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Olympic news for September 23
Track wrap up - France again on top
By Jeff Jones, online editor
With the completion of the six day Olympic track competition on Thursday evening, fans (Australian and otherwise) who made it out to the Dunc Gray Velodrome could go home satisfied that they'd seen some of the best track racing in this country. Amongst the 150(+) riders that competed, several broke world and Olympic records demonstrating the intensity of the competition and the speed of the track. At the end of it, France managed to finish on top of the medal board, with four gold and two silver medals, equaling their performance in Atlanta. Germany were second with two gold medals, two silvers and two bronzes, while Australia finished third with one gold, two silvers and three bronzes.
Australian fans were a little disappointed up until the final night, when the crowd erupted as the home side won a gold and a silver medal. This is taking nothing away from the performances of Leontien Van Moorsel in the women's IP and the German 4000 metre pursuit team, as both set world records that were widely appreciated by the crowd, regardless of nationality.
The first gold medals were decided on night one, with French speed queen, Felicia Ballanger winning the women's 500 m TT, and Great Britain's Jason Queally surprising with a gold in the men's kilo. Queally rode an excellent time, although off world record pace, but the expectations that Arnaud Tournant (Fra) would win gold fell flat, as he struggled with a bigger gear to fifth place. Australia had its hopes on Shane Kelly, who bettered his DNF in Atlanta by winning the bronze, but most could tell that Kelly was disappointed with his time.
Day two saw France bounce back with a gold in the Olympic sprint, as Laurent Gane, Florian Rousseau and Arnaud Tournant blitzed the British in the finals. The Australians were third, but again there was the expectation that they would at least be in the silver medal position. A slight disadvantage of performing in front of a home crowd.
That same day saw Dutchwoman Leontien Zijlaard-Van Moorsel set the track on fire with an Olympic then a World Record in the women's 3000m individual pursuit. Her mark of 3.30.816 bettered Marion Cilgnet's 1996 record set in Manchester, and she stunned the crowd and the opposition with such a smooth performance. She went onto win the gold the next night ahead of Clignet, who was certainly disappointed with her own eventual performance. However, there is still the World Championships in October...
In the other event on day two, German Robert Bartko set an Olympic record of 4.18.515 in the men's 4000m IP to beat compatriot Jens Lehmann, although there was certainly more crowd support for Brad McGee's comeback to win the bronze against Brit Rob Hayles. Bartko was extremely quick, and his mark was the fastest ever set in a 'conventional' position.
Day three saw the sprint competition get underway, with Marty Nothstein (USA) and Felicia Ballanger (Fra) riding the quickest in qualifying, a signal of what was to come. The team pursuit was also contested (qualifying and quarter finals) and Germany brought out their big guns in the evening to set a new Olympic Record of 4.01.735.
This again was a sign of things to come as the Ukrainian team bettered this in the semi's on day four, before the Germans (Bartko, Lehmann, Fulst and Becke) made history in the finals to become the first team under 4 minutes. Their mark, 3.59.781 (60.06 km/h) was painted in gold on their team hut in the athlete's village, and won't be forgotten in a hurry. Credit goes to the Ukrainians as well, who set such a high pace early on for the Germans to chase.
Day five saw the finish of the men's and women's sprint competition, with Marty Nothstein overcoming Jens Fiedler in the semi, and Florian Rousseau in the final. Nothstein went one better than his silver in Atlanta, and was visibly pleased. Fiedler had to settle for bronze after he beat Gane in the ride off.
The women's sprint saw Felicia Ballanger do what everyone expected and win, although Russian Oxana Grichine did manage to take a heat from her in the final. Of course, it's never easy to keep winning while you are number one (as Ballanger admits), but she did it again. For the bronze medal, Ukrainian Iryna Yanovych defeated Australia's Michelle Ferris who didn't quite have her best speed in this competition, although she did win silver in the women's 500m TT.
The other race of the night was the men's 40km points race, which saw the experienced Spaniard Juan Llaneras lap the field twice to record a win. He beat Uruguayan Milton Wynants, who had managed to be in the first break to gain a lap, and was eventually rewarded with silver - his country's first medal of any colour in any Olympic sport since 1964. Australian Stuart O'Grady set the crowd on fire with his sprinting, but was unable to gain a lap and finished 10th despite having the most points.
Day six was a perfect finale, with the women's points race, men's madison, and men's keirin to conclude the program. The points race went to Italian Antonella Bellutti, the 3000m pursuit gold medallist in Atlanta. Bellutti rode a strong race early on, then continued to pick up points to stay ahead of the rest. Despite riding at the back of the bunch for much of the race, Leontien Van Moorsel sprinted into the silver medal in the final double points sprint, a "surprise medal" for her.
The men's madison was a perfect display of this most exciting of track events. The smoothness of the changeovers and the high speed of the race gave the crowd a huge thrill, and the win by an Australian pair made it perfect for them. McGrory and Aitken were definitely "on" that night, and the ferocious speed of Aitken's leadouts for McGrory to take the sprints were amazing to watch. McGrory had to curb his celebrations (a little) as he will be riding in the road race, while Aitken was still awake(!) 24 hours afterward when he was interviewed again. He'd had a "few".
The final event was the men's keirin, which saw strong German and French duos come up against Australian Gary Neiwand, and American Marty Nothstein in the final. Nothstein didn't look quite as quick as he did the night before and couldn't make it through the French/German blockade in the final. Gary Neiwand tried the opposite tactic, and led for two laps, winding it up with over 250 metres to go. He was the rabbit and Florian Rousseau caught him, with Fiedler taking the bronze in a tight finish. Neiwand could certainly finish his Olympic career with the satisfaction that he'd given it his best, and come away with a nice reward.
