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Australian track cycling feature, February 23, 2007

The long road to being in Beijing

The Manchester round of the UCI Track World Cup is the final chance for some riders to stake a claim for a spot at the World Championships, to be held in Majorca later next month. One nation hoping to rebound from a post-Athens 'breather' is Australia. Cyclingnews' John Flynn spoke to the nation's top sprinters and their Coach about the road to Beijing - via Manchester and Majorca.

The Australian team pursuit squad triumph in Athens.
Photo ©: www.epicimages.us
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The 'trackies' are already thinking almost 18 months ahead to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But before that, there are national championships and world championships, and each plays a part in the long-term lead-up to the Olympics.

This weekend, some of the world's best track cyclists will be in action at the Manchester velodrome in the UK. There will be some surprise guest appearances, including ProTour rider Bradley McGee in the individual pursuit. However, endurance riders regularly drop-in for a spot of the boards before resuming their day jobs as top pro road cyclists.

It's the sprinters who are the specialists and for those cyclists, each event will play a crucial role in the lead-up to their big moment in the sun next year in China.

After Manchester, comes Majorca, and it's the world championships that are held before an Olympics that can be a good indicator of form.

It's understood that work on the new velodrome in Majorca continues furiously to finish it in time for its inaugural event. So it's something of an unknown, or as dual Athens Olympic gold medalist, Ryan Bayley said as he warmed down on the rollers inside Sydney's Dunc Gray Velodrome, "It's some Spanish island, I can't remember the name."

Ray (as he is known in track cycling circles) may remember its name in just over a month. He had just finished a demolition job on Mark French in the final of the men's sprint at the 2007 Australian Track Cycling Championships, and took out the gold medal, a pleasing return to form for arguably still the world's best track sprinter.

"It's some Spanish island, I can't remember the name"

- Ryan Bayley on the somewhat unknown venue for the 2007 World Track Championships

Arguably, that is, if Bayley is in the same form he took to Athens in 2004 when he won both the match sprint and keirin. "At the moment I'm not going as fast as I want to go," he said. "I was in the gym lifting pretty heavy weights two days ago and my form isn't exactly where I want it to be."

The weight sessions are all part of the regime as Australia's track sprinters train on through the national championships. With a World Cup meet in Manchester starting February 23, and the World Championships beginning in Majorca on March 29, the nationals at Dunc Gray Velodrome are a painful but necessary sideshow.

On the opening night of the championships, Bayley posted a flying 200 metre time of 10.40. Good enough, until Victorian Mark French rode a 10.27.

French's time isn't exactly a surprise considering his 10.16 at the Oceania Championships in Melbourne, and it served notice to Bayley. "My qualifying time needs to be about 10.1 to be where I want it to be. At the moment I'm on a good stepping stone for the next World Championships in April (2008) and the next Olympics because I want to go out and do what I did last time."

French re-connected

Mark French is approaching his best form
Photo ©: John Flynn
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In the Victorian's corner of the Dunc Gray infield is Mark French, the younger sprinter whose career was cut short by the 'Del Monte' affair of 2003.

French's ban from cycling was overturned by the Court of Arbitration For Sport in 2005 and the junior world champion - who was capable of beating seniors - has been working hard to regain form and focus. Approaching the World's in 2007, the form of the one-time junior prodigy is the best it has ever been.

"I'm training all the way through Nationals so I'm happy with the time, extremely happy," French said. "It's my PB on a track without being in Moscow, which is really steep, and Melbourne where I did 10.16 at Oceania's. 10.1 and 10.2's always gonna qualify you top six anywhere in the world but I've just gotta get down to 10's to comfortably match Theo Bos."

Barras keeps watch

Australian national track coach Martin Barras.
Photo ©: Tom Balks
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After the success in Athens, it had been a lean period for the Australian sprinters on the global stage, as they focused on the Commonwealth Games in 2006.

Without Bayley and world record holder, Anna Meares, the Australian track sprinting stocks have been hit by scandal and retirement. There are the well publicized cases of Jobie Dajka's psychological problems and French's suspension, and then the retirement of Sean Eadie.

