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The current time in Athens is 04:24 on October 2, 2014

Olympic Cycling News for August 25, 2004

Edited by Jeff Jones

Aitken backs O'Grady in Athens Madison

By Gerard Knapp

"If I was going to pick a team, that's who I would choose," said Brett Aitken, the gold medallist in the Madison from the Sydney 2000 Olympics when asked about the surprise decision of the Australian team to enlist Cofidis professional, Stuart O'Grady, to join Graeme Brown as part of the country's entry in tonight's 50km Madison at the Athens Velodrome.

O'Grady completed the road race for the Australian team in Athens where he finished 33rd, then returned home to France for recovery and track-specific training, such as extensive motor-pacing to build up his leg speed. But he was called back to Athens by team management as they hatched their plan to surprise their rivals by naming one of the world's best road sprinters who is excellent form.

The inclusion of O'Grady could be a double-edged sword for the Australians, as it's expected he will be closely watched by the other teams. Further, O'Grady has not been a regular on the boards for several years since turning professional for Credit Agricole and now Cofidis. His last outing in the national colours was in the points race at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, although he has ridden two professional Six Day events since then. But Aitken believes that his former Madison partner has all the qualities to make him the ideal partner for the explosive Brown, who possesses one of the fastest sprints of any endurance track rider.

Will O'Grady be able to read the race, time the hand-sling changes and keep an eye on the field? "As for the tactics on the track and the Madison itself, you just never forget those things. It's a bit like riding a bike," joked Aitken.

"He's just a natural talent and probably one of the most versatile riders in the world," he continued. "And not only that, he's also one of the smartest riders as well."

Aitken should know. As amateurs, the South Australian pairing of Aitken and O'Grady scored many victories in the Madison before O'Grady turned pro. Aitken stuck to the boards and represented Australia with distinction, before pairing up with Scott McGrory to win the inaugural Madison at the 2000 Games, a career highlight for the popular South Australian.

Changing up a gear

Aitken believes the challenge for the road riders is to convert their road strength into leg speed for the Madison. This is unlike the pursuit, where riders can come out of a full road season and adapt quickly to the boards, due to the need to push the contemporary gearing that allows for sub-four minute team pursuit times. (In the first round of the Athens 2004 teams pursuit, the Australian quartet pulled off a staggering sequence of three 57 second kilometres on their way to the new world record.)

"But the Madison and points race is different. You just can't ride the massive gears because it's all about stopping, starting and constantly accelerating. So it does require specialist training in that area. The point score is similar and he (O'Grady) struggled there (in 2000)."

It's likely all the riders in tonight's Madison will use slightly taller gearing than the bikes in the 2000 event. Aitken (finally) revealed he used a 92.8 inch gear for the Madison in 2000, which he believes was one of the smallest on the track bikes that night, with possibly only Switzerland's Bruno Risi riding something smaller . "But for me it was a big gear," he added.

Madison tactics: It's either laps, or points

The Madison was considered a huge success in Sydney, and not only because of the home team's victory. It was the introduction for millions of people around the world into the hectic, confusing realm of Madison racing, with riders slinging each other into the action and then slowly circulating above the stayer's line, waiting for the moment to rejoin the fray.

As one American wrote in to Cyclingnews at the time: "I didn't have a clue what was going on, but man, it was exciting. It was like Rollerball on bikes!"

Perhaps it was fortunate that no riders were able to lap the field in the Sydney Madison, as that invariably confuses the uninitiated (and even those who've seen them before). Instead, the Sydney Madison was decided by the most consistent finishers in the intermediate sprints that came every 20 laps in the 240-lap event (the Athens Madison is 'only' 50km, whereas the Sydney Madison was 60km.)

On the boards, Aitken believes the Madison is one of the most difficult races to predict. "Even if you go in as favourites, you've still only got a 20 percent chance of winning because some times a break can get away and lap the field, and if you're not in it, then you can quickly lose your lead." He believes there are two tactical approaches to take into a Madison - laps or points. With the former approach, the aim is to lap the entire field and thereby build up a one-lap lead, unassailable regardless of whatever points have been accumulated by the rest of the field.

