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Olympic Games feature, August 15, 2008
Board talk: A preview of the Olympic track events
With the road events done and dusted, attention turns now to the Laoshan Velodrome for the 10 track events. Procycling's Ellis Bacon and Cyclingnews' Laura Weislo tell you who to look out for - and they're not all Brits...
With seven men's track events and three women's events here at the Olympics, just how many will be taken by the all-powerful Brits? The British track team dominated proceedings at the last world championships on home turf in Manchester in March, and are hoping to do the same in Beijing. Look out, though, for those Aussies, Dutchies and Frenchies...
Men's team sprint
We begin proceedings on Friday afternoon with the team sprint. A team of three rides three laps, losing a man off the front each lap. The opposing team does the same, starting on the opposite side of the track. The British and French have a rivalry as fierce as that between the USA and French men's swim relay, and it will take a Jason Lezak-style final lap for the Brits to overpower the world champions.
Grégory Baugé, Mickaël Bourgain, Kévin Sireau and Arnaud Tournant are four of the fastest men in the world, and have shown that they can win in any combination. Bourgain will concede the anchor leg to the more experienced Tournant in hopes that France can redeem itself after a major disappointment in Athens where they failed to make the gold medal final, but will be present as an alternate.
The competition for the three places on the British team was fierce. Former BMX racer Jamie Staff will kick things off, with either young Jason Kenny or Ross Edgar taking the front for the second lap before ol' tree-trunk-neck himself, Chris Hoy, is let off the leash for the final lap. Edgar, Hoy and Staff have had plenty of time to perfect their laps since taking silver in the worlds. But they'll all have to keep an eye out for the Dutch squad with superstar Theo Bos, who were just five hundredths off in Manchester.
Men's and women's individual pursuit
Again, it's current world champ and Britain's track golden boy, Bradley Wiggins, who should be top of the pile in this, the blue riband track event. Nothing's guaranteed, though, over the 4,000m distance, with the riders starting on opposite sides of the track. The show's over either when the distance is completed or when one rider catches the other, which doesn't happen too often at this level.
Speaking of levels, watch out, too, for the USA's Taylor Phinney. Son of former road professionals Connie Carpenter and Davis Phinney, the just 18 year-old might surprise a few people. Australia, too, come to Beijing with a strong presence in Brad McGee and Luke Roberts. Britain's Mark Cavendish, despite the rumours, will not ride.
In the women's event, held over 3,000m, Karin Thürig of Switzerland, who took the road time trial bronze on Wednesday, will be hoping to upgrade her medal colour, but former world champ Sarah Hammer of the USA will have something to say about that. As will Britain's Rebecca Romero, the reigning world champion, who has taken to track cycling like a duck to water having changed disciplines from rowing, where she won silver at the Athens Olympics four years ago. Oh, and she plays the violin and piano, too.
The keirin, which originated in Japan, is a highly tactical sprint event which begins with the riders being paced by a motorbike up to a set speed. As the derny motorbike peels off, all hell breaks loose as the riders fight it out in a high-speed sprint. Watch in particular for the style of Britain's Chris Hoy, who insists on leading from the front, just behind the derny, right from the off. Who will dare challenge his position, both at the head of affairs and as the reigning world champion? Will it be the experienced Frenchman Arnaud Tournant? Or the fastest man on earth, Theo Bos of the Netherlands?
Men's and women's points race
Fast, furious, and yes, confusing. Riders win points on certain laps, so the first rider across the line at the finish, where points are also on offer, won't necessarily be the gold medal winner. With 20 points offered for any rider who laps the field, attacks will be the order of the day. Riders need to have their wits about them, watching and worrying about a group breaking away while at the same time calculating their efforts to take points in the sprints.
One of the most experienced competitors here in Beijing is Spaniard Joan Llaneras, who won gold in Sydney and silver in Athens and is a four-time world champion in the event. Britain's Chris Newton, a former world champion in this discipline, was UCI World Cup winner this past season and will be a strong contender along with Australian Cameron Meyer and New Zealand's Greg Henderson. They'll all have to keep a close watch on 27-year-old two-time points world champion Vasili Kiryienka.
The points race always provides the best opportunity for outsiders to put in a big performance, and no rider will be hoping to do this more than hometown girl, World Cup points race winner Li Yan of China. Italian Vera Carrera, Sarah Hammer (USA) and even Yoanka Gonzalez Perez of Cuba could all pull off a surprise.
2007 World Champion Aussie Kate Bates will be looking to improve on her 12th place at the world championships in Manchester in March, but it is her successor, Marianne Vos, who will be the odds-on favourite. Vos, who was hoping to bring home three medals, missed the winning move in the Olympic road race last Sunday and failed to make the mark in Wednesday's time trial. She will be keen to take full advantage of this final chance to go for gold.
Men's team pursuit
Australia, Denmark, Great Britain... Take your pick. One of the most exciting track disciplines to watch as the riders take their turn on the front and then smoothly - or that's the intention anyway - head up the banking and then slot back on as last man as it all begins again. Only three need to finish to stop the clock, so some teams will sacrifice a team-mate in the closing stage of the race - some intentionally and some less so. Bradley Wiggins will be giving it everything with his British boys; this is one of three events where he's got a big chance of gold, the others being the individual pursuit and the Madison.
The Aussies took home gold in Athens, but struggled to find the perfect combination during the 2007-2008 season. They've pulled in Bradley McGee and Brett Lancaster, half of the 2004 Olympic team, in order to regain their past glory. They'll have to contend with a resurgent Danish squad which has been nipping at the heels of the Brits all season.
Men's and women's individual sprint
The crowd will go crazy when the two riders slow sometimes to a halt, trying to force the other to lead the sprint out so that they can sit in their slipstream and nip out on the line for the win. This is gladiatorial stuff, and France's Grégory Baugé, Dutchman Theo Bos and Britain's Chris Hoy will be the big men to watch. A medal each, perhaps? Athens gold medallist Ryan Bayley returns to try to bring another medal back to Australia.
In the women's event, Britain's Victoria Pendleton doesn't look anywhere near as scary as her male counterparts, but she's just as aggressive on the track, and will be looking to out-psyche the women likely to be her closest competitors, World Cup winner Willy Kanis (Netherlands) and three-time sprint world champion Natallia Tsylinskaya (Belarus). The women's sprint also offers China its best chance at cycling gold with Shuang Guo. Australian Anna Meares, who took gold in the now defunct 500m time trial in Athens, will look to challenge for a medal after overcoming a fractured neck sustained in a crash in January.
If you thought the points race was hard-going, viewing-wise, you ain't seen nothing yet... Things are spiced up yet further with the addition of spectacular hand-swing changeovers as the pairings literally throw each other into the game. The partner then takes a rest, slowly circling the top of the track. Crashes are common, so if that's your thing, check out the event on the 19th. Wily Swiss riders Franco Marvulli and Bruno Risi know this event like the back of their hands, having won the world championships together twice and having taken silver at the Athens Olympics in 2004. Watch them wait until just the right moment to try to steal a march on the others.
Current world champions Bradley Wiggins and man-of-the-moment Mark Cavendish are perhaps even wilier. This year on the same road team, in Team Columbia, the pair have an even better understanding of what makes each other tick, and although Cavendish's gung-ho nature contrasts with Wiggins's more calculating approach, the combination seems to work well together. The two Brits are certainly the strongest on paper, but the Danish, Belgian, American and Dutch teams will all put in a strong challenge.
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Images by AFP Photo