Nine seconds separated Team GB from the top five in the Team Relay tonight at the European Championships where the Swedish overhauled a Swiss team that last year appeared unbeatable. In a race that lasted under an hour and would develop into a one-lap shootout, a flying start was critical and although the result was not perfect, valuable tactical lessons were learned for the coming days of racing.
Proceedings kicked off under threatening skies, 16 teams, fielding 4 riders in the quest for that one elusive gold. Morale in the Team GB camp was high and expectations higher. By 6.50 Liam Killeen was ready to be gridded, but dead last was barely worth arriving early for. But with level headed Killeen as captain of the ship the team had a fighting chance.
Killeen had some traffic to pass on his way to sixth overall, giving the rest of the young team an even bigger challenge then they were expecting. Out in front the Swiss rider Ralph Naef brought his team home in top spot on that first lap closely followed by Sweden's Emil Lindgren.
Liam spoke after his race explaining how it all went:
"It's always a tough effort doing this. We didn't have the best of starts, being on the third row, there was a little bit of traffic to work through for the first half of the lap, but I felt strong and moved up where I could.
Lap two and it was time for Kenta Gallagher to get all his effort out and he held his own, keeping the team neatly in sixth, while out ahead the Swedes had taken control of the race with Tobias Ludvigsson taking 12 seconds out of rivals Switzerland. The first year Junior was delighted for the opportunity to take part but just couldn't believe the intensity.
"That was my first team relay and boy was that savage! You just couldn't get into a rhythm, it was just flat out the whole way round and the track didn't have any good descents, it was just brutal. I knew it would be hard, but just not that hard. You couldn't catch people, couldn't make time on anyone, you just had to grit your teeth and get over the climbs. Hopefully tomorrow will be a bit easier but not too easy, we'll see what happens!"
Annie Last went out for Britain's third lap, again holding her own on the hostile terrain, to be only beaten to the line by a the Polish rider leaving GB in seventh. Annie explained later:
"Despite being my first time doing this type of event I really enjoyed it out there it was really good, but so hard. It's so different doing just the one lap, compared to doing your normal five laps, all you can do is ride and do your best. I'd got overtaken by a Polish woman towards the end so I came in seventh."
Anchor man Dave Fletcher was last to go, one of our most experienced relay riders, despite his young age. Giving 110% he did what he could bringing us home to eventually finish sixth, just nine seconds adrift from a top five position. Fletcher knew he had a tough task on his hands but never flinched, he just got on with the job in hand.
"It was quite a big order for me to come back in for a podium but I just gave it 110% and I was able to catch one rider and I was pleased to be able to bring us home. It was just a case of getting everything out as best you could, tactics didn't come into it you just had to go as hard as you can and that was it really. Normally when you race you have to pace yourself, think about drinking, think about who's in front, who's behind, where with this you just had to go balls out for the finish line. Every second counts."
At the front the lead was changing - Italy pulled out all the stops with their third man Gerhard Kerschbaumer dragging the team from fifth to first, but this burst of genius didn't last and it was Sweden who came home after 52 minutes of racing to pick up the gold, nearly 50 seconds ahead of the Swiss, while Holland, the host nation held it's head high claiming third.
Annie Last - on the limit Phil Dixon - "the potential is there"
After the race the attitude in the Team GB camp was positive, with team coach Phil Dixon setting the mood.
"I know I mentioned top five but we were only seconds off that and considering where we started on the grid, the team did well. I think Liam had an incident with another rider on the first lap and then he came through like a missile, I think being gridded on the back row and riding through to the front like Liam did is a good ride. As a group they all rode well, there were strong performances from each bike rider and there is so much more to come, the potential is there. We are now just seconds of a medal, not minutes, seconds. So that's a good solid start to the weekend."
And those comments were echoed by Liam Killeen after the race.
"A good team effort and an improvement on last year. It was a very solid team with plenty of scope, definitely a team for the future, but that's what we are here for to build a good nation and this is like a stepping stone, for the coming years but also for the World Champs later in the year. We have another opportunity there to come together as a team and improve even more."
David Fletcher summed up the efforts perfectly with his assessment of the racing.
"It was a good strong team today with so much potential to come I think and we've got other youngsters coming through that could easily take places and do as well so it's looking good all round for GB. I would have liked to have seen us go away with a medal or even a jersey today, but I think on the day the result was okay and I know there is a lot more to come from us."
Tomorrow will see the Juniors get to grips with the undulating terrain, Kenta Gallagher will be back in his comfort zone along with team mate Steve James as they tackle five laps of the 5.3km course. Ruby Miller too will be in action and you can catch it all on British Cycling Online, throughout the day.