London will see the introduction of a new track programme into the Olympic Games. Interestingly enough, it is only the individual sprint that remains in the Olympic programme for women since the last Games four years ago. In Beijing, Great Britain won gold in all the sprint events for both men and women. One of the new inclusions, the women’s team sprint, will kick off proceedings on the Olympic boards and with a world record ride for Great Britain on that very track the last time it was raced on, confidence will be high ahead of the start of the track programme at 4pm on 2 August.
Surely one of the hottest contests between two riders recently was the decision of whether to take current Olympic champion, Sir Chris Hoy or whether to give Beijing sprint silver medallist, Jason Kenny the ride. After much deliberation, the choice of Kenny was made. This is presumably due to the fact that Kenny has won the world championships in the event once in 2011 whereas Hoy hasn’t taken the rainbow jersey since 2008. Current sprint world champion Gregory Bauge, who has won the event three out of the last four times in this Olympic cycle is expected to be Kenny’s biggest threat on the boards in London. Bauge was suspended nine months after the sprint final at the 2011 track world championships relation to drugs tests infringements. The French cycling federation handed Bauge a 12 month suspension in response to one missed test in 18 months and a violation of rules governing rider availability for drug tests. The suspension was backdated to 23 December 2010 and hence expired on 22 December 2011 however the UCI has now decided that all of Bauge's results in that period - including his sprint world title should be annulled. Kenny beat Hoy in the semi-final during the 2011 World Championships in Apeldoorn but lost his subsequent clash with Bauge for the gold and sprint world title.
"It's a shame to finish on a loss but I'm really pleased with a silver medal," Kenny said at the time. The title of 2011 world sprint champion was subsequently handed to Kenny and he was presented with the rainbow jersey in a special ceremony at the 2012 London track world cup. The Frenchman overcame Kenny in this year’s final at the worlds in Melbourne, but not before Kenny sprung a tactical surprise by attacking from the whistle in the second ride; a move which nearly made it 1-1 but for a brief interlude outside the sprinters’ lane by Kenny just metres before the line. This earned Kenny a relegation and gained Bauge the 2012 rainbow jersey. This is, incidentally, a move the Bolton rider wouldn’t rule out on the Olympic track either.
“I’d consider doing anything that would help me win within the rules, it’s an option but he’s not someone who’s going to be easy to fool twice,” Kenny commented.
As well as the obvious threat, there is always the possibility of strong performances from the German riders, particularly with the possibility of now ‘Olympic Mountain Biker’ Robert Forstermann gaining a place on the track. This was the result of the UCI’s solution to allow one other rider from another cycling discipline, to compete on the track so as to amend the initial errors they had made in the number of riders who could qualify for the track events. Forstermann, who qualified second fastest in a blistering time of 9.873 in Melbourne is a serious threat not to be ignored.
“So we’ll have to see what happens and what his [Bauge’s] form is on the day, there’s a lot of other guys there as well - the Germans and the Aussies we expect to be very strong so there is no saying he will be the main threat.” Kenny added.
He went on to say: “You don’t know [who could perform], in the past there have been Russian European champions, there are a few others with the potential to step up. When you look at the last Olympics I got second and was nowhere before, I was fifth in the worlds, you’ve always got the potential for a rider to step up. It’s at a different time of year - it’s slightly different to the usual world cup, world championships layout. You expect everyone to be turning up better than you’ve ever seen them.”
The Men’s team sprint or the ‘Olympic Sprint’ as it is often called will probably showcase some of the fastest riding anyone is likely to have ever seen in the history of track cycling. The Great Britain team will comprise of current Olympic champions Sir Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny as well as Olympic first timer Philip Hindes in the ‘man one’ position. Hindes, who will fill Jamie Staff’s shoes of leading out Great Britain’s tour de force that is Kenny and Hoy, has shown some impressive results in the last twelve months. In Melbourne, Great Britain had recorded a time of 43.533 before being relegated for the handover between Philip Hindes and Jason Kenny at the end of the opening lap. This included a first lap time of 17.510 by Hindes, which considering the level of competition he faced, was the fourth fastest opening lap in the qualifying rounds. Since then Kenny is adamant the team has made significant improvements.
“The team sprint is potentially the one we focus because it’s purely time so we concentrate on getting faster, there’s no influence from any other rider or teams so I think that’s the one that takes up most of our time,” Kenny explained.
There will always be a threat from the French and German teams who have traditionally been strong contenders in this event. The German team, who were also relegated after the qualifying round in Melbourne, posted a first lap time of 17.112 but again lost out to an illegal man 1 to man 2 changeover. Eventual winners of the World Championship title in 2012, Australia, have gone from strength to strength in the event recently. Although they didn’t have to face Great Britain or indeed Germany in the final, they did ride against an impressive French team and more impressively, they were the only team to post lap two and lap three times that were under 13 seconds, finishing them in a time of 43.266.
