Anna Meares – Retrospective (Part 01)
With the track cycling world championships coming up quickly (4-8 April 2012) and the Olympics following not long afterwards, RIDE Cycling Review is going to be publishing some relevant ‘highlights’ of previous issues. The first feature in the series comes from 2004 when Anna Meares became the first woman to ride the 500 metre time trial in less than 34 seconds. It was two laps of perfection and the start of Australia’s winning blitz at the Athens Olympics in 2004. The event is no longer on the Olympic program but Meares is a consistent performer who will once again go to the worlds in Melbourne as a favourite for the sprint events.
This story was published in September 2004 in RIDE #26.
As the world champion in the 500m time trial, Anna Meares knew the pressure to perform in Athens would be on. Together with her coach Martin Barras, she prepared for the prospect of being the last rider to start this two-lap effort. “Last ride at the Olympics; 34.1 on the board.” That was the motto in training… and that’s exactly what transpired!
“I hope life’s not going to be too different,” said Anna Meares on the day of Sydney’s welcome home parade for the Olympians. “Everyone has told me that life is never going to be the same, but I still feel like me. I’m still Anna, still the girl who likes to do other things in her life but likes to do cycling as well. I feel like I’ve just achieved something that I’ve been dreaming of for a long time.”
This is the women who joined the AIS scholarship program on a full time basis for the first time in 2004 and promptly went on to win the 500m time trial at the world championships in Melbourne. It was a victory that confirmed she would be the final rider to start the same event at the Olympics. Although the worlds were still essentially a warm-up to the big objective of the season, it put pressure on the 21-year-old who had spent the early phase of her career riding in the shadow of her elder sister Kerrie.
The pair have followed a similar path to the upper echelons of their chosen sport, but Kerrie was sidelined with injuries for the entire 2004 season. In her absence Anna took control.
The younger Meares sister is now not only an Olympic gold medallist, she is the world record holder in the 500m time trial. But, as she insists, her life is still much the same as it was before.
“I think it’ll change professionally but on a personal level I don’t think anything will be different. I hope it’s not because I like it the way it was. A change is always good, so long as it’s for the better.”
Anna oozes confidence on the bike and off. In the heat of the battle her calm demeanour comes from an approach which dictates that enjoyment is the key to success. And in interviews her honesty is what makes her so self-assured. “Right up through the juniors and into the seniors, Kerrie was the one who took all the pressure,” explained Anna. “I think it was great because she sheltered me a lot from the media and I was able to relax and enjoy racing for the fact that I like cycling.
“I was in Kerrie’s shadow for a while but it certainly wasn’t a hindrance. It was in some areas, but I wasn’t good enough to be in the limelight at that stage. I knew my time would come and when it came, it was very dramatic.”
Her sister is now more motivated than ever to return to competition and Anna sums up her competitive relationship with Kerrie as though she’s looking into a crystal ball that contains headlines from the future. “The Commonwealth Games (in Melbourne in 2006) and Beijing are going to be unbelievable. The competition not only between us two but what we can possibly take to everyone else in the world.”
After all that Anna has achieved this year, she still considers one of her biggest rivals to be her sister. The 500m time trial is the discipline in which she’s won her two biggest prizes yet the sprint is the event that requires her to keep a close eye on her competitors. Anna can reel off their strengths and weaknesses on cue. “Svetlana Grankovskaya, the world champion this year, is a little bit like Ryan Bayley. She isn’t super fast but she has a long acceleration. She’s very good with pushing the rider. Kathrine Meinke is the most tactically sound rider of the women’s field. She just doesn’t have the form to back up the head. I think that if she ever does get the legs to support her mind, she’s going to be unbeatable. And I look forward to racing her when she’s got legs.
“There are also a lot of up-and-coming women like Victoria Pendleton. She didn’t have a great Olympic Games but she had a good World Cup series and world championships. I can’t really name her strengths but I know her faults; she doesn’t have a very good jump so she likes to ride high on the track. And she finds it difficult to manoeuvre in the bends. These are things that I’ve picked up with the help of my coach and Sean Eadie.”
