The roar was deathening – spine-tingling – as Great Britain’s women’s team pursuit trio walked onto the track and gave the first glimpse into what Team GB can expect when the Olympic Games setup shop in London in 161 days time.
The London-leg of the UCI Track Cycling World Cup, the final event in the four round-series and the test event ahead of this summer’s Olympic Games, opened with team pursuit qualifying on Thursday and I watched Great Britain’s women’s and men’s squads both qualify second fastest to setup gold medal rides against Canada and Australia respectively.
The Olympics Games, for all the old-world values of friendship and equality, are an unrelentingly commercial operation in the 21st Century. Exit Stratford station and, instead of emerging on the perimeter of the Olympic Park, you’re thrust into the heart of the Westfield shopping centre. Walk past Marks and Spencer, turn right at Samsung, left at Omega, cross the road and, passing through security – no packed lunches, I’m afraid – you’re into the vast 2.5 sq km Olympic Park.
The velodrome was the first Olympic Park venue to be completed and the Pringle-shaped dome is an architectural masterpiece. The 250m track is the centrepiece beneath a swooping roof, with every one of the 6,000 seats offering a fine view of the racing. A concourse circles the track between the two tiers of seats and spectators can walk around the venue and watch the action from a number of vantage points, while those lucky enough to be seated at the front of the bottom tier can almost reach out and touch the Siberian pine track.
Teething problems still exist. While the venues are all but complete, the Olympic Park is still a building site and riders, officials, press and spectators alike are shipped into the velodrome on shuttle buses, so arrive early to clear security and get to your seats if you have tickets for the remaining three days. Inside the velodrome, queues up to 40-deep formed early for each of the four refreshment booths, which serve a relatively healthy but expensive range of food and drink. Queues also stretched out of the men’s toilets – yep, men’s; many of which only have cubicals rather than urinals.
Still, we were there for the cycling but before any racing got underway Jason Kenny was awarded his 2011 World Championship rainbow jersey following the disqualification of Gregory Bauge for an anti-doping violation. But, instead of crowning Kenny in front of a home crowd, the 23-year-old was handed his jersey – a junior one at that, typical UCI – deep in the bowels of the velodrome, with a scattering of British Cycling officials, journalists and photographers offering polite applause in a somewhat undignified and embarrassing ceremony.
Japan had the honour of being the first to race on London’s boards as the women’s qualifiers got underway – not that Maki Tabata, Hiroko Ishii and Kayono Maeda treated the occasion with the respect it deserved, with just one rider, who rode the full 3km on the front, using aero bars, the other two tucked behind on dropped handlebars. Together they posted a time which would leave them dead last, nearly 45 seconds slower than 13th-placed Poland – a bizarre start to life for a venue where ten Olympic gold medals will be won this summer.
Canada, however, soon demonstrated the track’s potential for world records. Fifth to start, Tara Whitten, Gillian Carleton and Jasmin Glaesser posted splits inside the world record before fading in the closing laps, but still clocking 3:20.785 minutes, a little more than a second outside the United States’ record set at altitude in May 2010.
Laura Trott, Wendy Houvenaghel – wearing the world champion’s skin suits earned in 2011 with Dani King, a reserve in London – and Joanna Roswell were the penultimate team to ride. Roared on by the partisan crowd, the trio flew out of the blocks and posted the quickest splits of the night for both the first and second kilometres, soon paying for their efforts over the final 1,000m and qualifying for the final by little more than a tenth of a second.
“It’s good to be in the final but we will need a better performance,” said their coach, Paul Manning, who won gold with Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas and Ed Clancy at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. “I think the crowd got behind them and they were a bit excited. I had to rein them in a little bit.”
The atmosphere ramped up even further when the men’s squad – Thomas, Clancy, Pete Kennaugh and Steven Burke – stepped out for their ride. With the chimes of Big Ben ringing out over the public address system and the music cranked up to full volume, the home crowd was whipped into a frenzy, giving the foursome a standing ovation after a ride which saw them go more than eight seconds faster than the previous best set by Belgium.
Australia, who sent a strong squad to the capital both to gain experience on the track and in an attempt to deal an early physiological blow to their biggest rivals, were greeted with a wall of silence for their ride, with the crowd briefly cooing with excitement when Jack Bobridge, Rohan Dennis, Alexander Edmonson and Michael Hepburn let their relentless pace slip, only to recover to finish in a flash to qualify fastest with an assured performance.
Expect the atmosphere during the final to blow the velodrome’s steel-cabled roof off. And Clancy admits the noise could force the team to change their communication strategy come Games-time.
“Normally we communicate in the line by saying ‘hold’, ‘squeeze’ or ‘three’ – if we lose a guy at the end – but all we could hear was the noise.” said Clancy, who expects the women’s world record to tumble in tonight’s final, but believes there’s only a 50/50 chance of the men’s mark falling this weekend. “It’s an advantage and I wouldn’t want the crowd to sit their in silence but it’s something we’ll have to think about, maybe communicating with the coach as we ride past.
“The only thing we had to think about – because I think it caught out the girls – was to really hold back on the first couple of laps. We saw the girls and knew we really had to keep a lid on it. We were really mindful of being in our own bubble and doing what I know we can do in training.”
But it is impossible to ignore the prospect of a three-part Ashes trilogy which will open on Sunday before continuing at the World Championships in Melbourne ahead of the main event in the summer, when all previous results will be pale into insignificance for the final battle on August 3.