As the dust settles on 2021, we thought it was apt to have a look back at what was a memorable few weeks’ in the searing heat and occasional typhoon of the Japanese summer, as our Scottish riders competed for medals in Tokyo.
With five Scots in action at the Paralympic Games, including debutant Fin Graham and debut pilots Jenny Holl and Lewis Stewart, there was excitement at how the younger riders would perform at their maiden games. Whilst Scotland’s joint-record Commonwealth Games gold medallist Neil Fachie was hoping to win his second Paralympic gold and Aileen McGlynn came out of retirement to try and add to her six Paralympic medals.
The Olympics saw the return of Katie Archibald from her Rio 2016 success, but also debuts for Neah Evans and Jack Carlin on the track, as well as Anna Shackley and Giro d’Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart on the road.
The eight days of cycling action would see none of the riders return home empty handed - a truly remarkable feat. The medal rush was started by Aileen McGlynn and pilot Helen Scott who won silver in the Women’s B Kilo. McGlynn and Scott started second of the 10 pairs and produced a stunning opening lap of 20.835 seconds which would not be bettered over the course of the competition. Their time of 1:06.743 not only gave them an early lead but stood in the gold medal position until the very last pairing - Larissa Klaassen of the Netherlands with her pilot Imke Brommer – it took a Paralympic record for the Dutch pair to snatch gold.
The Women’s B Kilo was quickly followed by the Men’s C3 Individual Pursuit where Strathpeffer’s Fin Graham broke the world record, that had stood for seven years, in Qualifying by nearly seven seconds, posting a time of 3:19.780. Unfortunately Graham’s record was to last for all of seven minutes as ParalympicsGB team-mate Jaco van Gass recorded a breath-taking new mark of 3:17.593, to set up a GB gold medal showdown, in which the more experienced rider would win out – however Fin could be rightly pleased with a silver medal in his first day of Paralympic action.
The final day of track action could be referred to as a Super Saturday, as the Scots won a gold, silver and bronze spearheaded by none other than Neil Fachie and partner Matt Rotherham. They tore out of the start gate and never glanced back, storming to a blisteringly quick 58.038 time, a new world record. There was a further silver lining in that event as Lewis Stewart guided his stoker James Ball to the second step on the podium, only bettered by arguably the best pairing in history.
Just minutes later the Scottish medal rush continued, as Jenny Holl, also making her Paralympic debut, piloted Sophie Unwin to bronze in the Women’s B 3000m Individual Pursuit. In qualifying the pair broke the Paralympic record with an impressive 3.22.670 time, which ultimately put them third quickest and gave them the opportunity to ride for bronze.
The first of two days of Time Trial events were somewhat frustrating for the Scottish riders, as Sophie Unwin and her pilot Jenny Holl finished fifth in the Women’s B Time Trial and Fin Graham was squeezed off the podium in the final stages of the Men’s C3 Time Trial but both would have their day as the road action took place, starting on the same Fuji International Speedway where the time trials were contested.
Known for its changeable conditions, famously hosting the Formula 1 Grand Prix in 1976 and 2007 in monsoon-like weather, fortunately for the testers, the weather held off, however for Fin Graham’s C3 Road Race conditions couldn’t have been much worse!
The trio of Brits in that group-controlled proceedings, racing extremely well as a unit, Benjamin Watson making a lone attack stick to solo to the Paralympic title. From there Graham played the role of teammate superbly, neutralising attacks before he himself escaped the bunch to come home in second place and claim the silver medal. It may have played out differently in the Women’s B Road Race, much friendly conditions and powerful sprint to the line, but the result was the same for Sophie Unwin and her pilot Jenny Holl as they also took silver to round out the Scottish Paralympic medal haul.
A month earlier, in the searing heat, Anna Shackley and Tao Geoghegan Hart contested the road races in their maiden Olympics. Milngavie’s Shackley impressed on her Olympic debut, as even with a relatively small number of elite level race days under her belt at this early stage in her career, she was able to deliver a great supporting ride for team leader Lizzie Deignan, showing maturity beyond her years.
Wednesday brought the Time Trials, and despite not having raced an elite time trial before, and racing in humidity that was akin to a sauna, Shackley was the early pacesetter – briefly entering the hotseat before Canada’s Karol Ann Canuel dethroned her moments later. The Scot would eventual finish a respectable 18th place in Fuji.
Tao Geoghegan Hart competed in the men’s TT, where he looked to bounce back from a DNF in the road race, after he was involved in a crash that also hampered his teammate Geraint Thomas. The 44km that the men faced included 846m of elevation gain, which came over two laps – a figure that would make mere mortals’ wince on a road bike, never mind on a time trial bike - was in truth a battle for Tao, who was still feeling the effects of that aforementioned crash. None-the-less he battled all the way to deliver a respectable ride, which resulted in a 29th place finish.
Neah Evans was the third of four Scots making their Olympic debut in Tokyo, Evans as a member of the Women’s Team Pursuit squad, alongside Katie Archibald, who would also compete in the inaugural female Madison. The endurance duo were joined by Sprinter Jack Carlin, again making his debut at this level.
Evans and Archibald’s Team Pursuit quartet broke the world record during the first round, but it didn’t last long as the German’s went even quicker to set up a thrilling gold medal ride-off. Despite a valiant effort from the quartet in the blue-ribband event, the German's were just too strong, but Evans would leave her first Olympics with a silver medal, which kick-started the Team GB cycling medal rush at the Olympics.
Paisley’s Jack Carlin made his Olympic bow alongside Ryan Owens and Jason Kenny in the Team Sprint, and despite expectations of Dutch domination in the event, the British trident stayed within a tenth of a second during the early rounds of the competition to set up an intriguing final. Carlin, as second man, was the lynch pin of the team, holding on to Owens scorching opening lap before keeping the pace high to deliver Kenny in a position to go for gold, and he couldn’t have done a much better job, however on the day the Dutch were just too strong breaking the Olympic record to take gold. Still, that silver medal will is a special one, and hopefully is the start of a long a successful Olympic career.
As it was, Carlin wouldn’t have to wait long for his second opportunity, as the Scot entered the Individual Men’s Sprint the following day. After qualifying third, the Scot remained seeded for the competition avoiding teammate Kenny and the Dutch riders in the early rounds.
The quarter-final saw Carlin produce an upset by defeating reigning champion Kenny in straight rides, to set up a semi-final against Harrie Lavreysen, which saw the Dutchman narrowly come out on top. However, a bronze medal ride-off against Denis Dmitriev was to come, which 24-year-old Carlin won in again in straight rides to claim a second Olympic medal, this time a brilliant bronze, and the photos of him circling the velodrome arms aloft will live long in the memory.
Arguably the highlight of the Games was to come moments later as Katie Archibald and Laura Kenny teamed up for the Women’s Madison. A very strong start from the duo, gave them a respectable lead by winning the first three sprints, and after finishing third in sprint four, some may have expected the duo to return into the field and defend a lead. Instead, they went into overdrive, taking a lap over the rest before dominating the rest of proceedings winning the next six sprints to give them an almost unassailable lead going into the final 20 laps.
The duo finished off the race in the manner they started by winning the final sprint to take gold, in what will go down in the history books as one of the best Madison performances ever seen.