Review of a sprint: one year later
Today, 7 August 2013, marks the first anniversary of Anna Meares’ win in the sprint competition at the London Olympics. Upon her return to Australia last August, one of her first interviews about her third Olympic experience was conducted at RIDE HQ. The 29-year-old would go on to tell her stories over and over again to captivated audiences who are immediately attracted to her professionalism and charm. She is one of the true stars of the Australian cycling scene and with good reason: she is a spirited rider who has succeeded at the highest level across a range of disciplines.
We revisit the race from London by remembering the feature on one of her many victories. This is the story of the sprint as published in RIDE #57 (released September 2012). May there be many more to come…!
Gold medal – Sprint: ANNA MEARES (AUS)
The farewell race of a golden career ended with a silver medal for Britain’s Victoria Pendleton. There is a new Queen of the Sprint: Anna Meares. She’s not new to the scene but there was one prize in her cycling repertoire she hadn’t obtained… until now.
On her return to Australia she was welcomed by the prime minister and a host of other dignitaries at a special function at Sydney airport. Anna Meares then attended a few other gatherings and had lunch with her husband Mark Chadwick and his employer. At 1.52pm on 15 August, she arrived at the RIDE Cycling Review office. Congratulations were given by the staff as the only cycling gold medallist from Australia at the recent Olympic Games walked through the door.
She declined an offer. “I don’t drink coffee.”
“Didn’t know that.”
There are always things to learn when talking to the fastest woman on the track. We did our first interview together eight years ago after Meares returned from Athens as an Olympic gold medal winner: the first for the track team that went on to claim another four Australian victories at the 2004 Games.
In London she and the rest of the world faced a formidable Team GB. The darling of the team, Ms Victoria Pendleton, was in her farewell appearance. The defending sprint champion’s final contest would be the sprint for the gold medal in London, the best-of-three sequence that determines the gold medal winner. Pendleton won the first race by a matter of millimetres. And then she was DQed. It meant Meares was the winner and, in the next race, could claim her ultimate prize.
Both riders had trained for that moment. They are the fastest sprinters in the world but, in the instance of the second race of the final in London, the winning manoeuvre was as much a test of mental strength as it was about track craft and confidence in the ability to finish it off. Meares won.
The tactic was a considered one and it was to be the trump card that she was always going to hold onto until the moment when she would face Pendleton at the Olympics. “I’ll go back to tell the complete story,” said Meares about the long process that was involved in figuring out how best to beat her British rival. “Worlds 2011, when we met in the semi-final, I did a standstill on the back straight. After four attempts, I eventually got Vicki to the front. Ever since, I’ve not ever pulled a standstill against her for the very reason that, had I drawn her in London, that’s what we wanted to do.
“After that, she was wary of the fact that I had the ability to force her to the front so she often gave me 10 or 15 metres – enough roll-time for her to find a solution, because [in the rules] you can only hold a standstill for 30 seconds. If I stop, and she rolls up slowly, I’d have to move again by the time she got there. It makes it very difficult to force her to the front.
“So, after that, I raced from the front – every time, without fail, in the hope that I’d lull her into a false sense of security. If everything came together according to plan, I’d make her feel comfortable that I was not going to pull a standstill.” And that was exactly what Meares did to make sure that she dictated terms for what became Pendleton’s final race. “In the second race of the final in London, I opted for a very non-traditional place to do it for that very reason.”
This explanation came with a week to reflect on all that had happened. Most Australians know the story: Meares and Sally Pearson became the first from their country to win individual gold medals at the London Games. Although the cycling sprint actually goes for three laps of the 250m velodrome, the time is taken for the final 200m. Anna’s ride took her 11.348 seconds. Sally’s 100m hurdles lasted 12.35 seconds. Both are bite-sized grabs perfect for highlights replays and many of us have seen both repeatedly. But at the time of her visit to the RIDE office, Meares had only watched her race once. Still, her recall of the event is impressive: she knows every detail, because every detail was planned months in advance.
Together with Gary West, who took over the role of sprint coach for the national team after the Beijing Games, meticulous planning had gone into being “perfect” for the race in London. “I can look at the three years of planning that we did from back in 2009 when Gary set out an A3 piece of paper with all the targets and goals – body composition, gym and training, and targets,” explained Meares. “We went through a process we called ‘know-the-enemy project’ in which we analysed all of my opponents and got down to statistical data. We used that information in learning the skills that were going to be required to race the tactics against those riders.”
Teaming up with Alex Bird from the men’s AIS program, Meares tried to mimic possible race scenarios while training in Montichiari, Italy, where the Australian team was based before the Games. “We asked Alex to play a part… he watched the videos and learned the mannerisms and actions of the girls; he would then race me, acting as though he was those riders. They would tell me to do everything wrong. I’d go out and deliberately do things incorrectly so then I could feel and get a recognition on spatial awareness of what was wrong and learn to do it right so I could recognise the differences – from both the opponents’ view and my view.”
