When the Olympics were last held in London 64 years ago, there were just three track cycling events: the match sprint, the one-kilometer time trial, the tandem sprint and the team pursuit. Great Britain came away with two silvers and two bronze medals, which thrilled the home crowd because it equaled their total medal haul from the previous three Olympiads. But it was a far cry from what British trackmen achieved at the first London Olympics, in 1908, when they won five of the six golds.
Track racing was the main form of bike racing in Britain from the late 19th century until well into the 20th century. Massed-start road racing was considered too dangerous by the authorities in Victorian times and the races were moved to the big outdoor velodromes—including Herne Hill, the 500-yard oval built in 1891 (where the 1948 Olympics would later be held). When all its best cyclists were racing on the track, Britain was supreme at the 1908 Olympic events (held in the main Olympic stadium at White City). But when road time trials became organized on a national basis by the 1920s, track racing lost its former luster; and it faded even more when road racing became legal in Britain after World War II.
Track racing didn’t start to make a strong comeback until Britain’s first modern indoor velodrome was opened at Manchester in 1994. Since then, the success of the country’s track cycling program has been defined by the number of medals earned at the past four Olympics: 1996 Seoul (0), 2000 Sydney (4, including 1 gold), 2004 Athens (4, including 2 gold), and 2008 Beijing (11, including 7 gold). And now we have London 2012 and Great Britain’s almost total dominance.
The experts said it couldn’t be done, that one nation could virtually sweep the Olympic track cycling for the second time. And yet, despite wholesale changes in the track program from Beijing to London, including only one starter per nation, Great Britain claimed seven of the 10 gold medals this week (along with a silver, a bronze and a disqualification in the other three events). To see the dumfounded look on the faces of the crack French sprinters and Australian pursuiters, and to hear their coaches’ dire claims about the Brits’ magic wheels, hot pants or other secret strategies, you would think that the end of the world was nigh.
When watered down, the French and Aussie lament went something like this: “We’ve beaten the British in the world championships and World Cups for the past three years, so how come they’re so much faster this week?”
Dave Brailsford, the supremo of British Cycling and Team Sky whose resources were copiously used by his track racers, simply replied that their goal all along was to peak for the Olympic Games—and that’s what they did. Brailsford pointed out that that’s what his road team already achieved last month at the Tour de France.
In the road team’s case, it was total focus on getting his riders to top form at high-altitude training camps, where they rode at higher power levels than they would at the Tour itself. For the Olympic track team, it’s clear that the British athletes training and preparation (including all the technical, psychological and nutritional aspects) has been at a higher level than that of any other country.
The intensity of that training was emphasized by Sir Chris Hoy, triple gold medalist in Beijing, who said this last winter about the team’s work-out drills: “We’re used to working hard on the track, road and gym, week in week out, but [the lactic-acid-tolerance] drills on the turbo [trainer] stand alone in terms of pain. After the full set of sprints, which are interspersed with very short recovery times, I usually collapse into a heap on the crash mat next to the bike.”
Some of the British athletes, who trained just as hard as Hoy and his teammates, didn’t even get to ride at the Olympics. One was Wendy Houvenaghel, who earned a silver in the individual pursuit four years ago. When her event was replaced by the team pursuit, she became an integral part of the squad, but she wasn’t selected for the final three in London—even though she was on top form.
In her absence, Laura Trott, Joanna Rowsell and Dani King twice broke the world record in their journey to the gold medal. Tellingly, Houvenaghel, who was unhappy with her non-selection, later revealed, “We had done faster times in training in Newport the week before with me in the line-up.” In other words, in their final training sessions at the covered velodrome at Newport in South Wales, the British pursuit team raced faster than world-record pace. That’s like the Team Sky riders riding harder at training camp than they raced at the Tour.
After France’s multi-time world sprint champion Grégory Baugé was beaten by Britain’s Jason Kenny in the men’s sprint final, he was so mystified by his loss that he resorted to asking Kenny in the post-final press conference how the Brit improved so much between the world championships and the Olympics. Kenny didn’t give much of a reply, but it was instructive to learn from Kenny that his coaches were studying video of his opponents’ races and updating their tactical plans before each of his sprints.
That could also prove a handicap if that opponent doesn’t race according to plan. That was the case in the women’s sprint final on Tuesday, when defending champ Victoria Pendleton was the odds-on favorite to beat the Olympic 500-meter time-trial gold medalist at Athens in 2004. After Pendleton was relegated in their first heat after leaving the sprinters’ lane, Pendleton seemed flustered by Meares’s second-heat tactic of rolling to a near halt (reminiscent of the track stands the Aussie once used before they were banned). Pendleton clearly didn’t have the same track-standing skills as Meares and was forced to take the front position, and she wasn’t prepared to lead out the final sprint and had no answer to the Aussie’s come-from-behind effort.
But the lasting image of these track Olympics came from the very final race, the men’s Keirin, which Hoy won with one of the greatest shows of power, speed and perseverance that even his has ever shown. It was a superb ending to an Olympic week that saw the Scot become the first Brit to win six career gold medals. And he surely won this sixth gold with that intensive wintertime preparation that saw him “collapse into a heap.”
Hoy and his teammates’ success this past week also reflected their country’s heritage for track cycling that first emerged a century ago, and is now back to its brilliant best.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson