Our Worlds (RIDE #56)
With the post-Olympics issue of RIDE Cycling Review due out in early September, it’s a good time to remind ourselves of some of the incidents leading to the Games. Here is a portion of our coverage from the track world championships in Melbourne in April 2012. It features two true stars of our sport, Anna Meares and Victoria Pendleton, but also serves to remind us how much better track racing can be with a full schedule of events. With Meares now on the AOC Athlete’s Commission, perhaps she’ll be able to use her influence to get a few events back in the Olympics for 2016…
In the meantime, let’s reflect on some great racing for a rainbow jersey.
True love at the track
Words: Rob Arnold
Of all the scenes you could see on the third night of the track world championships in Melbourne one of the most striking was something I saw while walking away from the velodrome. It happened after speaking with Victoria Pendleton in the cool evening air following her sixth sprint world championship win. Before explaining what made me appreciate one of the joys of cycling though, there are other stories to be told.
Pendleton explained her real motivation for riding a bike; it was something born out of animosity with her father and his desire for her to be a cyclist. It all started when she was nine years old and, in the 21 years since, she’s never missed a season. But she’s looking forward to having that option.
She complained about some elements of the career path that has been plotted from an early age but relished other aspects. It’s because of her cycling achievements that Pendleton is a household name in the UK. Gold medals do that to a girl. She’s a woman now and she enjoys riding her bike but there comes a time to try something new, take a change of direction and, in Vicki’s case, maybe even try going right rather than constantly turning left. The velodrome is where beautiful things happen; it is a haven from the nasties of the outside world, a place where one can ride without the distraction of traffic, gears, brakes, hills or descents. After 22 years of going around an oval track, however, it makes sense that someone would want a change.
Pendleton is a darling of the sport. She has won a total of nine world championships as well as the sprint gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games. She’s now 31 and itching to stop. There’s one more objective before she clicks out of the pedals for the final time and that’s the London Olympics.
When you speak to Pendleton there’s an honesty that’s uncommon with modern athletes and it can be confronting. Although she had only just “been awarded” another world title – her description, not mine, for it was ultimately a commissaire’s decision to relegate Simona Krupeckaite the original winner of the first heat of the final, that saw her crowned sprint champion – she didn’t seem to care about cycling.
She talked about looking forward to “cashing in” on a golden opportunity. And she already has options open to her because of what she did in China four years ago. There are a host of companies looking to recruit her, not just for her good looks or the fact that her reputation seems to matter in the UK but because they value what she has to offer. “I’m keen to work at something different, do more than just ride my bike. Maybe it’s time for motherhood, perhaps there will be other things that jump out at me when I don’t have the constant demands of training and living the life of a cyclist.” Had the next Olympics not been scheduled to be in her country, it’s fair to assume that she would have retired after the Games in Beijing.
There’s a lot less media coverage of track cycling than there once was. Prestige is subjective, but road cycling has overtaken the track in terms of how it’s perceived by the general public. And generally women’s cycling gets shunted away in favour of men’s racing so Pendleton is riding in the rare space where major medals can be won yet, apparently, it’s not popular. If that’s true, then why was it so noisy inside the arena on the night she got her second gold medal of the championships?
The cheering in the Hisense Arena reached fever pitch for every final but it was much louder when the Aussie team was in contention. Still, any dollar that a person spends to watch track cycling is revenue the road equivalent simply cannot gain. This generally translates to an audience which is educated on the finer details; they understand the effort required to take a lap in a points race or madison, they recognise that seeing 10 men go under 10 seconds in the 200m flying TT is phenomenal, they appreciate that 3:53 by a team of four over 4,000m is not just epic but almost bizarre… for it is so fast that it was once deemed impossible. In Melbourne two teams did so in the final and they just happened to be from the same nations that topped the medal tally: Great Britain and Australia.
Other phenomenal things happened at the Hisense Arena; world records fell with such regularity that, at times, it silenced the crowds. Once the reality sunk in, and calculations were done, a collective cheer was let out. And it was great fun.
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“Chillbumps appear and I am frozen in the web that they weave as they reveal their innermost selves with the outpouring of their hearts.” – ‘Voice of Harold’, REM, Dead Letter Office (1987)
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The clash between Pendleton and Anna Meares was billed as an event worth travelling far for. Months prior to the titles, previously contested in Melbourne in 2004 when Australia went on to dominate the Olympic Games in Athens, there were posters on bus shelters across the country promoting “The world’s best” coming to town. Meares was one of the pin-up girls of the campaign as the perennial performer was destined to have an impact on the track. She ultimately did create headlines: she broke two world records (the flying 200m TT, where no medal is awarded as it actually serves as a seeding run for the sprint) and the 500m TT, an event she first won at the world championship level eight years ago.
