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2006 Commonwealth Games - JR

Melbourne, Australia, March 16-26, 2006

Let the Games begin!

By Mal Sawford, with additional reporting from Rob Jones

An Aussie whitewash in Manchester four years ago
Photo ©: Gerry McManus
(Click for larger image)

The opening ceremony of the 18th Commonwealth Games will be held in Melbourne tomorrow, with a full program of cycling events running through the ten day multi-sport extravaganza. Track cycling is first up, running from the 16th to 19th; while the road races will be held on the final day of the games, March 26.

Seventy-one countries from six continents will participate in the Games, and host nation Australia is expected to face stiff opposition for cycling supremacy in Melbourne after a virtual clean sweep in the Manchester Games of four years ago. In Manchester, eight of the eleven gold medals at the velodrome went Australia's way, and both the men's time trial and road race saw 1-2-3's for the Aussies, but the glory is expected to be a little more widely distributed in Melbourne.

On the track, both England and Scotland will field impressive squads, while Canada and New Zealand are also targeting gold on the road, in the bush and the velodrome. Top ranked cyclists, including world, Olympic and reigning Commonwealth champions, will compete in all disciplines, with only the men's road events suffering a little from Australia's geographical isolation from the European pro scene. ProTour riders such as Robbie McEwen, Brad McGee, Stuart O'Grady and Michael Rogers weren't able to secure releases from their professional teams.


New Zealand's Greg Henderson
Photo ©: D.J. Clark
(Click for larger image)

Australian coach Martin Barras has only been prepared to predict two near certain wins for the Aussies in Melbourne, on the velodrome used for the 2004 world championships. Reigning world champ Katie Mactier is considered unbeatable in the individual pursuit now that former nemesis Sarah Ulmer has switched to the road, and Barras considers Kate Bates "arguably the best points racer in the world."

Great Britain claimed world championship wins in both the team sprint and team pursuit in 2005, but competes in the Comm Games as separate teams from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Despite the resulting dilution of talent, the English Pursuit team of Rob Hayles, Chris Newton, Paul Manning and Stephen Cummings are ready to stake their claim for gold - even if it takes a world record to do it! A young Australian team will see new blood added trying to force their way into the starting line up, with Matthew Goss, Mark Jamieson and Sean Finning joining Olympic Champions Peter Dawson, Stephen Wooldridge and world champ Ashley Hutchinson in the squad, while another young team from New Zealand has recorded impressive results in recent World Cup rounds.

The team sprint will also likely see world class times from the Aussies, English and Scots, and the Malaysian team spearheaded by a lightning fast Melbourne based Josiah Ng could cause an upset. New Zealand's Greg Henderson is among the favourites in the solo endurance events, having won the scratch race world title in 2004.

In the men's sprint events, only a brave soul would predict the winners of the sprint, kilo or keirin. Australia has Ryan Bayley, Shane Kelly and Ben Kersten to call on; England has Jamie Staff and Jason Queally; and Scotland boasts Chris Hoy, Craig McLean and Ross Edgar: all have claimed medals at the highest levels in recent years.

Victoria Pendleton is the reigning women's world sprint champion, but will face stiff opposition from Anna and Kerrie Meares - although a lack of entries in the sprint events had organizers rechecking the rule book to see if bronze medals would be awarded! Katie Mactier and Kate Bates are expected to dominate the individual pursuit, while the selection of Alexis Rhodes in both the pursuit and points race is nothing short of a miracle after her horrific injuries in the last July's car crash that decimated the AIS Women's team.


Men's road race wide open
Photo ©: D.J. Clark
(Click for larger image)

The Australian women's team is hard to look past in the road race, with World Cup Champion Oenone Wood and Olympic gold medallist Sara Carrigan both in good form. Australian selectors won't finalise the five rider team until the day after the time trial, but Katie Mactier, Rochelle Gilmore and Kathy Watt are keen to be included on a tight and demanding technical circuit. Defending champion Nicole Cooke (Wales) might not have the same depth in team support as the Australians, but clearly still ranks amongst the medal favourites.

Forty-one year old Watt makes her fourth appearance at the Commonwealth Games, earning a start in the time trial on March 21st after winning the Australian championships, and should do well on a course that runs right past the bike shop she owns in Black Rock. Favouritism for the time trial must go, however, to Sarah Ulmer, whose impressive solo win in the New Zealand round of the World Cup proves she has made a very successful transition from the boards to the open road.

However, the biggest news of the day is the crash Canada's Lyne Bessette suffered. Bessette, a favourite for the road race and time trial, was training on the mountain bike course in the mid-afternoon. According to Canadian Technical Director Kris Westwood: "It was a rocky, technical section and she just missed a turn and went off the edge of the course. It was slow speed - less than 10 kilometres an hour - but she went down on her shoulder."

Bessette suffered a dislocated shoulder (her left). It is not the same shoulder she crashed on a few weeks ago at the Geelong stage race. Westwood says that "it is the least damage that she could suffer with this type of injury. Right now, she is hurting pretty badly, but it appears that she should be able to race the road race. We are playing it day-by-day, but she has 10 days to recover before the road race (March 26th). Lyne is in the best spirits that can be expected, given the circumstances." Bessette was scheduled to race the time trial on March 21st, but that is more doubtful (and the mountain bike race on March 23rd is extremely unlikely).

The men's road race is a wide open affair, and could well produce a surprise winner. Under 23 world's silver medallist Will Walker (Rabobank) has a home ground advantage over the field, after competing in a trial event on a section of the circuit around Melbourne's Royal Botanical Gardens earlier this year, and the many cornered course with three short steep climbs suits his riding style well. Nathan O'Neill (Navigators), a seven time Australian time trial champion is the stand-out favourite for the Time Trial.

Gordon McCauley and Hayden Roulston headline the Kiwi threat, with Greg Henderson (Health Net) likely to double up after his track commitments. Young teams from the Isle of Man, and Scotland have spent the summer locally preparing for the Games; Mark Kelly (IOM) is one to watch, while David McCann (Giant Asia) will lead the team from Northern Ireland.

Mountain bike

Canada's Geoff Kabush is the red hot favourite in the men's race, but will face competition from New Zealand's Kashi Leuchs and Australia's Chris Jongewaard and Sid Taberlay, and England's Liam Killeen. After destroying the field in the Oceania championships, however, Kabush seems to be a near certainty around the State Mountain Bike Course in Lysterfield. The MTB races will be held on March 23rd.

Canadian Kiara Bisaro is among the favourites in a small field for the women's race after a second place finish at the Oceania's, with Robyn Wong the lone entrant from New Zealand. Australia has three in the field; Emma Coulson, Dellys Starr and local girl Claire Baxter are sure to shape the final outcome.