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Comment: history makers and record breakers at the Rio 2016 Velodrome

Just as the rest of the world thinks it has caught up, the Brits take another step forward

History makers and record breakers… Great Britain’s cyclists proved once again they are unparalleled when it comes to the Olympic Games.

Poor performances in the build-up to the Games and an institution in ‘crisis’ following Shane Sutton’s resignation as coach in the wake of discrimination allegations – this was supposed to be the rest of the world’s chance to hit back.

But Team GB’s track cyclists know how to peak for an Olympic Games better than anybody – storming to the top of the cycling medal table for the third consecutive Games.

Beijing in 2008 set the tone, London 2012 continued the theme and Rio 2016 cemented the place of some of Britain’s best ever cyclists in Olympic history.

Great Britain, Rio 2016 Olympics, staff, track cycling, pic - Alex Whitehead_SWpix
British Cycling’s pursuit of excellence – and its talented team of backroom staff – has paid dividends at the Olympic Games once again (Pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)

The build-up to the Games certainly didn’t instill confidence in Britain’s chances of replicating their recent hauls, especially with both sprint teams regularly out of the medals and seemingly out of form in the intervening period between London and Rio.

But as soon as the men’s team sprint trio laid down the marker with an Olympic record and victory on the first night in Brazil, gold medals just kept on coming. Philip Hindes, Jason Kenny and Callum Skinner set the bar, and others continued to raise it from then on.

The results of the review into British Cycling, and Shane Sutton’s behaviour, remains to be seen but one thing the Australian can’t be faulted on is his ability to develop a winning team.

“As soon as the men’s team sprint trio laid down the marker with an Olympic record and victory on the first night, gold medals just kept on coming”

Controversial selection decisions had to be made along the way – Jess Varnish’s omission among them, but also Matt Crampton being dropped from the men’s sprint squad and Mark Cavendish being picked for the men’s endurance team ahead of Andy Tennant and Jon Dibben.

But on every single decision, British Cycling has been vindicated in Rio. Sutton told RCUK, in an interview shortly before his suspension and resignation, that he was a numbers man, a dealer in facts.

Well the numbers put out by the British team were clearly better than their rivals and the fact, as it was at the end of London 2012, is that Team GB is still the team to beat on the boards.

The list of Great Britain’s greatest Olympians is now dominated by cyclists – Sir Chris Hoy and Kenny sitting top of the all-time medal list with six golds and one silver apiece.

Sir Bradley Wiggins is next, with five gold medals and eight in all – his return to the velodrome capping a remarkable cycling career.

Laura Trott is the nation’s most successful female British Olympian, following up her double gold from London four years ago with another team pursuit and omnium brace.

Ed Clancy, meanwhile, has achieved what no other cyclist – male or female – has done before, with three back-to-back Olympic team pursuit gold medals. Surely now Trott has eyes on matching that in Tokyo in four years time.

Having such a talented group of riders has undoubtedly helped British Cycling’s cause, but creating the environment to nurture that talent is what has really set them apart from the (distant) chasing pack.

Clancy and Cavendish were part of the first intake of Academy riders under the stewardship of coach Rod Ellingworth, and both have blazed a trail for others to follow. Geraint Thomas was another of that intake, himself a double Olympic gold medallist from 2008 and 2012 before focusing on the road.

Ed Clancy, men's team pursuit, Great Britain, Rio 2016, track cycling, pic - Alex Whitehead-SWpix
Ed Clancy has gone from the British Cycling Academy to the Olympic history books, and has blazed a trail for those who have followed (pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)

It is the attention to detail which shines through more than anything. As part of his excellent co-commentary role on BBC Sport, Chris Boardman gave an insight into how marginal gains have constantly been sought.

Everything from kit to bike position, diet to daily life, have been looked at to see what gains can be made in the pursuit of faster times and more medals.

Head physio Phil Burt, a bike fit specialist, did a recent interview with The Guardian in which he said research had been done into the effects of waxing and epilating on the women in the team, and comfort in the saddle – with changes made as a result.

Quite literally, no stone has been left unturned, meaning just as the rest of the world thinks it has caught up, the Brits take another step (or should that be pedal-stroke?) forward.

“Just as the rest of the world thinks it has caught up, the Brits take another step forward”

I was asked to predict how many medals the Brits would get on the track at these Games and – based on their recent performances – settled on three golds, two silvers and a bronze.

Instead, Britain will be returning from the Games with six golds, four silvers and a bronze – with every single one of the riders to have raced on the track in Rio having won a medal (only reserves such as Ciara Horne, who didn’t get a ride in the women’s team pursuit, missed out).

Even based on their past Olympic Games performances we didn’t see this one coming. For Tokyo, perhaps a safer prediction would be golds across the board.

And yet, as British Cycling continues the pursuit of excellence, such a prediction might not actually be far off.

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