Meares is the Australian equivalent of Pendleton. She’s won Olympic gold, she works hard to keep her sponsors happy, she accepts the demands of her coaches, she spends a lot of time on the bike and works out in the gym to stay in peak condition… but she races because she loves it.
Meares thrives on pressure. She responds to it and relishes the chance to perform in front of a home town crowd. Cycling found her but not until she had already fallen in love with the bike at the BMX track. Reggie Tucker noticed her talent up in Rockhampton many years ago and this April she flew him to Melbourne to watch her race. The velodrome is her domain; it is where she rides for countless hours doing left turn after left turn but she doesn’t get bored by the monotony.
As a 20-year-old she won her first rainbow jersey in the 500m time trial, in Melbourne. A few months later she became the first woman to go under 34 seconds for the two-lap dash around a velodrome. She did so as the last rider to start at the Games in Athens. And that was the end of that discipline at the Olympic level. It won’t be ridden ever again at the IOC party. But that doesn’t mean Meares is going to ignore it.
“Reg Tucker was the first coach who ever saw a spark of talent in me,” she explained after winning the 500m at the world championships for the fourth time – and breaking the world record… again! “I wasn’t good at this sport when I first started at 11 years of age. I was generally a competitor making up the numbers but he saw something in me; he called me the ‘Ugly Duckling’ but he’s never doubted me in any way.”
She speaks as though it’s unrehearsed and is capable of telling a story rather than reeling off just another dull, scripted batch of quotes that her PR people tell her to say.
“I won my first world title here in 2004 in this event and about 10 months ago Reggie didn’t even realise the worlds were going to be here this year. I rang him up and said, ‘I’ve got a plane ticket and some seats for you. And you’re coming!’ I’m glad that he did come because it’s something special.”
Reggie was within earshot as she spoke. He grinned from ear to ear and nodded along to her commentary. Like so many others in the Hisense Arena those nights of the championships, he was transfixed by all that he’d seen. Memories of old times would have come flooding back, like when his son Kenrick was sprinting for Australia at the Commonwealth Games of old – when track cycling was enjoying some of its prime years. But it can happen again. There’s a new crop of fans emerging, people who have fallen in love with the sport – the other one, the one with freewheels and brakes and mountains and yellow jerseys – and they’re discovering the joys of the track.
But there are some who suggest that all the championships are good for is to act as a prelude to the Olympics. That might be how the IOC would like it to be, but as we continue to say in RIDE, the worlds are bigger than the Games nowadays. There are all the traditional events – including the individual pursuits, madison, points races, ‘kilo’ and 500m time trial! These are no longer part of the Olympic program but Meares is still willing to compete in the events she grew up doing. And loves.
“My form has been phenomenal this week and I’m really pleased with how I’ve carried it through the five days of competition,” she said after posting 33.010 for the 500 metres. “Tonight it was special for me, I was able to ride the 500 but it was very strategic as well: it’s day five of competition, there are five days of racing in London. And I’ve got to back up every day… I did that tonight and I’m really pleased.
“I love this event. For me it’s just such enjoyment. There’s no one else to get in my way, for starters. And it’s pure speed. And it’s pure control. And if I could have ridden it every single year – even though it’s not an Olympic event – I would have.
“Unfortunately I made the decision not to ride it last year because in 2010 I did it when it was the first event on the program. I later made it through to the sprint finals. I was the only one of the four in those finals who rode the 500… and I got fourth. I realised that, with the specialisation of a lot of my competitors dropping the 500, I had to do the same to be competitive in those individual Olympic events. So my coach Gary West asked me not to ride it last year and I agreed on the proviso that I get to ride it wherever it falls in the program this year.”
The fated head-to-head clash between Meares and Pendleton went ahead, but in the semi-final. Adding drama – and injury – the Brit crashed in the first of the best-of-three races. Meares was relegated in the second and then Pendleton won the third to go into the final against Krupeckaite. That’s when the commissaire’s call came to relegate the Lithuanian.
Apparently Krupeckaite had ridden above the sprint line in the final straight during one of the finals and that ruling would cost the pair a third ride: Pendleton was awarded the world title. “It’s a shame to win like that,” said the gold medallist, “there’s not even the chance to throw a victory salute which is part of the thrill of winning.”