“There were little processes built into the training that were based around decision making. Sometimes I would have to race Alex at the start of the day, sometimes I’d have to race him at the end of the session so that fatigue became a factor.
“I owe Alex a very big ‘Thank you’. Through his actions, he gave me a big boost in confidence. We don’t race a lot and we hadn’t raced at all since the world titles but essentially – because of Alex – I was actually competing in every training session. It makes a big difference in terms of how the feel is and, how the decision making is engaged when you’re on the bike.”
Meares knows her competitors well. It’s a small group who are in the realm of vying for an Olympic sprint gold medal. In London it was the same three on the podium, only the order of those in first and second was reversed. And it’s largely because the Australian was willing to challenge Pendleton with aspects of riding that simply aren’t in her repertoire. For all her talent, the defending champion doesn’t cope well with standstills and she likes to race her opponent from behind. The plan concocted for the final was one that forced the crowd favourite into doing exactly what she didn’t want; it’s obvious in the replay that first place in the mind game went to Meares.
“The three weeks prior to the Games, I was practising that same thing against Alex in Montichiari,” said Meares, “trying to force him to the front. I pulled it off so much better than I did in London. I was able to do a standstill perfectly. I went up the track and, at the top, stopped. Alex had no chance of getting himself balanced because of the angle of the banking.
“On race day, I’ve rolled up the fence and had some speed. I rolled back down which drew Vicki down with speed and I went straight back up. But I wasn’t able to prop. It’s still a skill to roll really slowly – I did that and then, momentarily, I come to a standstill. Once I got her to the front, I was very confident that I was going to be able to run her down. Vicki has the best top-end speed of any women; for her to use that to her benefit, she needs to be in the second position so that she can leave a gap and use that draft to run at her rival to pop around the outside. My intention was to put her in her weakest position… Then the odds should be in my favour.”
The camera is close to Pendleton as she dipped left and went down the banking into the lead. Her expression says it all. The race was at the halfway mark and the sprint hadn’t started but the competition was effectively over. Meares was tactically cunning and perfectly prepared physically. It was a winning formula that was evident by the way she blasted into the lead on the back straight and raced towards the finish line with such an advantage that she let her emotions go; raising a right arm, she punched the air as Olympic champion.
Her pet events are over in a moment but they conjure memories that last a lifetime. A legacy of the Olympics is that it exposes people to a sport they might otherwise not be interested in. The interview was signed off with a statement: now all these people are going to be inspired by what Anna Meares has done. What’s the first step to get into cycling? “Buy a bike and get it set up properly,” she said. “That’s my first tip!
“So many people go, ‘Oh, I’ve got a terrible seat and my shoes are wrong and my knees are sore and my back aches…’ I’m like, ‘Get it set up properly! Then you’ll enjoy it more.’
“The next step is to look for a local club, get involved with people who are already doing it – track, road, mountain bike, BMX… it doesn’t matter, it’s all good! I think it’s important that, if you’re going to ride a bike, you’ve got to be confident. Don’t go on the road unless you’ve got the skill. You’ve got to be smart and you’ve got to be safe. I know that whole attitude between motorists and cyclists is a heated one but I ride as though no one sees me. I’m always very cautious on the road.” (The full interview transcript is on ridemedia.com.au but here is an edited version with exclusive insights from Meares.)
RIDE: Did you always plan to do a standstill in the second race?
Anna Meares: “No. It worked that way because of the draw. I drew number two for the first race. Had I drawn number one, I’d have attempted to pull that exact same manoeuvre. I think drawing second in the first race was a plus for me. It meant she had to lead out and I got the chance to force her to the front for a second time. It starts to play on her mind: ‘Can I hold her off for another time?’ She knows I’ve got good speed. She knows that I’m a good tactician. The pressure went fully onto her.”
In the first race of the final, it seemed like there was very little in it. I don’t know how they managed to split the pair of you.
“I thought I had gotten over her. Maybe it’s the momentum of lunging for the line and when I looked up again… I’d rolled past her beyond the finish line but it was very, very close.
“In the first race I used some tactics that employed advice I got from John Eales. When we had a Q&A with him before we got to London, we were talking to him about how the Wallabies faced the Kiwis with the Haka because it’s really intimidating. He said that they would wear their tracksuit. By doing that, it gave them time to get into the huddle, gather some composure and then go into the game when they were ready.
“When it was confirmed that I’d race Vicki in the final, we had a plan. I was to wait on the duckboard a lot longer than I normally would. When she rolled up onto the track, the crowd just went nuts! They were so loud and I just waited for that pitch to drop a little bit. It meant that she sat there for a very long time. There’s no countdown: there’s no limit, there’s no maximum or minimum time for the sprint. Once I rolled up, they were pretty much ready to race. And that was when I felt comfortable to put myself into the right race.