Affectionately known as ‘The Big Man’, Eadie didn’t make a huge impression in the sprint in Athens but his place in the Aussie team both during competition and training camps was invaluable for the likes of Meares and the dual gold medallist, Ryan Bayley. Both cite the 2002 world sprint champion as an essential member of the squad because of his understanding of tactics and willingness to help at every opportunity. When I suggested that she raced “like a man” in the early rounds of the sprint competition she laughed, nodded and then offered, “Yeah, thanks to Sean Eadie for his help!
“He has helped me a lot ever since the world championships,” said Anna about the veteran sprinter, self-confessed showman and primary school teacher. “He’s helped with my schoolwork and with my tactical side of riding – how to use the track best. He taught me how to ride while looking behind and not looking forward at all… that sort of skill makes the application of tactics much easier.”
The 500m time trial & the sprint require similar strengths but a totally different mindset is required for the two disciplines. With the help of Eadie and Australia’s national sprint coach, Martin Barras, Anna Meares enjoyed success in both at the Games in Athens. After discussing the sprint, our conversation turned to her famous gold medal ride which many in the Aussie camp considered the catalyst for the success that followed.
The time trial requires focus, strength and the ability to deal with the pain caused by the rapid build-up of lactic acid during a two-lap sprint against nothing but the clock. It’s a test of wits as well as strength and together with Barras, the eventual champion concocted a scenario which became the pivotal element of her success.
“I walked up to the start gate to sit down and I watched the third-last rider, then the Chinese girl Yonghua Jiang was next,” said Anna of the moments before her race. “When Jiang came through for the first lap the crowd just went crazy. I looked up and saw that she’d done a 19.1. My PB for the lap was a 19.4. That’s what I did at the worlds. I just registered it, didn’t think about it. And she got the Olympic record.” The same woman owned the world record, 34 seconds precisely and Jiang’s time in Athens was 34.112.
“It was uncanny,” laughed Anna, “because the whole time in training we talked about how the most difficult task for me was starting last because I was the world champion. I’d never done this before; I’d always been mid-field. So we had to do a lot of preparation for that prospect. The first time we trained with this in mind my breathing was out of whack… I couldn’t get anything right. I was so nervous.”
Anna then recalls how Barras dreamed up a formula to help her cope with the pressure that she would face in Athens. “We had two months of preparation. I was trying to visualise the other girls riding a particular time and then me going up last. And the first time Marv [Barras] and I trained like this, I got up into the start gates and my hands were sweaty, I couldn’t swallow and I mistimed everything. I did the worst start I’ve done all year.
“I got off the bike and said, ‘Oh my god, that’s unbelieveable!’ If I didn’t do any preparation, I would have struggled at the Olympics.
“We set a benchmark in training. Marv said that he thought I’d be chasing a 34.1 at the Olympic Games. So every time I did a standing start in training, I was last. I would do mine behind the boys and Marv would always say to me, ‘Last ride at the Olympics, 34.1 on the board’. And, luckily for us, on race day the last thing he said to me was, ‘Last ride at the Olympics, 34.1 on the board’. It was really funny. Both his mouth and mine got a little smirk in the corner because we both were just so comfortable with the scenario.
“When they put my bike in the start blocks, they were so fussy about getting the things in the right place and I was there for ages thinking ‘Oh, come on. Hurry up!’ I was nervous. I got on the bike and as soon as I got my feet clipped in, I was calm.”
Being composed while you have millions of people are watching isn’t the easiest thing to do but even little unexpected distractions didn’t make a dent in Anna’s focus. When we sat down for our interview, I laid out five photos of the time trial on a table. Looking closely at each one, Meares paused when she found the shot of the moment she applied pressure to the pedals to burst out of the starting gate. “There’s that bloody fly!”
The image on page 29 shows the insect. The small dot above the armrests of her aerobars is one of the things that Anna remembers about her world record breaking ride. “There was this little fly that was buzzing around my head,” she said, explaining the countdown to the gate releasing. “Once I get my hands set on the bars I can move my fingers, but I don’t like to move the hands. And that damn fly was buzzing around. It was annoying me like crazy. You can see it on the TV footage; I was turning my head trying to blow it away. By then it was 10 seconds to go.” It was a distraction, but Anna was in The Zone. “I got my breathing right and got the perfect start.
