The art of the team pursuit

Rio 2016 gold medallist Elinor Barker talks through the intricacies of one of Britain's most successful Olympic disciplines

“In my head, on the very last straight, I was thinking ‘I’ve lost this, I’ve lost this for everyone, I’ve lost it’.” Four years of tireless work, four riders, four thousand metres – and an Olympic gold medal to be won or lost on the final bend in the Rio velodrome.

The team pursuit is a captivating spectacle, two quartets chasing each other down, crossing on opposite sides of the track every half-lap as the race unfolds. Each team may be made up by four riders but the team pursuit is a battle between two well-oiled machines, beautiful in their grace and precision as a rider swings off the front and returns to the back of the line, millimetres from the wheel in front.

At the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, fans watching both at the velodrome and on television were treated to two thrilling team pursuit finals – both of which went down to the very wire, with Great Britain’s men and women both claiming gold.

Great Britain have become accustomed to team pursuit success, but winning gold in the discipline is a fine art (pic: Alex Whitehead/

Elinor Barker’s frantic chase on the final lap of the women’s gold medal final, having lost the wheel of team-mates Katie Archibald and Laura Trott as Britain closed in on gold, kept fans on the edge of their seats – but the Welsh ace’s efforts were enough to seal the prized gold medal and earn the quartet a place in British sporting history.

The team pursuit is, to the untrained eye, simply riding in circles faster than your opponents but the team pursuit is a fine art at which Team GB have repeatedly proved themselves to be the best in the world. However, four years of training, racing, recovery and preparation can only get you so far – ultimately, it all comes down to race day.

All that hard work ultimately comes down to four kilometres of racing, or around four minutes on the track, and while the Brits make the effort appear so fluid and – at times – effortless, it is anything but when you are a part of it. Six weeks after the British women’s Rio triumph, we caught up with Barker to truly discover the art of the team pursuit.

Warm-ups done, and event imminent, it is you – and your team-mates – on centre-stage.

“I think the part between the warm-up and the race is the absolute worst part,” Barker says. “There’s nothing left to do. Before the warm-up, you know you have to get on the bike at a certain time, take your gels at a certain time and you have a little plan. But in between you are just sat there waiting.

Waiting game: nothing left but to wait for the race (pic: Alex Whitehead/

“Obviously, you’re always going to give yourself a bit of extra time just in case something’s wrong with your helmet, shoes or just anything. Which generally means, nothing is wrong and you just have to sit and wait. I [sometimes] think that’s the worst time, but then you get on the track and it almost gets worse.”

The walk from the centre of the track, the roar of the crowd – especially with British fans supporting their compatriots vociferously across the globe – time to focus.

“You get on your bikes, and can only wait for the start,” Barker adds. “But then as soon as the timer goes for the start, it’s fine. It’s just a release. You know you have a job to do and you just need to get on with it.”

Every moment counts in the team pursuit – the British men won their gold medal by just .74 seconds in Rio; less than a second between gold and silver; between pure elation and four years of wondering ‘what if?’.

Rhythm is the key, and tapping out the winning rhythm comes from years of hard work on the track. Practice, after all, makes perfect.

“We spend so much time training together,” says Barker. “You have to get used to each other’s wheels for a start so we tend to train in the same order.

And their off – every second counts (pic: Alex Whitehead/

“I’m pretty much always on Laura Trott’s wheel, so I’ll almost always train on her wheel and so on down the line. You have to get used to the wheel and the line, and the pace as well.

“Most of it [the rhythm at the start] is the fact we train together all the time. If everything goes well, then I know exactly what Laura’s going to do [and follow accordingly].”

But what if it doesn’t go to plan? The British women, after all, missed out on a shot at the gold medal at their latest major meet pre-Rio – the 2016 UCI Track Cycling World Championships in London – after a poor change split the quartet in two in qualifying.

It’s then that you truly earn your crust…

“When something doesn’t go to plan, that’s when you have to start thinking – maybe a mechanical, or someone’s not feeling well (or even feeling too good, and are going better than everyone else),” Barker believes.

Key moment: Laura Trott and Elinor Barker become separated from Joanna Rowsell and Ciara Horne behind them as their qualifying effort fell apart at the London World Championships (pic: Alex Whitehead/

“But these are things that happen. When you’re absolutely on your limit, if your limit is slightly lower than it has been then you’re in trouble. If your limit is slightly higher then perhaps someone else will be in trouble.

