Friday 19 August 2016

Team GB on the Velodrome - how good are they?

This isn't normally a blog about sport cycling. Don't worry, my next post will be a good old fashioned rant about local cycling issues for local people. But I do occasionally touch on the subject. I'm a bit of a nerd for track cycling, I have been since Channel 4 started showing it on television back in the '80s. And in this post I'll look at Team GB track cycling at the Rio, London and Beijing Olympics. And, by comparison, ask how good has the Team GB performance been this time round?

Track cycling has had a long history at the Olympic games, with medals awarded at Olympic games since 1896. And like many sports we've seen much chopping and changing of events, with the program continuing to evolve until today. And while Britain has long had a reputation for producing strong pursuit riding, the age of Britain really dominating on the velodrome started in 2008. While we saw some success with the dawn of the Queally/Hoy/Wiggins era in 2000 and 2004, the seeds of this success were sown in the early '90s rivalry between Obree and Boardman (with Boardmans medals in '92 and '96 coming just at the right time to secure vital lottery funding), it was at the Beijing Olympics that Britain started to dominate.

So how have we progressed from 2008 until now? While there has been some change in the events over the three games, we can make some comparisons.

Pursuits (Team and Individual)

Beijing saw GB individual and team pursuit wins for men, and an individual pursuit win in the women's competition, while in London there were only team events for both (4k for men with 4 members to each team, but 3k and 3 members for women in London). GB dominance over these years has been absolute, but its getting harder, and winning margins are narrower. In the Beijing final the British mens team very nearly caught the Danes in the final, in London they comfortably beat Australia, whereas in Rio we witnessed a nail-biter with the Brits and Aussies slugging it out right until the end. Likewise, in the womens event the win in London was more comfortable than the absolute corker of a final we've just seen in Rio. Add that to individual gold medals for Wiggins and Romero in the individual events in Beijing, with silver for Houvenaghel in the womens and bronze for Burke in the mens, and you've got a scene of total (but increasingly contested) British domination at the Olympics. 

Sprints (Team)

The team sprints for men and women are real 'blink and you'll miss it' affairs, and are usually decided by fractions of a second. This wasn't an Olympic event for women back in '08 which is a real pity, especially we consider just how dominant Pendleton and Reade were at the time. In 2012 the women's team sprint was the biggest disappointment for Team GB on the velodrome, with their (I still believe overly-picky) disqualification leading to this being one of the three events they didn't win.. Pendleton and Varnish were a strong pair, but it wasn't to be on the day. Since 2012 there has been a lot of much publicised chopping and changing in this lineup, and GB didn't qualify to compete in this event - the only velodrome event we've not had a competitor in at any of these three games.

In the mens we've saw a colossal half second advantage for GB over France in the final in Beijing. In the rematch in London four years later they'd cut the advantage. In Rio it was the Kiwis in the final, and they were shaded out by a tenth of a second. A brilliant, but hard won win which required beating the Olympic record!

There's work to do in women's team sprinting, but Britain have the talent. But for both men and women the world has moved on over these 8 years, and winning margins are ever tighter. Brilliant for the chaps to have won again, breaking the Olympic record, but on current trends that's going to get harder and harder.

Sprints (Match Pair)

Dominance of the men's sprint has been absolute. Hoy gold, Kenny silver in Beijing. Kenny won Gold in London where only a single competitor was allowed per country, and Kenny and Skinner won gold and silver in Rio. Its not really an event best judged by times, that only being necessary for qualification, but by finishing fastest and second fastest in the qualifying part of the contest our cyclists have been able avoid each other until the final. Bluntly, at the Olympics our men have been peerless in this event.

In the women's event, the 2008 and 2012 Olympic cycle was best defined by the Meares-Pendleton rivalry. The Aussie and the Brit pushed each other on to great things, making their meeting at the edge of the track in Rio really touching. And they shared the honours - Pendleton won in Beijing, Meares in London. However in Rio team GB really kicked on, losing the gold medal to Vogel from Germany but capping off a difficult Olympic cycle for women's springing in Britain with silver for Becky James and bronze for Katy Marchant. Women's sprinting is now an event where we've got real strength in depth - the future looks bright. 


This was first held for women in London, and being a sprinters event its fate has more or less followed that of the sprinters - Victoria Pendleton won in London, Becky James exceeded expectations by winning a silver in Rio. 

In the mens event Britain has been almost as dominant as in the men's sprint - Hoy won convincingly in Rio and more narrowly in London, whereas Jason Kenny dominated the event in Rio. One would have to be very picky to point out that the last time we were allowed multiple entrants in Beijing, Ross Edgar also win silver. Callum Skinner also competed in Rio, failing to reach the final but performing well - a tactical error in the heats repercharge sent him out for a rules violation. Skinner is one to keep your eye on - if he can stay fit he could turn out to be a very special athlete indeed.


Not everyone is a big fan of the Omnium, it being a new addition to the Olympic program seemingly designed to keep a bit more variety on the track while some classic events were lost to get gender parity in events, and to make room for BMX medals to be awarded. I'm a fan of it - its a shame to have lost some of the other events but cycling just hasn't been given any more medals to play with, and the omnium adds some variety to the program.

Its really an event for an endurance athlete with an impressive turn of speed, and in the women's omnium Laura Trott has been the star. Sarah Hammer, the American also known for pursuit riding, has pushed her, but it seems Trott has managed to step up for London and Rio and somehow made the Omnium look easy.

In the Men's event we've had the greatest British multi-medallist the man in the street has never heard of and a road legend - the now three time Olympic gold medallist Ed Clancy competed in London and took bronze, whereas Mark Cavendish (a.k.a. the 'Manx Missile', the most decorated sprinter in the history of the Tour de France) was entered in Rio and won silver. It would seem to be an event either of those gentlemen would be ideally suited to, and while by Team GB cycling standards a silver or bronze medal might seem disappointing, these are still fine results in complex, highly competitive events.

Other Events

Two track events haven't been repeated since Beijing, the points race and the Madison (the former being 25k for women and 40km for men, the latter being a 50km insane tag team event only held for men - a disparity that I believe still exists at world championship level).

In the men's point race in Beijing we got our last Olympic look at Chris Newton, who picked up his third olympic medal (a bronze), whereas in the women's Rebecca Remero finished some way down, this distance event with sprints every few laps perhaps not being one she was as well suited to as the pursuit (in which she won gold). 

GB went in to the Madison with high hopes - the tremendous acceleration of Cavendish and the stamina of Wiggins had brought them gold in the world championship in Manchester, with the pair gaining a lap on the field in a stunning solo effort, but having ridden multiple world record rides in individual and team pursuit this was maybe asking too much of Wiggins in the much tighter Olympic schedule. They were also marked men - no one would work with them to help gain a lap on the rest of the field at the end of such a dominant GB track performance in preceding events. They finished 9th.

Total Medal Hauls - How good has Rio been compared to London and Beijing?

Britain dominated all 3 games, in Beijing winning 7 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze, London 7 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze and Rio 6 gold, 4 silver, 1 bronze. Now of course we can't directly compare the numbers because there was only 1 entrant per country in London, but the achievements across all games were similar. In Beijing there were 2 occasions where British competitors failed to win medals, in London 1 and in Rio 1. Measured by this rate of success, its a near faultless record.

The times posted by British riders also continue to improve - with Olympic and World records falling across all 3 games. But the winning margins are getting tighter and tighter - this is more apparent in the 'against the clock' events like team sprint and pursuits. It would appear that the famous 'marginal gains' are getting ever more marginal as the rest of the world catches up.

All in all, the record of team GB on the velodrome has been consistently excellent - the only snag going forward is that the rest of the world edges closer all the time. But there's much to be optimistic about here - experienced multi-medallists like Trott, Rowsell Shand, Burke, Hindes and Kenny are all in their twenties and could be stronger still in Tokyo, and don't be at all surprised if Clancy (31) remains a power-house in the mens team pursuit past Tokyo. And then riders like Doull (who's off to team Sky), Skinner, James, Marchant, Horne, Barker and Archibald are comparative youngsters. 

It'll get harder and harder for GB to maintain this level of dominance on the track - but with the available talent? They've as good a chance as possible. The future, like the recent past, looks bright.

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