While the next competition at the Dunc Gray Velodrome might not be of the same calibre as the 2000 Olympics, the many fans who came out to watch will hopefully return during summer when there will be several top quality domestic competitions. Who knows, we might even have to queue up to buy tickets again?
What next for Australian track cycling?
Track cycling at the Olympics went out on a high for Australia on Thursday evening as Brett Aitken and Scott McGrory combined to win the gold medal in the men's madison, and Gary Neiwand backed up to win silver in the keirin. Their performances lifted Australia to third in the medal standings behind France and Germany, with one gold, two silvers and three bronzes. Australia last won an Olympic gold medal in track cycling in 1984, and 16 years was a long time between drinks.
For coach, Charlie Walsh, it was a positive end to his 20 year career at the top of track cycling in Australia. Walsh has coached the team to 2 gold medals, 8 silvers and 9 bronze medals, although the two who won gold last night did not always see eye to eye with him. In fact, the entire time that Walsh has been at the top, there has never been any shortage of controversy surrounding him and his riders.
Aitken fell out with Walsh in 1994 after he requested permission to leave the AIS program to spend more time with his family. He did so, but was later allowed back in to compete in Atlanta in 1996. That was not forgotten by him at the press conference earlier today, "I think we all know there's been problems in the past...we were mostly here to win for the sacrifices our families have made," but he was prepared to look at the positive side of things with the gold medal around his neck.
Scott McGrory does a good deal of track racing on the six day circuit in Europe, and trains mostly outside the AIS program. He was quite diplomatic at the press conference and acknowledged that credit needed to be given to Walsh for his time spent in the job.
After what Aitken and McGrory have been through this year with their families (McGrory lost a son, while Aitken's daughter is also ill), their gold medal was a well deserved reward. They started their run last year in the World Championships in Berlin, but Aitken crashed with over 10 kilometres to go while they were in the silver medal position. He was ko'd, and McGrory had to finish the race in the top 14 by himself just to qualify Australia for the madison. He managed 13th and the rest...
With Walsh gone from the AIS, its future is somewhat uncertain. The budget will be cut, along with budgets to other sports, as Australia finally gets itself over the 'Sydney 2000' pot of gold. By how much remains to be seen, as well as Australia's performances on the track after the Games. 20 years is a long time, and many will be interested to see what the future holds for Australian cycling, apres Walsh.
An off-road weekend
September 23-24 sees Olympic cycling move to the trails of Fairfield City Farm, with the women's and men's cross country mountain bike races scheduled to start at 13:00. The starting list for each race is smaller than a typical World Cup event: 30 women and 50 men, but the quality is of the highest standard. This is the second time that mountain biking has been held at the Olympics.
Saturday will see defending Olympic Champion, Paola Pezzo (Italy) up against the likes of 2000 World Champion Margarita Fullana (Spain) and 2000 World Cup winner, Barbara Blatter (Switzerland). Local favourite is Mary Grigson, who is ranked 13th in the world and finished 5th overall in the World cup. Strong challenges are expected from USA's Alison Dunlap and Canada's Alison Sydor and Chrissy Redden with Russian Alla Epifanova, New Zealander Susy Pryde and Argentinian Jimena Florit not to be ruled out.
The women's race consists of one short lap (1.2 km) followed by five 6.9 km laps, for a total of 35.7 km on the tricky but balanced course. The weather has been dry in Sydney all winter, and the course is hard packed.
On Sunday, 50 of the world's best male mountain bikers will line up for their 49.5 km race. The men will ride one short lap and seven full laps, with an expected race time of 2:15. The field contains the top 17 riders on the UCI rankings, including 2000 World Cup winner and World Champion, Miguel Martinez (France).
Martinez will go into the event as favourite, but there will be plenty of riders out to stop him. Belgian Filip Meirhaeghe has been tipped to challenge strongly, but with riders such as Thomas Frischknecht and Christophe Sauser (Swi), Bart Brentjens and Bas Van Dooren (Ned), Cadel Evans (Aus), Roland Green (Can), Marco Bui (Ita), Rune Hoydahl (Nor) and Pavel Tcherkassov (Rus), the race for gold is certainly open. Martinez' teammate, Christophe Dupouey is also well credentialled after placing third in the World Cup this year.
Defending Olympic champion is Bart Brentjens (Ned), who beat Frischknecht and Martinez in Atlanta.
Once again cyclingnews.com will be providing live lap by lap updates for each race.
Merckx believes in Armstrong
With the Olympic time trial just one week away, Belgian great, Eddy Merckx believes the course will suit Lance Armstrong more than Jan Ullrich. With some 20 corners per 15.5 kilometre lap, the Sydney course is not for the big gear grinders, as there are few places to really get going.
"The course doesn't have anything for Ullrich, too many corners. I believe that Armstrong will get the gold," said Merckx in Sydney. Of course, Merckx is a personal friend of Armstrong, but he does know a thing or two about bike racing.
Jan Ullrich is the reigning World TT Champion, although he didn't have to ride against Armstrong in Italy last year. He was beaten by Armstrong in both Tour de France time trials (as well as the team time trial) and will go into the race on September 30 as a medal favourite, perhaps not gold. Anything and anyone can happen on race day, but there is no doubt that Armstrong is in better form than Ullrich. Both are training in Brisbane at the moment, following the lead of many of the top roadies who are preparing outside Sydney.
The traffic's not that bad!
Hruska confirmed positive
The International Cycling Union (UCI) has confirmed that Czech time trial specialist, Jan Hruska has tested positive for Nandrolone. The 25 year old returned the positive control during the Vuelta a Espaņa on September 13, the day after he finished second in the tour's hardest stage (to Angliru). He was set to compete with the team in the Olympic road race and time trial, but will now face disciplinary action from the Czech Federation, and a possible two year suspension.