And just like that, track cycling just got more interesting… much more interesting! After two days of competition we’ve seen multiple world records broken (multiple times) and intrigue on the velodrome like never before.
A lot has already been written about the team pursuit, it’s a personal interest of mine and has been for years. But it has never been like this before. Sport fans around the world are tuning in to watch the action on the Izu velodrome and they’re seeing amazing racing, plenty of drama, and a few incidents that have sparked discussion about a cycling discipline that, for years, has been on the wane.
Track cycling has always been exciting, and the Olympics tend to draw out the best from the racers. There hasn’t been a lot of competition of late and it’s been difficult to preview a contest when we have no idea of current form. Perhaps that’s what makes #Tokyo2020 so appealing to people who may ordinarily have overlooked racing on the velodrome.
Of all the cycling disciplines at the Olympics – track, road, MTB, BMX and now BMX freestyle – the timed events are apparently the ‘easiest’ to control. This is why so much funding has traditionally been poured in by national sporting organisations around the world.
Look at the cycling events in Tokyo up until now and you realise how random racing can be.
We’ve seen an Austrian ‘amateur’ win the road race by attacking the moment the flag was dropped.
Then a Dutch MTB maestro came tumbling down when he expected to roll down a ramp but was faced with a rocky precipice instead.
In the BMX, favourites crashed and one of the defending champions missed the final – despite having qualified – because of a brain haemorrhage.
Up in the air, Charlotte Worthington did things a woman on a BMX bike has never done before and later Logan Martin flipped his bike upside down, caught it and landed on the pedals like some magician.
How could boring old track racing compete for interest in a setting like this. We’ve seen it all before and understand how the fixed gear disciplines unfold… certainly in recent times, when Team GB emerges from the shadows of world championship winning teams and dominates the competition.
On the velodrome in Rio alone, Team GB scored six of the 10 gold medals on offer. Time and time again they mastered the controllable and came out on top: team pursuit(s), team sprint, omnium, keirin, sprint… so much gold and glory for one nation that had already enjoyed enormous success in London and Beijing. Surely, we thought, it would all happen again in Tokyo.
But the beauty of these pandemic Olympics is that form hasn’t been tested in competition and no one could possibly have known who was doing well or what times would be set to achieve gold five years on from the Rio campaign.
Already, after only two days of racing on the velodrome, the Brits have squandered their chances in the team sprint (men and women) and team pursuit (men and women) and now they are upset about tape on the shins of rivals, even going as far as demanding disqualification.
(And don’t get me started on ‘rules are rules’… because the Brits have pushed the regulation envelope often enough and should consider themselves lucky they didn’t get pinged by the commissaires and UCI for their antics. Other stories for other times… but there are plenty of examples in case you’re only just tuning in to track racing.)
What does all this leave us with as we approach the third day of racing at Izu? So far, it’s gold for China (women’s team sprint – with a world record in qualifying, 31.804), gold for Germany (women’s team pursuit – with world records posted with each of their three rides), and gold for the Netherlands (men’s team sprint – with an Olympic record, 41.369).
Already there is a bucket load of excitement, and we haven’t even referenced the collapse of the Australians and the Brits in the ride-off for bronze and gold, respectively, in the team sprint when the third rider of both teams never managed to match the pace of their lead-out men.
Furthermore, other incidents – equipment failure for the Australians on day one and a crash in the GBR vs DEN ‘semi-final’ of the men’s team pursuit – have more people talking about track racing than ever before.
The Aussie pursuiters will ride again, but the defending TP champions will never know if their super-duper Lotus/Hope bikes were good enough to give them the edge in their challenge for gold. The winners of the team pursuit in Beijing, London and Rio won’t get to ride for a medal. Instead they have to mop up after being wiped out in last night’s collision from behind by a Danish rider who was giving his all to break the world record for a second time in the evening.
The ‘controllable’ seems a little out of control
At the time of the crash in the final team pursuit of day two, the Danish team was 1.2 seconds faster than the world record ride by the Italian team only minutes earlier. For all but two of the 15 laps raced before the accident, the reigning world champions were faster than the Italians.
It was clear that another world record was going to be set, but the Danes never got that chance. Charlie Tanfield got in the way.
There has been a chorus of criticism from social media commentators about the reaction from Frederik Rodenberg after the dramatic crash, but that would be white noise for the riders involved. The Dane realised his immediate response was over the top; he vented, had his wounds tended to, and he apologised to the Brit who he knocked off.
Tanfield halted a world record ride in an instant and even if he hadn’t been wiped out, he’d have been one of the key talking points of an action-packed evening.
We often see one rider peeling off to let the three remaining pursuiters hold the pace all the way to the finish line, but yesterday it wasn’t just the team sprinters from Australia and Team GB who couldn’t hold the wheel in front of them, it was pursuiters too.
It happened to the defending TP champions; a gap opened and all control was lost. This time there were only two riders together at the front of the race, and the third was left lingering in no-man’s land. There was nothing Tanfield could have done to make up the ground he lost to the two team-mates up ahead on the velodrome.
In the race before the Rodenberg/Tanfield drama, we saw the fastest team pursuit ever ridden: a world record for Italy (3:42.307), and the second fastest 4,000m time ever (3:42.397) by New Zealand. It was power and precision and a remarkable display of strength. There were phenomenal turns of pace by former individual pursuit world champions, Filippo Ganna and Jordan Kerby. And although the Kiwis excelled, they won’t go into the gold medal ride-off.
This evening there’s one medal event to be determined: the men’s team pursuit… ITA vs DEN for gold, and AUS vs NZL for bronze. The scene is set, the world record is under threat (again) and there will surely be a new legion of cycling fans tuning in to see what happens next in what has already been an amazing track carnival.
Track cycling has always been fascinating, but it’s usually only enjoyed by true enthusiasts or casual viewers who happen upon the coverage once every four years. In 2021 it’s been an Olympics like never before and the action in Izu has got people talking. It might be less random than the other cycling disciplines but in #Tokyo2020, the controllable is out of control in a most enjoyable way.
– By Rob Arnold