The job for Barras was to rebuild the squad to a level equal to or better than before. Barras told Cyclingnews the road to the Beijing Olympics is becoming clearer.

"We've had a lean patch and I wouldn't say a tough period but it was definitely about rebuilding the team. It took us longer ... the difference is that you can see from the way he season has gone, everything we do has stepped up one level. The effort started a while ago, but it's starting to pay dividends."

These dividends included the performance of young sprinter, Shane Perkins, in the team sprint at the National Championships. His standing start times (heat and final) in Victoria's gold medal winning rides of 17.699 and 17.74, set new national benchmarks, beating his previous best of 17.861. (In the team sprint, it's considered essential to complete the first of the three laps in under 18 seconds.)

Shane Perkins produced a couple of outstanding rides
Photo ©: John Flynn
(Click for larger image)

"The standout would have to be Shane Perkins, the standing lap .... both rides actually," Barras said. "It was important not only for some testing but for his ability to back up, he had two very good quality rides and it puts us in contention at a level that we haven't been for three years."

Given the intensity of Australia's training program, with the Manchester World Cup just around the corner, Barras was also impressed with the form of French.

"The fact that he can come here in the middle of preparation riding a 10.2 is a very, very good omen," according to Barras. "I mean these are extremely competitive times by any standard, the 10.1 he rode in Melbourne is his outstanding time for this year. He can look at improving on what he's done in Melbourne just on the base of what he's done here (in Sydney)."

Bayley still the man

Olympic champion Ryan Bayley
Photo ©: John Veage
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Considering that Australia's other major star of the track, Ben Kersten, is still to come into consideration for the keirin (his favoured event, the kilo, has been dropped from the Olympics), and the emergence of Scott Sunderland and Daniel Ellis in the senior ranks, the country may enter 2008 with a strong male sprint squad heading into Beijing.

The World Championships in Majorca will certainly provide a key form indicator. Barras stressed that the team's success hinges on one man: the big event rider, Ryan Bayley, who has delivered for the coach on countless occasions.

"Regardless of the other guys that you put around him, he'll be the cornerstone of our performances, being this year (in Majorca) or next year in Beijing. The cast of characters is quite good and very deep and if you drop someone like Kersten in that mix, by next year you can look at either Ellis or Sunderland putting their hand up for those particular jobs, it's a healthy situation."

The sisters dilemma

Anna Meares has a firm spot
Photo ©: John Flynn
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The talking point in women's sprinting at this month's National Championships once again was Anna Meares, who won the 500 metre TT, the team sprint (with sister Kerrie), and the keirin.

There was no doubting the form or fitness of the world record holder. Even in the middle of a solid training block, her 500 metre TT time was just outside her world record she revised at the recent Sydney World Cup meet.

Instead, the question mark hangs over who will join Meares in the team sprint at the World Championships. Two riders are in contention for the position, Western Australian Kristine Bayley (sister of Ryan) and Meares' sister, Kerrie.

The older Meares did her selection chances no harm by defeating Anna in the final of the women's sprint but that performance alone doesn't have the national coach convinced.

Kerrie Meares
Photo ©: John Veage
(Click for larger image)

"Kerrie had a good ride in the sprint, but I was discussing about that, particularly the first ride of the final with a few people a couple of days ago," Barras said. "That first ride was a bit like a barber using a chain saw to shave a client. If it doesn't come off it's bloody murder, if it comes off it's a masterpiece and we were a bit on the edge of our seat about that."

The bottom line for both riders is the standing start qualifying lap time of 19.7 seconds; which has been set by Kristine Bayley, but not by Kerrie Meares (at the time of writing).

Meares will be given until February 25 to post a qualifying time - in the meantime, Kristine Bayley will race with Anna Meares at the World Cup meet in Manchester this weekend.

"It's very straightforward," Barras said. "Whomever has the fastest time at the end of all these trials and all these races, will eventually get the gig."

Cyclingnews will provide full coverage of the upcoming Manchester round of the UCI Track World Cup.

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