“You have to learn from those times when it goes wrong. In fact, I think we’ve learned more from our losses than we ever have from our wins because you don’t review it in the same way.

“When you win, you say ‘well this is good and this is good and this is why we won the race’ and I think, though there’s always room to get better, you don’t really critique yourself in the same way as when you lose.”

Hopefully, however, things have gone well – you are turning the pedals and the changes are smooth. The front of the line approaches. Time to double that focus.

Barker explains: “It’s different for everybody but, for me, when I’m in the wheels I’m concentrating on trying to feel my cadence so that when I get on the front I know that – though it will be harder – if my cadence is staying the same then we’ll be going at the same speed.

Katie Archibald digs deep as she powers the quartet. Elinor Barker says she concentrates on her cadence when she’s in the wheels (pic: Alex Whitehead/

“You can’t count it or anything like that, but you come to get used to the feel.”

Focussing on your cadence, on the wheels and on your pace is all and well good in training, however, but this is race day. This is you on your limit. Sport hurts.

“Sometimes the pain starts from the start,” admits Barker. “Other times it’s not until the last lap.

The last turn on the front is going to be hell… (pic: Alex Whitehead/

“It varies so much but generally the last turn [on the front] is going to be hell.

“I think the absolute worst feeling is when someone – or maybe more than one person – isn’t going so well. They end up doing shorter turns and you end up taking more turns than you were perhaps expecting.

“It’s hard to deal with mentally when you think you’re done and then you end up back on the front again.”

Indeed the mental battle is as key as the physical one on the track – Sir Bradley Wiggins’ talks it up in his account of his successful UCI Hour Record attempt, My Hour.

Wiggins breaks his ride into segments and thinks ahead to how he’ll be feeling with the miles ticking down, rather than how he feels now.

Barker chooses to focus on the here and now, however, stating: “I think if I looked ahead, I’d be thinking ‘oh god, I’m going to feel awful!’

Barker prefers not to think too far ahead, concentrating only on when to change (pic: Alex Whitehead/

“Only during my turn do I have to think ahead. I have to decide how I’ll be feeling, so I know whether to do a two-lap turn or two-and-a-half lap turn.

“It’s usually just within that turn though – if I think too far ahead it will be dangerous.”

Still the pedals are turning, but how are you doing? Where are your opponents? There are four riders on the track, but the fifth member of the team – the coach – remains of huge importance during the race.

Paul Manning walks the line for the British quartet, his pre-arranged signals telling the girls the state of play. If you are down, it’s time to dig deeper. If you are in front, the spirits lift and the pain erodes…

“When you look at your coach, and you’re in front, it’s a massive boost,” Barker says. “It’s almost like everybody’s doing an invisible little fist pump to each other.

Paul Manning walks the line for the British team. Finding out your up is a hufe psychological boost (pic: Alex Whitehead/

“Especially if it’s right at the end, there’s not a lot of time to bring it back. In the Olympic final, I was in too much pain to even think about it, but normally if there are two or three laps to go and you see Paul walking [to signal] six or seven-tenths up, it’s amazing.

“As long as we keep up the speed, and nothing drastic happens, we’re fine.”

Maintaining speed is easy to say and easy to write. But the race isn’t won on paper. In a sport of fine margins, it’s still all to play for on the track.

Rewind to Rio, and for Barker at least that was never more obvious. The ride itself had gone to plan, no extra turns, she says, no slip up in pace, but to win gold you have to dig deeper than you’ve possibly ever dug before.

“With three laps to go, I was in so much pain,” Barker admits. “But I was just thinking as soon as I let my legs slow down for a tiny bit it’s all over. I was trying so hard not to.

Barker admits she thought it was game over on the final lap in Rio, but the Welsh ace dug deep and reaped the rewards (pic: Alex Whitehead/

“The last change, trying to get onto the back… Katie was feeling so good she was off into the distance and it was hard to keep up.

“In my head, I was thinking ‘I’ve been concentrating so much on not slowing down that I have no idea where the Americans are now. I haven’t looked at Paul for a while and if I looked I’m not sure I’d actually see him’.

“In my head, the very last straight, I was thinking ‘I’ve lost this, I’ve lost this for everyone, I’ve lost it’ and then crossed the line and thank God we hadn’t!”

She hadn’t. They hadn’t. Elation for the Brits, gold medallists again – Barker, Trott, Archibald and Jo Rowsell Shand on the podium and into the record books. The record books will forever simply state ‘Britain won gold’. The true story, the art of the team pursuit, is far more than that.


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