Track Worlds: will to endure keeps Britain's cyclists on top
UCI World Track Cycling Championships 2012
- Venue: Hisense Arena, Melbourne
- Date: 4-8 April 2012
Two weeks before the Track Cycling World Championships, Britain's Geraint Thomas was told he would not make the squad.
He was, however, told he could come to Melbourne anyway, train with the team and make his case. So that's what he did - professional to the core, who would have thought anything else of him?
And on Wednesday he had that place back and rode with his team-mates to a world title in a world record time.
Competition for places is breeding success within the British squad. Take an example from the women's team, where Wendy Houvenaghel, three times a world champion in the team pursuit, did not get the ride on Thursday as they emulated the men and beat Australia for gold.
When you leave a rider of Houvenaghel's class out of the team, you know the others must be something very special. And that team gels exceptionally well. Their coach, Paul Manning - the "quiet man" of British Cycling - has them riding right at their limit, and they are performing for him in return.
We could have predicted the women would win gold here. But we wondered if the men's pursuit team were capable of beating Australia and the rest without the engine of Bradley Wiggins, who drove them to gold at the Beijing Olympics before leaving the track behind for a career on the road.
Now that question has been answered.
Australia, in both the men's and women's pursuits, went out hard and tried to knock Britain off their pre-set schedule, hoping they would react to what was going on. Both times the Brits stood firm, rode consistent rides and on each occasion their plan prevailed.
That both finals ended up being contested between Britain and Australia demonstrates the dominance of those two nations in the team pursuits.
There was a period on the men's side when it looked as though New Zealand would challenge, then Russia, and Denmark at one point. For the women, Canada came close at the London World Cup. But the programmes in place in Britain and Australia are models of excellence.
It is no surprise that Australia recently created GreenEdge, a professional road racing team to rival, or more accurately copy, Britain's Team Sky. Britain played the same game before that: after the Sydney Games, British sports tried to take much of what their Australian counterparts were doing and make it work in the UK. As a result, British Cycling has improved and improved.
What about the sprinters?
The pursuiting performances have outshone Britain's sprinters over the first two days of the World Championships, with both the men's and women's sprint teams failing to reach the podium on Wednesday.
But it's not fair to suggest they are suddenly below par. Victoria Pendleton and Jess Varnish set a world record in London two months ago. Here, Varnish - who arrived with a cold - was some way off her personal best. If she gets back to that for London 2012, they will be among the medals again.
The men's sprint team were disqualified here but so were fastest qualifiers Germany, a very experienced outfit. Philip Hindes recorded the fourth-fastest opening lap of any rider here, on his debut for the British senior team. In future, that could put GB in a medal race if it's coupled with the strength of Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny.
What the British sprint team lacks is somebody pushing Pendleton in the women's individual sprint and the keirin. Who will take over from her? Varnish has dedicated herself to the opening lap of that team sprint, so GB need somebody else to come in. Maybe Becky James?
Then Australia saw what Britain did at Beijing 2008 and wanted to replicate that, having come away with so little from the Games. They had to reassess what they were doing. Both nations now have excellent talent identification, brilliant coaches and strong investment. You can't just throw money at things but if you have the raw material and you invest in it, you will get results.
Dan Hunt, the British men's endurance coach, is the epitome of that. He brought six riders to the Melbourne track on Wednesday and all six left as world champions.
Now - knowing those results can be achieved and that there are more capable riders than places available - there is no sentiment from the British team management. It is brutal, and that is the only way it can be.
Wendy Houvenaghel will find it very hard to get a ride at the Olympics now, and that's after the toughest of decisions simply to get the women's endurance squad down to four riders. They are fortunate that someone like Houvenaghel can slot into the team if anything happens, and of course all sorts can happen in four months. She has to look at it that way and see she is in a good place, still involved in that squad.
The same applies to Ben Swift. He so desperately wants to be a part of the men's pursuit team, but was not chosen to ride this time. What did he do? He all but lost his voice cheering for them even though he wasn't a part of it, then he went and won the scratch race world title.
That says something about him, and it says something about the British track cycling squad.