“I still had the same amount of time on the start line; what was awkward was having to wait as long as I did. By then, you’re fully running with adrenaline and nervousness and anxiety. And the most nerve-racking part of it was sitting on the start line waiting for the race to roll off. That’s when your mind is starting to run a million miles an hour with different scenarios and different race plans and strategies.
“Once I roll off the line, I distinctly remember: I didn’t even hear the crowd. I was just so focused on the race.
“I felt I had it set up really nicely in race one for a late run at Vicki and a pass around mid-turn three and four. I started to angle down as I came out of turn four to get the maximum run out of the banking going towards the finish line. In the race, I had no idea where Vicki and I were positioned on the track but I remember that we collided. I leant into her after I hit her the first time and then I tried to get as much more speed as I could because it does wash a fair bit of your speed off.
“It was just a bump but it affects the ride.”
Did you come down on her as the British were claiming?
“I did… but she came up at the same time. I’ve since seen the footage: there was clear track between us and you can see her deviate from the black line to the red line at the same time that I come down on the same angle and that’s when we collide.
“It was a fair bump but it was more like the area on my arm that’s above the elbow going into her thigh.
“I didn’t understand why I copped so much nastiness from the Brits because of it, not until I watched the BBC commentary. They were saying that my elbow leaning on Vicki caused her to come out of the sprint lane. If I’m leaning on Vicki, I don’t understand how I can push her up the track. She was relegated for coming out of the sprint lane. If we collided and she stayed in the sprint lane the result would have stood.
“I got on the rollers and I said to Gary, even before the relegation had been announced, ‘I can do this.’ And he said, ‘Bloody oath you can do this, Mearsy!’ And I responded: ‘I can do this Gary.’ And we were so gee-ed! I knew I had to win the next two to win the gold medal but it’s amazing the level of confidence that I got out of something like that.
“That whole day, he kept saying to me: ‘Four rides. That’s it, Mearsy!’ He meant two in the semi and two in the final.
“He spoke to me afterwards: ‘When I said that, you didn’t believe me did you?’ ‘No. I thought: no chance will I go through it all with win-win and then win-win’.”
Once you got going in the second race of the final, it never looked in doubt – you were going to win…
“In sprinting if you can execute a race plan well it can make someone look poor. Vicki didn’t execute well and I did. Given how close we were in qualification, it was going to come down to who executed well and who did those race plans first. Once I forced Vicki to the front, I was content to just follow… I wanted to keep the race as acceleration-based as possible.
“She just took the gas off the pedals and that was when I thought, ‘This is my opportunity’. I had two options: wait and try and run her down like I did in the first race, or hit her early. And so I decided to hit early because I recognised that little prop and by the time I got next to her I was able to accelerate… I’ve caught her out a couple of times with that tactic.
“I think she realised that I had far too much speed when she tried to react. That was the biggest key in the second race: she was hesitant. She was uncomfortable being forced to the front. She had an opportunity to go because I wasn’t looking at her when I was trying to do the standstill – so she caught me off-guard there but then hesitated; that put her into the mindset of waiting as opposed to being proactive and keeping the speed on and the pressure on. By her being in that state, it played into my hands. I thought she was going to fight back underneath so I was ripping as hard as I could on the handlebars.
“I was yelling at myself, saying: ‘Go!’
“It’s a bit like in karate, use the vocal as an extra impact. But I said it as a word: ‘Go!’ And by the time I came around her and on to the home straight I looked underneath and realised that she’d stopped… I just had that feeling that I was ‘home’. I looked at Gary and he had both hands up in the air. Then it was an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and a pressure release. Riding in front of that crowd was difficult. And they were very quiet when I won. I seriously think they thought it was a certain gold medal for Great Britain [especially after the keirin, which she was fabulous in… and I faltered].
“That made me look very poor. In the keirin you can hide well in the banking. She used the banking on turns three and four – going into the bell – to generate speed, attack down the home straight and by the time she got over me with 200 metres to go, she had far too much speed for me to be able to answer. I got squeezed big-time by Guo and I backed out which, again, made me look poor because I was going backwards as everyone else was going forwards. I couldn’t salvage anything; I could do nothing. It’s a terrible position to be in.
“Gary was really fantastic: ‘The same thing happened at the worlds, mate. You had a disappointing sprint and you came back and won the keirin. You’ve got to keep fighting. You’ve got to keep believing in yourself.’ That was the hard part: the self-belief goes when something like that happens. But he was just like, ‘Those legs are still there. All that hard work is still there. The sprint is a totally different race to the keirin – this is the one we’ve worked so hard on!’ We had been intricately looking at every aspect of it and there have been a lot of people involved in getting my sprint right.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold
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RIDE Media publishes both the Official Tour de France Guide (Australian Edition) as well as RIDE Cycling Review, a quarterly magazine all about cycling.
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