Olympic Despatches: Track Cycling

Day 1: Monday 2nd August

With the outdoor cycling events completed, attention turned to the indoor discipline. Track cycling has been one of the most hotly anticipated events of the Games, not least because of the absence of top-level indoor cycling events over the past year and a half; the impact of the covid-19 pandemic has been more keenly felt by the track cyclists than their road-based compatriots given the lack of competitive opportunities.

As such, the events for both men and women opened with a degree of uncertainty surrounding form; with nothing to go on since the World Championships in February 2020 there was a sense of who might perform well, but no recent evidence. It would be down to the qualifying rounds to determine who would challenge for medals, and who would miss out.

The opening day’s action in the Izu Velodrome comprised three qualifying events and one final.

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The team pursuit events begun with qualifying rounds where teams race solo, aiming to post the fastest time possible in order to achieve the highest ranking. There was drama in both the women’s and the men’s events from the off.

The women’s top qualifiers were Germany, in scintillating form and setting a new World Record on their blistering first run. Great Britain started strongly but faded in the second half of the race, yet still qualified in second place, breaking their own previous World Record but not hitting the newly raised bar set by the Germans. The US team were third, with Chloe Dygert proving almost too strong for her own team as they lost her wheel in the closing stages of the race.

In the men’s event, Fillippo Ganna proved similarly too strong for his team, however the Italians were able to make the most of his pace to post the second fastest qualifying time. The hotly tipped World Champion Danish team set a new Olympic Record, although their use of kinesiology tape on their shins raised queries and eventually protests from other teams, as it was deemed to be providing an unfair aero advantage.

The Australian men’s team suffered a devastating blow during their run as Alexander Porter’s handlebars snapped off, causing him to crash. They had a re-run but must have been shaken by the freak occurrence; thankfully the equipment failure was prevented on the second run by what seemed to be the liberal use of duct tape. Team GB’s men, with veteran Olympian Ed Clancy among their ranks, qualified in fourth position and would have the chance to ride for gold in the following day’s first round.

The shell-shocked Australian men’s pursuit team console one another after Alexander Porter’s freak crash

The women’s team sprint event consisted of eight teams and would run both qualifying and final heats in the same session. Germany set the fastest time in the qualifying round, ensuring a brilliant start in both events for the Germany’s women. China qualified in second position, and the Netherlands and ROC would fight it out for the bronze medal.

Later in the bronze medal run, the ROC made short work of the Netherlands to claim bronze, and China were able to overturn Germany to claim the first track cycling gold of the Tokyo Games.

Day 2: Tuesday 3rd August

The second day of action featured the business end of the women’s team pursuit competition. The heats were up first to determine who would race for which medals.

The first battle was antipodean in nature, with Australia taking on New Zealand. After starting strongly, Australia faded through the central 2km as NZ slowly consolidated, making up their losses and taking control. However, they dropped to three riders quite early and Australia immediately regained the lead, and took the win despite being spread out across the track.

The second heat was more straightforward, with Canada steadily increasing their dominance over France. In the third, Great Britain took on the USA. The teams were closely matched, trading the lead several times, but in contrast with New Zealand in the opening heat, when GB went down to three it seemed to galvanise them, the race was obviously going according to plan and they injected some pace and pulled out a lead over the Americans. They crossed the line setting another new World Racord, and caused a moment of drama as Katie Archbold lost concentration and collided with a teammate, both falling off their bikes; both thankfully were unharmed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Germany were extremely dominant in the final heat, Italy never really having a chance. Germany broke the World record yet again, and set up a mouth-watering gold medal run against the British.

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Next up were the men’s sprint team qualifiers. Of the eight teams involved there were three who clearly rose to the top. Australia looked good until the Netherlands arrived and put down a new Olympic Record. Great Britain were also strong, setting the fastest opening lap, but coming in second overall.

In the bronze medal race, Australia dropped a rider, Matt Glaetzer falling off the pace to let the French in for the win. In the final, despite starting strongly once again, the Netherlands set an electrifying pace once again to claim gold, with the British taking silver.

In the men’s team pursuit first round, Canada won comfortably over Germany, and Australia took on Switzerland in the hope of redeeming themselves after the prior days’ disappointment. They did so confidently, destroying the Swiss and the Olympic record in the process.

Italy took on New Zealand next. The race was run at an incredible pace and was closer than some might have predicted, but Italy just bested the Kiwis, smashing the World Record, however New Zealand themselves broke the record with an extremely strong run.

World Champions Denmark would take on Great Britain. It had the air of a grudge match about it before the race even got underway; British aerodynamics expert Dan Bigham quitting Team GB to work with the Danish raised a few eyebrows. The shin tape was off after protests from a number of teams (including GB), yet the Danes would apparently not face further sanctions. As if that were not enough, prior to the race, veteran rider Ed Clancy had announced his retirement from the sport effective immediately as a result of persistent trouble with sciatica. First reserve Charlie Tanfield took his place.

The race was sadly not as competitive as the spirit in which it took place. Despite a good start from the British quartet, Denmark quickly asserted their authority and from around one kilometre onwards, they built on their advantage. It looked set to be a dismal end to GB’s medal hopes as Charlie Tanfield lost contact with Ethan Hayter and Ethan Vernon and as the laps ticked down, the Danish closed the gap on the British. They were about to lap Tanfield when one of the Danes touched wheels with him and caused a crash. Despite being at fault, the Danish rider appeared to berate Tanfield, although he later apologised, stating that he was frustrated and angry over what could have been the end of their Olympic campaign.