These teams of stayers will sit back during the intermediate sprints and allow the fast men to take the points. Then, they will pounce when they suspect the field is slowing ever so slightly after a particularly hectic intermediate sprint, or, they will wait for a couple of attempts by other teams to take a lap and then hit out. Around this stage of the race, the field is most likely being led by the teams who've been accumulating points in the intermediate sprints and they are sure to be tiring. Riders who excel at this approach include Spain's Joan Llaneras.

The other approach is to go for points in the intermediate sprints. This requires a pair of very fast riders able to link up perfectly and take the points on offer in each intermediate sprint (which are 5, 3, 2, 1 for first to fourth).

"The traditional thinking in the Madison is that you need a stayer and a sprinter, but really you need a bit of everything. Everyone thinks there is only one sprint every 20 laps, but really, there are two," Aitken said. He explained that for many of the intermediate sprints in Sydney, he would attack in a virtual sprint at three to four laps before the bell. Head down and pedalling furiously, Aitken set such a brutal pace on the front that no rider could come around. Meanwhile, circulating slowly and hovering up on the banking on the bell lap would be McGrory, who would move into position and then swoop down, picking up speed quickly with the aid of gravity, where he would take a hand-sling from Aitken and then start his sprint for the line.

It was their combination of technique, speed and tenacity that helped the Australian pair win on that day, and Aitken believes he has not seen another Madison duo work together as well as they did in 2000. "Scott and I had it down pat," he said. "We were obviously a 'points' team and we had to counter all the attacks. We knew when to change, at the right place and at the right time. Scott and I are very close in terms of our sprinting ability, but I set up all the sprints. I didn't sprint once for any of the points."

Back by 2006?

Now taking a break from racing to devote time to his family and business for a "life after cycling", Aitken has been enjoying watching his former teammates dominate the action at the velodrome.

Aitken had toyed with the idea of training hard to make the Athens squad, but decided to put family and business first. "But I've still got a few years left in me yet," he said. "The guy who came second to us in Sydney, Etienne de Wilde (Belgium) was 41 when he won silver."

Aitken said he was "really comfortable with not going (to Athens). The transition has been hard and I do miss competitive cycling, but more at the local competition level. I don't miss all the travelling and pressure of racing at international events."

He said that after a break of five months, he was now back on the bike in a part-time fashion - "but I haven't been consistent" - and he still has one goal in mind. "I want to have a really good crack at the Tour Down Under," he said of the road race that's held in his home state every January. "Obviously, it's not going to happen in 2005 but in 2006, and as long as the Uni SA can field a team and they select me, I'd like to be there."

All or nothing for Newton

One of the favourites for the men's points race yesterday, Chris Newton (Great Britain), failed to finish after losing his morale halfway through the event. Newton was well out of medal contention at the 90 lap mark of the 160 lap race, won by Russia's Mikhail Ignatyev, and decided to pull out in a similar fashion to Britain's long distance runner Paula Radcliffe in the women's marathon.

"Quitting was one of the easiest things to do," Newton was quoted by The Scotsman as saying. "I just thought 'F*** it'. If I didn't have the legs to race I didn't want to just ride around and make up the numbers. I couldn't handle not being able to compete. I didn't want to finish last or tenth - I wanted to be in the medals. Things went from bad to horrendous. I didn't feel like embarrassing myself."

Newton blamed bad legs during the race, and he could never get going. "I just couldn't do anything," he said. "The top half was fine, the bottom half didn't want to ride. I felt my legs had blown."

Great Britain's endurance coach Simon Jones admitted that there were similarities between Newton and Radcliffe. "There is a parallel," said Jones. "Maybe it's because he was the favourite. Maybe we put him under too much pressure."

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