Track Worlds 2011: Panic stations for Britain?
Apeldoorn, the Netherlands
British track cycling world titles tumbled in the Apeldoorn velodrome all week as Australia asserted themselves in style.
Sir Chris Hoy, Ed Clancy and Victoria Pendleton all lost theirs, and all three - the men's keirin, men's omnium and women's sprint - went to Australian rivals.
Britain finished the week with one gold medal, in the women's team pursuit. Australia will board their long-haul flight home with no fewer than eight. The last fell to Pendleton's arch-rival Anna Meares in the keirin, Pendleton having exited in the second round.
Those bare facts sound like grim reading for the British team, a year away from their home Olympics, facing intense pressure to reproduce - as far as is possible - their incredible performance at the Beijing Games.
So what can we conclude from the 2011 Track World Championships? Are Australia now unstoppable at London 2012? Can things be turned around in the next 12 months? Is it fair to start panicking about British track cycling?
The answer is no: not yet, and probably not until the Games themselves. Britain believe they are playing the long game.
That is not to say they will roar back to life come 2012, leaving the Australians spent in the London velodrome dust and spring atop the podium in all 10 Olympic events. But nor does the medals table in the Netherlands tell the whole story.
Not every event at track cycling's World Championships is replicated in the Olympics - in fact, almost half of the world titles awarded this week have no Olympic bearing at all (there are 19 events here, and 10 at London 2012).
The British and Australians have differing approaches to track cycling: Britain focus solely on Olympic events, hoping to maximise bang for buck given that Olympic results drive funding, whereas Australia goes out to win the lot.
Counting only Olympic events, Britain won one gold medal here and eight medals in total. Australia won six gold medals, but no silver or bronze medals.
Six gold medals to one is a pretty hefty tally in favour of Australia, but British cyclists won more medals in more Olympic events.
Now factor in the changes to the Olympic rules for 2012, which mean nations can only enter one cyclist (or team of cyclists) into each event. Previously it was two, and the one-per-nation limit is not in force at the World Championships.
It's hard to accurately correct the medals table for this, because the rule means some cyclists who won medals here probably wouldn't even have raced were this an Olympic Games, as they wouldn't have been selected in the first place. But, very arbitrarily, let's remove Hoy's sprint bronze medal from the equation, since he finished behind Jason Kenny. The Australians won no more than a single medal in each event, so it doesn't affect them.
Now we have Britain winning a medal in seven different events, and Australia in six. Compare that to the 2010 World Championships in Denmark, where Britain won three gold medals and eight overall in Olympic events (and it remains eight, correcting for the one-per-nation rule); Australia again won five medals, three of them gold. Australia have narrowed the gap in Apeldoorn, but it looks better for GB than a simple eight-to-one gold-medal comparison.
That statistic should give British Cycling some comfort. Its cyclists are consistently winning medals in a large spread of Olympic events and that will provide a solid base from which to build in the next year. The important thing now is to ensure that British cyclists peak - physically, mentally, and in terms of their track form - in the summer of 2012.
Hoy made exactly this point about his own performance after finishing second in the men's keirin, behind Australia's Shane Perkins.
"My legs don't feel quite as sharp as they often do but, to get a silver medal in the keirin, and to show the consistency to get three medals this week - that's not bad," he said.
"Every medal is so hard-fought that I'm proud of this silver medal - it's still a good ride. We'll go away, lick our wounds and get ourselves ready for next year. There's more work to come and improvements for next year. No matter what happens in London, it'll be our best-ever performance."
It's also hard to overstate just how well everything went for Britain in Beijing. The British team are trying to live up to a benchmark set during a week in China where GB had the rub of the green, and then some. There was barely a setback: nothing went wrong.
That is not something you can train for, rely upon, predict or activate. It either happens or it doesn't. Had Clancy not withdrawn through illness, he may have defended his omnium world title in Apeldoorn. Had Lizzie Armitstead been fit to travel, she may have won a medal in the women's equivalent. These same issues could dog the British team at London 2012, or they may sail through unhindered.
On a similar note, many Australians believe they are in the form of their lives right now - at precisely the moment some Britons are thinking the opposite.
"I've spent so long trying to get this darned thing," sighed Australia's Meares moments after beating Pendleton to the world sprint title for the first time. "I've been in this sport for nearly 17 years, a senior elite cyclist for 10, and I'm just starting to get the best results out of myself."
At the same time, Pendleton said: "I'm not in the best form but I'm working on a two-year plan. I've been in every semi-final since 2003, so I don't think that's a bad run. Anna Meares is in the form of her life and I'm not but don't write me off."
All this cannot hide the fact that results in Apeldoorn have disappointed the British team, and this is no apologia for their strategy. Britain would rather spend every major championships on top of the medals table with Australia and the rest trailing far behind, as happened in both 2007 and 2008 ahead of the Beijing Games.
In those two World Championships, Britain won 16 gold medals to Australia's two in all competitions. Australia went on to win just one silver medal in the velodrome at Beijing 2008.
Small wonder that now, preparing for London, they are back with a vengeance. Australia's medals tally here mightily outclasses the British one, that cannot be disguised. Britain's dominance in Beijing had the inevitable effect of galvanising every other track cycling power to come back and do a lot better at the next Olympic Games, which happen to be taking place on British soil.
Frenchman Gregory Bauge, the man who beat Hoy and Kenny to sprint gold here, calls it his "appointment for 2012". He told me: "Britain set a challenge to the whole French team. For me, Saturday was just one more step towards that appointment."
Bauge and his France team-mates won both the sprint and team sprint here and have now finished ahead of Britain in both events at each of the last three World Championships.
However, one last thing remain in Britain's favour: the velodrome itself.
About the only thing this Apeldoorn track did rapidly was establish itself as a very slow, sticky surface. "Like wading through treacle," one official observed. This has been the easiest week the record books have had in a long while.
London's track is expected to be much quicker, and Hoy himself had a hand in the design. Yes, everybody rides on the same track regardless of speed so the advantage can never be that great, but - as former GB sprint cyclist Craig MacLean said - the speed of a track can have an unsettling psychological effect. Britain can hope to master that ahead of 2012. It may only give them another 0.01% over their rivals, but the British mantra has always been adding up the small gains to make a big one.
BBC co-commentator Chris Boardman, the 1992 Olympic pursuit champion, said: "I think 'disappointed by not overly concerned' would probably be the way to sum it up. You can see where the progression is coming from."
The line British Cycling has stuck to for a while now is that this is a long, gradual build-up process ahead of 2012, and it's senseless peaking beforehand or worrying about 2011 results when the London Olympics are what matters. They will keep their appointment, but have no desire to turn up early.
"You can't keep the same intensity for four years. What has happened this weekend is not comfortable but it's healthy," said Dave Brailsford, the British performance director. "We will go back, do our planning, do our reviews and get back into it.
"We are not concerned about other nations at the moment. I wouldn't be overly concerned by the Australians. There's nothing in it."
The problem is, under those terms, it's almost impossible to judge if the plan is working until the Games finish. Only once we know the final Olympic medals table will we know if the Brits had it right all along. If that table looks like the one in Apeldoorn, Australia's approach will be vindicated.