“After the first pedal stroke out of the gate I remember thinking, ‘My god this gear feels big!’ It was a 91.4 (inch), but I think it was just the nerves and the adrenaline pumping through my body. I’d never experienced anything like it. I felt good down the back straight, had a good transition into the time trial bars.
“Again, just like at the worlds, I knew I was up after one lap. I knew it there and then. But it wasn’t until I saw it on TV a few days later that I realised I was only up by something like about 0.012 of a second… but the way that the crowd reacted it was as though I was up by two-10ths of a second! The crowd really did bring me home on that last lap.
“I remember going down the back straight and lining up from the transition into turn three. And I remember coming out of turn four and looking at the finish line. But in between those two moments, I’ve got nothing but a blank. I’ve got no memory of anything in between those points.”
Before the race Channel Seven insisted on broadcasting The Dream. The hour long chat show began late because of a women’s beach volleyball match, and the network seemed prepared to snub cycling even though Brad McGee and Luke Roberts were qualifying for the pursuits just before Anna’s ride.
“If she wins gold,” said a voice at Seven’s switchboard when I called to complain, “we’ll show a full replay.”
I was incredulous and responded by stating some facts. “Despite what Seven seems to believe, cycling is not a minority sport. It’s not swimming but Australia has geniune stars, riders capable of winning. Right now the reigning world champion – an Aussie – is about to race. She could win the gold, she might break the world record but you’ve got guys talking pap instead!” After the next ad break, the pictures beamed to my living room were from within the velodrome.
I doubt I was the only caller. Anyone who was at the Vodafone Arena the night Anna won the rainbow jersey would probably also have been aware of her start time and you could hear other phones buzzing at the network’s call centre.
As a fan I was so frustrated to think that, even with the world champion on the line, the official broadcaster of the Olympics was willing to beam a replay of what became a golden moment at the Games. They soon realised that 34 seconds is all it took for Anna to put her name up in lights. The footage of her win eventually became the number-one news item for a day or so.
“I remember the start. The one lap mark. The end of turn three and out of turn four of the last lap,” repeated Anna about the race itself. “Then I remember looking up at the scoreboard. I saw a red box next to my name with number one in it. I was so happy! I was havin’ a great time.
“As I got closer to the scoreboard, I was trying to look at my time. And I saw something –.9, and I thought ‘What? –.9? That wouldn’t have won it… 34.9?’ And it wasn’t until I got closer and saw the green ‘WR’ box, after that I lost it! The hands were waving. I was screaming. I was crying. I didn’t know what to do after that. I was having an absolute ball!”
So was it the Olympics that created the world record? “I think the training had been going really well in the lead-up,” said Anna. “A lot of credit goes to Martin Barras and his program. I think I would have done a good time had it been another competition. But you can’t speculate. The Olympics brings out the best in people… so we’ll just say that the Olympics brought out the world record.”
Anna is analytical about every aspect of her rapid race and she offered a summary of the elements of her ride. “You generally have to sit down going into turn three because the g-forces make you. Sometimes, when you have a big gear, you don’t have it fully wound up by then. If I sat down and changed from the cow-horn bars to the time trial position, I’d lose too much power in that split second.
“It takes too much to try and get that gear rolling again while on a high cadence in the time trial position. I sit down in turn three and pedal it right through the bends because you get so much sling coming out of the turns. I change into my time trial bars after the transition because that’s where I have the most speed.”
Meares’ strong mental approach is ideal for her two pet events. And after her gold medal ride she qualified fastest for the next item on the agenda, the sprint. “I might have had the form to be the number-one rider for the sprint, but it just didn’t happen for me,” explained Anna about her other medal, a bronze which she won four days later. “Third is nothing to snicker about.
“I had a person ask me how much Lori-Ann paid me off in the semi. I couldn’t believe it! A lot of other people said to me ‘Well, what went wrong?’ I was, like, ‘Well, I didn’t win…’
“I cracked under pressure but I was proud of myself because not only was I fighting the other competitors, I was fighting my head to get back for the bronze medal race. I got on that start line and said to myself, ‘There is no way I’m coming out of here in fourth place!’ All of a sudden I was thinking about the race rather than winning. “It is disappointing because I know I was better, but on the day I just wasn’t good enough. It’s that simple.”
By Rob Arnold (email@example.com)