London 2012: old guard and new generation deliver medal success

Last night’s closing ceremony at the Olympic Stadium brought down the curtain on a hugely successful Summer Games in which Team GB again topped the cycling medal table.

Pre-Games, Dave Brailsford had tried to dampen public expectation, citing the removal from the programme followed in Beijing of some of Great Britain’s strongest events, and the limiting of each nation to one rider per event.

With the road races and time trials complete, and the doors to the velodrome closed, Great Britain can count 12 medals: eight gold, two silver, and two bronze, an accomplishment surely of equal standing with the 14 medals from Beijing (eight gold, four silver, two bronze), given the rule changes described above.

The possible effect of fatigue from the Tour de France on the men’s road team was also discussed ad nauseam pre-Games, but it was a total lack of assistance from nations with a shared interest in a sprint by which they were undone, rather than tiredness.

Lizzie Armitstead won silver with a gutsy ride on a rain-soaked course, responding instantly to the decisive attack of pre-race favourite, Marianne Vos, and racing with strength and conviction in alliance with her Dutch rival and Olga Zabelinskaya (Russia) to ensure the breakaway stayed away to contest the medals.

Despite Armitstead’s opening of Team GB’s medal account, it was Wiggins’ gold medal in the men’s time trial that restored cycling to Olympic pre-eminence in the national consciousness, making him the first athlete of the Games to secure a clean sweep of national newspaper front pages (full cover pictures for many), a feat equaled only by Sir Chris Hoy, Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, and Usain Bolt, after winning his seventh medal (and fourth gold) and displacing Sir Steve Redgrave as Britain’s most decorated Olympian.

The manner of Wiggins’ victory (emphatic: 42 seconds on his closest competitor, Germany’s world time trial champion, Tony Martin) and his refreshingly down-to-earth response to its magnitude, made him the first superstar of the Games, affording him a level of public adulation that only the aforementioned quartet would match.

When the doors of the velodrome finally opened six days after the opening ceremony, the public was rewarded with an early glimpse of the business-as-usual footing on which Team GB would conduct the task of winning gold medals. The gradual return to form witnessed at the Olympic test event at London’s new velodrome in February, the final round of the UCI Track World Cup, and in April at the world championships, had clearly reached its fulfillment. Vicky Pendleton and Jess Varnish, gold medalists and world record breakers on their last appearance in London, began their assault on an Olympic title by setting a new world record, but were disqualified in a later round.

Sir Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny set the tone for their later gold-medal winning performances in the men’s keirin and men’s sprint respectively by building on the superb efforts of Philip Hindes at ‘man one’ to take gold in the men’s team sprint. Hoy’s performance in winning the men’s keirin, simply refusing to admit defeat to German’s Maximilian Levy on the final lap, and re-passing the German in the last bend, was arguably the greatest witnessed in the six days of competition in the London velodrome.

Another rider competing in their final Olympics, Vicky Pendleton, produced a magnificent victory in the women’s keirin, and even her narrow defeat to arch-rival, Anna Meares (Australia) in final of the women’s sprint netted Great Britain’s long-reigning queen of the track more precious metal on her abdication.

The team pursuiters again delivered compelling victories, with both the men’s and women’s squads taking gold with world record times. The only challenge to their supremacy lies within internal bragging rights. Which is the better team: the quartet of Steven Burke, Ed Clancy, Peter Keannugh, and Geraint Thomas, or the trio of King, Rowsell and Trott? Answers on a postcard…

Trott’s performance in the women’s omnium, adding an Olympic title to the world title she collected in the discipline in April, narrowly topped that of Clancy in the men’s omnium, where he finished third, with just three points more than winner, Denmark’s Lasse Hansen, and only a point more than France’s Bryan Coquard.

Hoy, Pendelton and Nicole Cooke have in all likelihood competed in their final Olympics. Will we see their like again? Well, yes. One of the most heartening sights of London 2012 was watching the equal success of the old guard and new generation. For Hoy, read double gold medalist, Kenny; for Pendleton, double gold medalist, Laura Trott; for Nicole Cooke, silver medalist Lizzie Armitstead. Rarely can a period of transition have been managed so smoothly, the ultimate tribute perhaps to the strength in depth of the Great Britain squad and the production line that Brailsford has assembled at British Cycling. Bring on Rio.

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