Debate raged following the race over whether the Danes should be disqualified for causing the crash, with UCI regulations and precedents quoted, and the Danish coach weighing in over whether Tanfield’s being dropped by the team should have been flagged earlier. Eventually it was adjudged that because Tanfield eventually crossed the line, the Danes had clinched the victory.

Drama as Dane Frederik Rodenberg collides with Great Britain’s Charlie Tanfield

Day 3: Wednesday 4th August

In the men’s individual sprint Great Britain’s Jack Carlin set the fastest time in the early stages of the qualifying event, breaking the Olympic record in the process. It held for a long time, until Nicholas Paul from Trinidad and Tobago missed out by the slimmest of margins to go second, followed right away by Tjon En Fa from Suriname who also narrowly missed out on the top spot. Following their team win yesterday the Dutch pairing of Jeffrey Hoogland and Harrie Lavreysen laid down a new marker in the race, Hoogland setting a new Olympic record in his run and Lavreysen immediately equalling his time. Last out was the defending champion, Brit Jason Kenny. He posted a solid time to finish in 8th.

Women’s Keirin heats were up next. Great Britain’s Katy Marchant had a strong, confident ride to take first place in the first heat. In the 2nd Germany’s Lea Sophie Friedrich was powerful, taking the lead and winning from the front. In the 3rd heat Kelsey Mitchell from Canada came from behind to jump into the lead. She had a battle but the remaining riders had too much to do and she held on to take the win. The 4th heat saw Olena Starikova from Ukraine hold off the rest. and in the 5th Lauriene Genest of Canada came through for the victory.

Men’s individual sprint head-to-heads were next up. In the early runs there were convincing wins for Harrie Lavreysen, Jack Carlin, Nicholas Paul and Jeffrey Hoogland, and also ROC’s Denis Dmitriev. The next few were more close-run, with German Max Levy overturning the higher ranked Tjon En Fa from Suriname and Jason Kenny having to work to progress along with Nick Wammes from Canada, who rode from the front against Stefan Boetticher in the most evenly matched of the head-to-heads.

In the women’s keirin repechages GB’s Katy Marchant had to race again after being relegated following deviating from her line during her heat. She was made to work to come from behind but took the win in style.

In the men’s sprint repechages, Malaysia’s Awang and Sahrom, and Tjon En Fa and Boetticher recorded successes.

The most highly anticipated event of the day was the men’s team pursuit finals. The heats would be run in reverse order with the battle for gold last.

Team GB had a rollercoaster 24 hours following Ed Clancy’s departure and Charlie Tanfield’s crash, and they set out to put down a good run in the 7th/8th place run-off, and make a statement. They were up on their Swiss opponents straight away and built on this lead over the course of the 16 laps, finishing the run with almost 4.5 seconds over their rivals and improving on their qualifying time.

The second heat was a carbon copy, with Canada going off quickly and maintaining their early lead over Germany, then building on it to take 5th spot.

The bronze medal match, which many would argue should have featured Great Britain, instead was contested between Australia and New Zealand. The antipodean rivals could not be split over the first half of the race, trading the lead and proving to be perfectly matched. In the second half though, one of New Zealand’s riders crashed through a touch of wheels, and the third rider lost touch with his team. The Australians reeled them in and overtook the forlorn third man on the track to immediately claim the bronze medal, which will feel like a just reward for their own crash drama on the opening day. The unlucky Kiwi, national time trial champion Aaron Gate, was mortified to miss out on a medal in such a dramatic fashion and was spotted apologising to the camera that was trained on him following his accident.

The final featured the two undisputed strongest teams of the competition so far, Italy and Denmark. It was always going to be a close one, but the race that unfolded turned out to be one of the most thrilling track cycling battles in recent Olympic memory.

Italy had the best of the early part of the race, edging ahead in the splits and holding their ground. It would not have been an Olympic final if there wasn’t some drama still to be had, however, and as the halfway mark approached, Denmark began to chip away at Italy’s slender lead and claw back at the deficit. At 2500m the Danes dropped to three and had control of the clock, and from that point on they injected a lethal dose of pace and were suddenly half a second up on their opponents.

From that point on it looked a done deal: Denmark extended their lead to 0.8 of a second and must have been able to visualise the gold medals around their necks.

But they did not account for Italy’s grit, and Fillippo Ganna’s breath-taking prowess. With an electrifying turn of pace, the Italian powerhouse accelerated and slashed the deficit in half and in half again as the end drew near, and as the two teams approached the finish line time stood still as cycling fans around the world held a collective breath awaiting the clock’s unequivocal ruling: the Italians had come through to take gold, and had smashed the world record in the process. The jubilation and emotion from the team was on another level as they celebrated an unforgettable victory and one that will go down in history.

Ganna’s delight as the Italian pursuit team take gold in an electrifying final

In the final set of sprint head-to-heads Hoogland beat Boetticher with ease; Paul dominated Awang. Dmitriev bested Wammes; Levy beat the Polish rider Rajkowski. New Zealands’s Sam Webster bested the Frenchman Vigier despite a spirited comeback; likewise the home talent Wakimoto who pushed Jason Kenny hard, although the Brit triumphed.

In the final set of repechages, Wakimoto, Sahrom, Awang and Vigier won their respective head-to-heads to progress to the following days’ racing.

write.bike.repeat‘s Olympic Dispatches aims to cover all cycle sport disciplines (with varying degrees of knowledge and experience) throughout Tokyo 2020. Join me here, or over on Twitter @writebikerepeat, to talk about the action, and check back often for new content – sign up below if you’d like to receive notifications about new posts when they drop!

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