sprint disciplines. An extended lay-off with injury has hampered her Rio preparations, but a bronze in the keirin in the 2016 Worlds is an indicator that she’s not far off.
Outside of track and road cycling, Liam Philips has the best chance of a medal for GB in the men’s BMX. Grant Ferguson was handed a late ride in the men’s cross-country mountain bike after GB was given an unused place, but short notice doesn’t help Olympic preparations. GB failed to qualify any places in the women’s mountain bike or women’s BMX races.
The 2016 Olympic Games cycling events kick off with the men’s road race on August 6 and finish with the mountain bike cross-country on August 21. For a full schedule of events, see our Olympic Games page.