Great Britain’s track riders get their Olympic campaign underway at 8pm tonight (BST) and it will take around 43 seconds before we get a picture of whether or not they will be as successful as they were in their previous two campaigns.
In the modern era no nation has ever dominated track cycling over two consecutive Games the way Great Britain did in Beijing 2008 and London 2012. To expect them to do it for a third time is foolhardy in the extreme. Yet the expectations remain.
If the trio of Philip Hindes, Jason Kenny and Callum Skinner meet those expectations in tonight’s team sprint – where they should hopefully dip under 43 seconds – it will show that the team has once again timed its four year cycle to perfection, meaning we should be in for an exciting five days of racing.
All you need to know about the Team Sprint
In both Beijing and London it has been six blistering rides in the men’s team sprint, the first event on the schedule, that have set the scene and sent the team on its way to record gold medal hauls.
Both times it was against the run of form showed at the preceding track world championships. This year’s world champs in London was one of Great Britain’s worst performances in years, qualifying down in sixth place and missing the medal rides.
There are several reasons.
For the first time since London 2012 the British riders will be decked out head to toe in their new Olympic kit, and make no mistake, this will make a huge difference to their times.
The new Cervélo track bikes are the most eye-catching of the new kit but it remains to be seen whether or not the sprinters will be using them over the trusted UKSI bikes.
It has always been the plan for the sprinters to use the Cervélos; and if they can harness the power of Phil Hindes’s starting effort we’ll know they’re up to the job.
While the bikes look good, it’s the skinsuits that GB wear that will make the difference. Individually made by a specialist seamstress in the north west the suits use a combination of fabrics, specially placed seams (that double as ‘trip strips’) and a ludicrously tight fit.
They are so tight and so specialist that new riders often need to be trained in how to put them on.
These alone compared to standard skinsuits would propel a team sprint trio up the leaderboard as the difference between first and fourth can be just thousandths of a second.
But don’t think the Brits have an unfair advantage. The Germans, Australians and Kiwis all have similar kit, we just don’t know whether or not they used them in London.
Sixth place in London back in early March was undoubtedly a disappointment for the team sprint squad, but look a little closer and there’s less to worry about.
On that day Hindes was the fastest Man One by a whopping two tenths of a second with a 17.030 second opening lap. Even then, Skinner said that Hindes was aiming to be the first man to dip under the 17 second barrier for his opening lap in Rio.
Kenny was then the fastest Man Two of the competition with a 12.847 second lap meaning after two laps the Brits were the fastest team on the track.
It was then Skinner who could only manage the tenth fastest time which dropped them down to sixth.
Thursday’s result therefore depends on Skinner getting on the back of the two fastest men in the world straight off the start line. No pressure then.
Kenny’s and GB’s four year cycle
If there is one rider in the British squad that demonstrates the way in which the team times its form over four years it’s Jason Kenny.
His form in Olympic year compared to non-olympic years even has the coaches scratching their heads. The rider from Bolton has been all but anonymous for the last three years (he won Keirin gold in 2013) and admitted to being little more than a spectator in the sprint events as recently as the 2015 world championships.
It was a similar story in the run up to London 2012 where he won the sprint and team sprint after years of lacklustre performances at world championships.
His performances in London were so good that it prompted multiple world champion Grégory Baugé, the man Kenny beat to gold, to take the microphone in the post race press conference and quiz the Briton on how he did it.
Winning the sprint title in London this March showed that yet again Kenny is likely to hit an untouchable level in Rio. After all Sir Chris wouldn’t have tipped him for three golds without some kind of insight.
Either way, after 43 seconds of racing tonight, we’ll know more.