Representing Great Britain in the keirin will be the current world champion in the event and Olympic stalwart, Sir Chris Hoy. Hoy, who won the 2012 world championships in the keirin in what can only be described as a phenomenal tactical move, will be favourite for a gold medal when the event kicks off on the last day of competition at the velodrome on Tuesday 6 August. Performances from Hoy have been nothing short of genius recently. His ride to gold in the fourth round of the 2011/12 world cup series in London this year showcased just what he is capable of. After a break at the front by serious contenders at the Games, Rene Enders of Germany and Simon Van Velthooven of New Zealand, with two laps to go Hoy not only showed his sheer power but his excellent composure and timing. After staying behind Bourgain of France he powered round the field at the last bend to pip the German to the line.
The women’s sprint will be the last time we will see multiple world champion as well as current Olympic champion in the sprint, Victoria Pendleton, ride the track before she puts her illustrious career to bed after the London Olympic Games. The match sprint, which starts with a 200m qualifying time trial is not just a test of pure speed but also is a great measure of each rider’s tactical prowess on the track and can often be seen as one of the most unpredictable events in cycling. As we saw in the recent world championships in Melbourne, Vicky, who has always been a master of tactical riding, outwitted her opponent, the much quicker qualifier Anna Meares of Australia, to beat her in the semi-finals.
Vicky picked herself off the track after a frightening collision in her first heat with Meares to eliminate the Australian and progress to the final, where she duly won gold. Despite this epic display by Pendleton, Meares will still clearly be a threat to her chances of winning gold and retaining the Olympic title. Meares, who won silver in the Beijing, is always a strong contender in the event and with the disappointment of Melbourne still firmly in her mind, she will be looking to prove she has what it takes to win. Pendleton said, in a recent interview that the Australian "has the upper hand" going into the individual sprint at London 2012 owing to a more consistent record over the past year.
"Her performances on the whole over the last 12 months have been a lot more solid than mine," Vicky admitted.
Another threat is sure to come from Lithuanian powerhouse, Simona Krupeckaite who has won multiple world cups in the women’s sprint in this Olympic cycle. She met Pendleton in the finals of this year’s world championships where Vicky won 2-0 after Krupeckaite, who had crossed the line first in the second heat, was relegated for a sprinters’ lane infringement.
Riders to watch out for will also be 2011 European Gold and Silver medallists respectively, Shulika of the Ukraine and Panarina of Belarus. Shulika, who lost out to Meares in Melbourne put Pendleton out in the quarter finals in last year’s European Championships, showing she is certainly not a rider to be ignored.
Other riders who are serious contenders are Beijing bronze medallist Shuang Guo of China as well as the German rider Miriam Welte. Welte qualified in third place and made it all the way to the quarter finals in the sprint at the world championships in Melbourne, where she eventually lost out to Simona Krupeckaite. Welte, who was part of the world record team sprint team definitely proved her form on many levels.
Great Britain will be represented by the pairing of Victoria Pendleton and Jess Varnish. Varnish, 21, who has impressed recently with her high paced opening laps, will find herself in an Olympic games for the very first time in what will be the opening event on the track. This event will see its maiden Olympic voyage at London 2012 having being introduced as part of a more level playing field for both men and women since the last Olympics in Beijing four years ago. Since its introduction at the 2007 world championships in Palma, it has showcased some impressive times from Great Britain who have won it twice since. Varnish who first rode the event at a world championship level in the 2011 in Apeldoorn, has seen her times come down dramatically since then, culminating in a world record time of 32.754 in London earlier this year, beating the then world record by Australia[which had stood for almost two years], by almost two tenths. It was Pendleton’s second lap time of 13.962 (the only sub 14 second lap of the entire competition) which sealed the new world record, taking not only the record from the Australian pair of Anna Meares and Kaarle McCulloch but also placing them in the silver medal spot in an event both the antipodean duo were becoming accustomed to winning .
Although this event has been in the world championships for women for the last ten years, seeing its debut in the 2002 Track World Championships in Copenhagen, this will be the first time the event will be run for women on the track in an Olympic games. Great Britain’s representation will be from none other than Victoria Pendleton. For Pendleton, who is the only British sprint athlete who will ride all three sprint events, this will come the day after the team sprint and will be a crucial event for her to try and equal Chris Hoy’s achievement of winning three golds in a single Olympic games.
Pendleton, who was World Champion in the event in 2007, will face some stiff competition from current world champion Anna Meares as well as from former rainbow jersey holders in the event, Simona Krupeckaite and Guo Shuang of China. Meares was on top form in the World Championships this year after a thrilling final which saw her come from the rear of the pack with one lap to go. Sitting side by side with Vogel of Germany she dug deep and took it to the line with an amazing show of force to win the title for the second year in a row. This race also showcased the power and acceleration of 19 yr old Russian rider Ekaterina Gnidenko, who settled for silver in Melbourne but should definitely be a rider to watch as the Derny pulls away with two and a half laps to go.
How to watch
Full coverage of the track programme is broadcast live on the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/olympics/2012/sports/cycling-track