The last kilometre of the entire women’s team pursuit competition at the Tokyo Olympics was also the fastest. Germany rode the final four laps in 58.886. It was a confirmation of an abdication, and it hammered home the point that the gold medallists got faster with every ride.
The team pursuit for women made its debut at the Olympics in 2012 when three riders raced three kilometres. Thankfully, logic prevailed and in subsequent Olympiads the women would race the same distance – with the same tally of riders – as the men: 4,000m and four riders.
In London, over 3,000 metres, it was Team GB: gold.
Qualifying: world record (3:15.669). First round: world record (3:14.682). Final: world record (3:14.051).
In Rio, over 4,000 metres, it was Team GB: gold.
Qualifying: world record (4:13.260). First round: world record (4:12.152). Final: world record (4:10.236).
You getting the picture? It’s pretty clear, huh?
Team GB only ever got faster in the team pursuit at the Olympics. Every ride a world record… until Tokyo when, in the final, the British quartet succumbed to the new force in this discipline, Germany.
Shall we go through the sequence from yesterday evening, for the sake of consistency?
In Tokyo, over 4,000 metres, it was Germany: gold!
Qualifying: world record (4:07.307). First round: world record (4:06.159). Final: world record (4:04:242).
And the final kilometre of the competition? Germany: 58.886! They may have raced three times in two days, while needing to overcome the dominant nation in team pursuiting, but they rose to the occasion and not only won with record after record after record, they also got faster all the way to the very end.
The 58.886 is the fastest kilo ever ridden by a women’s team in the pursuit and it was the final four laps of a remarkable sequence by Franziska Brause, Lisa Brennauer, Lisa Klein and Mieke Kröger.
Adding to the drama is the reality that while the Germans were increasing their speed, the wheels were falling off the British campaign. Although GB had also jumped in (momentarily) with a world record to gloat about in Tokyo – in the first round, early in the program on the second day of competition – the quartet simply couldn’t respond to the pace being set by the Germans.
The British record from the first round (4:06.748) stood for a matter of minutes before it was eclipsed in the next race by the Germans (4:06.159). And then came the final…
And so it was to be, for the first time in history, a team other than GB would win the TP. What’s more, Germany’s winning time was almost six seconds faster than what Britain did in Rio! If that happens again come the next Olympiad, the women will be riding a 4,000m team pursuit in under four minutes.
The four-minute barrier now seems within reach… and it begs for (yet another) reminder of team pursuit history.
Team pursuit background
Monday 18 September 2000. Sydney Olympics: men’s team pursuit final (Dunc Grey velodrome, Bass Hill). Germany vs Ukraine.
Guido Fulst, Olaf Pollack, Daniel Becke and Jens Lehmann: fourth-fastest in qualifying (4:05.750).
Then, quarter-finals: GER vs AUS…: Guido Fulst, Robert Bartko, Becke and Lehmann – 1st in an Olympic record, 4:01.810. The four-minute barrier seemed within reach.
Next: semi-finals: UKR vs GBR, followed by GER vs FRA… the Germans won but in a much slower time than the quarter-final (4:05.930), meanwhile the Ukrainians – Oleksandr Fedenko, Oleksandr Symonenko, Sergiy Matveyev and Sergiy Chernyavskyy – broke the world record with a 4:00.830. Again, edging ever so close to the four-minute barrier.
Then, the final: GER vs UKR… an epic encounter ending with Fulst, Bartko, Becke and Lehmann in 3:59.710 – finally taking the world record to below four minutes!
A lot can happen in 21 years. Thankfully women’s cycling has evolved. There are now team pursuits for both genders – and, of course, it’s over the same distance. (Why was it ever 3,000!?) Times are getting faster still, and the four-minute barrier is now within sight of the best riders in the world.
But there has been a pause in track racing because of COVID and that has helped add to the excitement of what is unfolding in Tokyo. At the world championships in Berlin, Team USA – the bronze medallists in Tokyo – stood on the podium and received rainbow jerseys in one of the final international competitions before the pandemic halted everything.
On 27 February 2020, USA beat GBR in the final of the world championships: 4:11.235 vs 4:13.129. Germany, at home, won the bronze in 4:12.964 – faster than the Brits… and a sign of things to come.
Tokyo team pursuit: German domination!
At exactly the same time that Germany was riding the fastest kilometre in women’s team pursuit history, the British team was having a crisis.
In the dying moments of the team pursuit competition for women, with the defending Olympic champions in the same straight as the German team, and with both teams down to three riders in the paceline, the strain was beginning to show on the Brits. Huge turns of pace by Katie Archibald and Lisa Brennauer alike highlighted the extent of this massive showdown… and ultimately it was Team GB that suffered.
As the Germans went faster, the Brits went slower. For the final kilometre, the Germans rode 58.866, the Brits 1:01.575. The contrast of times for the full distance was considerable too: Germany, gold medallists with a world record in 4:04.242… Britain, silver in 4:10.607 – slower than their world record in Rio.
It has been an Olympics to remember. Track cycling is on parade and the huge pause between major competitions has made it so much more compelling. A lack of racing isn’t great for the sport in general, but it has been fantastic for the spectacle.
No team could have known how their rivals were going until competition began and the two women’s track cycling medal events decided so far have been won with world record times, with the dominant Brits suffering a loss in the team pursuit, a race they have become accustomed to winning.
Once again, Germany has set the standard in team pursuiting. The quartet that won gold in Tokyo has posted times that are on par with what men were riding only 21 years ago, and the four-minute barrier is waiting to be broken. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but for now we salute the success of a formidable group who not only beat the Brits, they did so by riding faster than ever before… in qualifying, round one, and then final of the Olympics.
– By Rob Arnold