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28th Olympic Games - JO

Athens, Greece, August 14-28, 2004

Friday, August 20, 2004

Can Germany get back on track?

Breaking the "unbreakable" four-minute barrier at the 2000 Games in Sydney
Photo: © AFP
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If a week is a long time in sport then the four years between Olympics can be alpha star to black hole - just ask the German pursuit team. They collapsed from their own gravitational forces in three years after Sydney, but as Kathie Stove writes, more recent events show the faintest glimmer of light from the anti-matter depths, just in time for Athens.

Let's recap Sydney 2000: Robert Bartko of Germany takes the gold medal in the individual pursuit and the pursuit team of Bartko, Daniel Becke, Jens Lehmann and Guido Fulst not only take the gold, it breaks the 'unbreakable' four minute barrier for the 4000m. Their time of 3.59.781 ensures victory and stuns the cycling world.

Fast forward (star time) to the 2003 World Track Cycling Championships, transferred from Beijing to Stuttgart because of the SARS scare in China. In-fighting in the German pursuit team causes them to withdraw from the event and shocks the German cycling world. The newspapers of the embarrassed host country devote pages of each issue to the story for several days (no Australia, we are not alone), almost overshadowing the 3.57.28 ridden by the Australian pursuit team to smash their own world record and stagger the rest of the cycling world.

The gory details didn't really make it past German borders, so let me give you the news as told by German Cycling Federation man and German team manager, Martin Wolf, at the 2004 World Track Championships.

The selection criteria, announced in January 2003, for that year's World Championships were: there was one qualifying event, the German National Championships; riders who qualified at the nationals got a start at the world championships, but it was not specified in which discipline.

Bartko: "Who's in?"
Photo ©: Hennes Roth
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Lehmann: "Not me."
Photo ©: Hennes Roth
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Race over: Lehmann furious...
Photo ©: Hennes Roth
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... while Aussies celebrate with a new WR
Photo ©: Hennes Roth
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Four riders (Becke, Lehmann, Sebastien Siedler and Christian Bach) who trained under the same coach, Jens Lang, at Erfurt in the district of Thuringen qualified at the event. Becke and Lehmann qualified and were fastest in the individual pursuit. Bartko, from Berlin, was not given clearance by his professional team Rabobank to compete in the German championships. Fulst did not qualify, suffering as he was from the effects of having just returned from the Sydney World Cup event, where he had been sent by the federation to help ensure that Germany won the 2003 Track World Cup (which they did).

In March or April, the federation discussed the rebuilding of the Sydney 2000 pursuit team for Stuttgart at the end of July. They wanted to bring back Daniel Becke and Robert Bartko, who, after the 2000 Olympics, had gone to professional road teams.

They brought Bartko and Fulst into the squad. There was no comment and they were very confident that it would work.

One week before the World Championships the team went to a training camp and in the last of 'special tests' over 2000m, Bartko did very well and Lehmann did not. The times indicated to national coach Bernd Dittert a 4.20 minutes for Bartko and 4.24 or 4.25 for Lehmann for the full distance (Bartko's fastest time in Sydney had been 4.18.976 in qualifying). He took the decision that Bartko would compete in the individual pursuit and the decision was confirmed by a member of the federation's board.

Lehmann said he would accept the decision but when Bartko, after qualifying sixth fastest in 4.25.981, botched his first round race, Lehmann stood on the tribune and clapped. He went down to the centre of the track and said he wasn't riding with Bartko in the team pursuit.

Team management called the team for an urgent discussion before the cut off time for lodging the names for the team pursuit. Lehmann and Bartko agreed to ride the team pursuit as instructed by coach Dittert. The team of Becke and Lehmann (Erfurt), and Bartko and Fulst (Berlin), had the reserves Siedler and Bach (Erfurt).

That afternoon an email from coach Lang in Erfurt to his group upped the ante. He said that the situation was unfair and asked his riders not to compete with Bartko and Fulst, who technically were not qualified.

The Erfurt riders said they would ride only if qualified riders started. They held a press conference and distributed a written communiqué which included the email they had received from their coach.

Federation President Sylvia Schenk could see the ramifications of riders making selection demands and withdrew the team.

The federation also took the decision that the four Erfurt riders would be suspended from competing for Germany for two years. The lawyers are still exchanging blows on that decision and meanwhile they can ride.

Every decision concerning the World Cup and World Championships this year has also been through the lawyers.

In the Olympic qualification ride in February this year Becke finished fastest in about 4.19 minutes followed by Bartko, Lehmann, Christian Lademann, Fulst, Robert Bengsch, with Leif Lampater 9th. The selected endurance squad is Bartko, Bengsch, Fulst, Lademann and Lampater. None are from the Erfurt group. They did try to lure back the very talented Becke, who had not blotted his copybook with personal statement about other team members, but to no avail. The fact that he rode the recent Tour de France for his professional team Illes Balears-Banesto pretty well gave the game away for pursuiting.

Bartko back on the podium in Melbourne
Photo ©: Mark Gunter
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Bartko took the bronze medal in the individual pursuit at the recent World Championships and was pleased with his performance. It was the first time that that he had improved from round to round in any competition.

"My time in the bronze medal ride was only two seconds outside my best performance ever. I think there is a lot of room for improvement over the next three months. It gives me a lot of confidence for the Olympic games.

"This time I have an agreement with Rabobank to ride in the races I choose so that I will be at my very best at the Olympics."

Bartko was also happy with the atmosphere. "The team is in a pretty good mood and we are acting like friends. The only problem is that we have been riding together only this year. We have to improve the technical things in the next months but I am confident that we will have a chance."

Happy campers? Time will tell.
Photo ©: Shane Goss
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It didn't look like that on the track in Melbourne but there were extenuating circumstances. Bartko became sick after the qualifying round of the team pursuit in which they placed fifth in 4.07.649 and the more inexperienced riders butchered their round one ride against eventual silver medallists Great Britain to finish with the 7th fastest time.

Bengsch, who had never ridden in a World Championship before, replaced Bartko in that ride. His nervousness and inexperienced left him not realising that Lademann, who had pushed himself too hard, had pulled off with three laps to go. As prearranged, he pulled off with two laps to go and then saw that only two riders were left (the time is taken on the third rider to cross the finish line) and he had to regain them.

The official word a week before the track program opened was that they were not pretending they could touch Australia and Britain in the teams pursuit but a bronze medal was still on the cards.

There is a strange irony that after being the catalyst for disintegration last year, Bartko was the only German who gained a medal, in any discipline, at the 2004 World Track Championships - his bronze in the individual pursuit.

That's a disappointing result for the World Cup winners of the last two years and a proud track cycling nation where 6-day events still flourish.

Martin Wolf said, "I think we have to stay calm and try to improve and earn some medals during the Olympics. If we get 3 or 4 that will be fine, 5 or 6 would be great, then nobody will talk about the World Championships. But if it doesn't work out then the rats will come out and attack."

Still, as they say, bad dress rehearsal, great first night. We'll soon see.

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