The Lithuanian was in tears as she left the podium ceremony but she remained composed when expressing her thoughts. “It’s my job and it’s all of my life. All that I do is cycling,” said Krupeckaite after receiving her medal. “I thought I could win today. The judges have their job. If they say I did something wrong, I can’t say anything in response. I’m not happy with the result. I was stronger. I was better. But I’m not the champion today… maybe in London.”
For two straight years Krupeckaite has been voted the most popular athlete in her country – from any sport. She is a superstar and the reason for her status is what she does in the worlds each year (ie. win medals in the keirin, sprint, team sprint and 500m TT – 11 in total, including golds in the time trial from 2009 and keirin in 2010). She is yet to win an Olympic medal, so her status in Lithuania is based on the worlds.
This is where true aficionados see the prestige in track cycling. The Olympics might win the populist vote for being the most important but these days, with the IOC’s attitude towards events on the velodrome, it’s the world championships that are the most pure representation of what the sport is all about.
When Pendleton spoke in the carpark after the racing on night three, she expressed anger at those who have chastised her. “People tell me I’d win more if I didn’t spend so much time doing photo shoots and more time training,” she snarled. “What is it with people needing to correct others all the time?”
Pendleton speaks absolute logic when she says she’s got a right to grow her hair a certain length if a company is going to pay her X amount of money to promote product Y. She’s got every right to do with her time what she pleases, especially when she’s still winning world titles and doing her job to the best of her ability. She’s entitled to enjoy what she wants to do – such as walk her dogs, and enjoy her passion for photography, and all the other little bits and pieces that make up her life. Perhaps her days are more complicated now because of sport but it’s not going to be that way forever.
Pendleton now has the chance to go to London as the world champion in one of the Olympic disciplines, the one she won in Beijing. She can do that, and tick off the last of her requirements from competitive cycling and then she can do what she pleases without any need for speculation from loungeroom experts.
It’s interesting to examine the personalities involved and to realise that poor Simona didn’t rubbish the commissaires, she never hinted that there was even an ounce of corruptibility, she maintained a stern face even though it seemed to many at the track on the night that her relegation was the wrong decision.
It reminds us that where it’s people who are involved – as competitors or spectators; some express their frailties and concerns, others manage their emotions, and spectators come along to admire the effort involved. Many things draw us in, make us watch, stir our passions. But winning isn’t the only thing. There are interesting things to see everywhere you turn; it might happen in the spotlight of a sporting arena or it might strike you on the walk home a few hours afterwards. And this brings me back to the opening line. For all the things that I’d witnessed on the first three days of an outstanding five days of competition, something that really brought the biggest smile to my face was prompted by two people on their bikes… but away from the velodrome.
The scene that cheered me up involved the new sprint world champion and her Australian fiancé, Scott Gardiner.
Bike riding might be fun, it might be invigorating when you win, it might be stressful when you lose – it all depends on how you manage it. But at the end of night three of the world titles, after complaining about having to race her bike since she was nine years old, Victoria happily clicked into the pedals of her Pinarello road bike and cruised up the ramp leading to a pedestrian walkway between the Hisense Arena and the MCG. Seconds after she set off, Gardiner chased after her on a most dilapidated women’s bike – a red, rusted piece of rubbish – but he was soon by the side of his future bride.
When he got next to her, they shared a short conversation and from the distance I could hear their laughter. And then it fell silent. They rolled off into the darkness but before they were out of sight, he held out his left hand and she gripped it with her right. They pedalled along, swinging arms like people in love. Of all the stories that came from the track this April, it’s this image that stands out. Cycling does a lot of things but above all, it has the potential to bring people together.
The sprint might have been a lost opportunity for Meares. She qualified fastest and then saw her main rival slide along the boards after a crash. There are the hopes of nations resting on the shoulders of a few strong athletes. And with it all comes a wealth of stories. Everyone who attended the velodrome over the course of the championships will have a tale of their own to tell. It was ‘Our worlds’ – but in the sense that it was a victory for cycling, not just one team or one rider or one gender. It was an event that was beautifully conducted from all aspects of the organisation, there was interest from far and wide, there was wonderful television coverage, and people who ride understand the significance. There are many stories from the worlds and over time they may all emerge but for the moment, it’s great to share some images and observations of the event.
Fast times, track craft, strength, panache, endurance, humour, and love. You can see it all at the track. It need not be the Olympics for it to be remarkable. This was the world championships, and it was a great experience.
By Rob Arnold
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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