Only four people know what it’s like to race a 4,000 pursuit in less than 3:50. One of them is Alex Porter. We spoke to him about the world record at the 2019 track worlds…
At the end of February 2019, four blokes got together and raced their bikes. On the other side of the track was a quartet of Brits. Once the starter’s pistol was fired, it’d be considerably less than four minutes until the celebrations began. A world record time of 3:48.012 would be ridden; these are numbers that mean a lot to those who understand this highly specific discipline… and to think that it had been achieved anywhere – let alone at sea-level on a winter day in Poland – leaves aficionados gobsmacked.
A new graphic had been introduced to the broadcast and, if you were lucky enough to have seen the footage, you’ll know that there was a speed chart showing just how fast these guys were going.
They were supremely quick, from start to finish. And those who did the celebrating were the same who had set the team pursuit world record at the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
Alex Porter, Sam Welsford, Leigh Howard and Kelland O’Brien: that’s the order they raced, a South Australian, a West Australian and two Victorians… the only people to have finished a pursuit in less than 3:50 – and now they’ve done it twice.
The world record was set 12 days ago, and it won’t lose its lustre for a long time yet. And now, after a weekend that included competition in the Bendigo Madison – won by Welsford and O’Brien – RIDE Media got a chance to chat with one of the men responsible for posting such a phenomenal time.
Alex Porter was in the car on his way home from Bendigo to Adelaide when I called to check in and find out if he had a moment to chat. “Sure,” he said, “there’s a long road ahead and someone else is driving.”
He was with his parents and although he’d been caught in a pile-up or riders in Australia’s premier Madison event only 12 hours earlier, he seemed chirpy and happy enough to chat.
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Left to right (above): Tim Decker, Alex Porter, Leigh Howard, Kelland O’Brien and Cameron Scott.
Photo: Casey Gibson (courtesy of Cycling Australia)
A very fast start
We begin the interview with the obvious question: how does it feel – not just to ride a 3:48, but to break a world record, and to go that fast for 4,000 metres…?
“It’s still pretty surreal, to be honest,” said Porter. “I’ve had a lot of people ask me how it feels these last few days, and I’m still actually struggling to put it into words.
“I remember crossing the line and seeing the “48” on the board and I did the two laps after the race with my hands over my mouth because I couldn’t believe that we’d actually done that time.”
It was a race that should have made mainstream sports bulletins around the country. It is one that Australians should have known was coming for a long time. It was a moment when cycling deserved the spotlight. Alas, it has received scant attention.
With dark helmets and reflective shields covering their faces, it’s not easy to distinguish one rider from the next so Porter, the starter for the Australians, explained the sequence for the final in Poland.
It was Porter in the start gate, followed by Welsford, Howard and O’Brien… meaning that Porter would slot behind the long-haired Victorian after his turns were finished.
“It was the same order as what we used at the Commonwealth Games,” said Porter.
The first kilo, raced in 1:01.397, was most impressive – absurdly fast and yet, when you watch it, everyone involved seems completely in control.
“Sam and I did the first kilo [in the wind],” explained the 22-year-old starter.
“We ended up going faster than we were expecting. I came around at the end of my second lap and we were up on schedule and, at that point, Sam came through, held it, then lifted it a bit more. But everyone was feeling good and we knew we were up to something special.”
It was a matter of keeping on going around “to see if we could hold that pace”.
Four becomes three in the finale
There is footage of the race, but it’s not easy to find. It should be compulsory viewing for any young riders dreaming of becoming Olympic cyclists: it is fast, efficient, smooth as silk, and anything but the dog-fight that unfolded on the boards of the Rio velodrome in the final of the 2016 Olympics when the Brits beat the Aussies.
That world record set in Brazil was impressive but it was a brutal affair dominated for all but the closing laps by the Aussies. Then the defending Olympic champions turned on the afterburners and battled their way into the lead.
In Poland, despite the focus of the commentators being on the race against teams, it was a one-sided affair: Australia always in front, always in control… and only one momentary lapse saw Howard slide off the back and out of formation. That happened inside the final kilometre and, by then, the world record had already become a realistic proposition.
“It was coming into three laps to go,” said Porter of the moment when the quarter was reduced to a trio.
“Leigh swung up and just missed the wheel a little bit and when you’re going that fast, it’s hard to fight to get back on – especially after he’d been sitting on Sam for two and a half laps – going at such a speed, it isn’t easy. And it’s a good example of how there’s room for improvement for all of us.
“When you’re riding at that speed, we have to make sure we’re technically perfect because only a little gap at 66km/h makes it near impossible to get back on.”
That moment, the point of no return: Howard just misses the wheel in front… (above).
Comparing world record rides
Cameron Scott from NSW also earned a gold medal and rainbow jersey; he was part of the qualifying ride on the opening night of the worlds in Pruszkow, Poland, but he didn’t contest the final – the world record ride. Instead, it was the same four from last April when Australia became the first team to go under 3:50.
How does Porter compare those two world records?
“I felt like it was a lot smoother in Poland. I feel like we knew what we had to do going into it; in Queensland in 2018, trying to break that 50 barrier was a little bit like going into the unknown.
“We were going into the final last year with a schedule we thought would get us there, but we weren’t sure whether we’d be able to hold the pace because we hadn’t done it before.
“This time we had a little more confidence going into it but the last three laps of the race we did in Poland was probably a thousand times harder than what it was in 2018.
“It was the hardest I feel like I’ve personally had to go in a TP for a very long time. Going that extra two-seconds faster just made it so much harder.”
Moments after the TP, Welsford (above) backed up to win the scratch race.
The strengths of each rider…
“Kelland O’Brien is an absolute machine,” said Porter about his 20-year-old team-mate. “Even after the race he said he was just waiting to hit the front and just unleash it all.
“It’s so good to know you’ve got someone like that in the line-up, someone so reliable who can go out and get us up to 66km/h after we’d already been riding around at an average of about 63. To have that in the back-end is amazing.
“Leigh Howard has the same kind of reliability. That’s the thing about our team, we have someone in every position and you have such faith in the others. Leigh delivered exactly what we needed of him.
“His first turn was super-smooth, which is really important for me and Sam because we’ve come off a hard start, gone fast, and what Leigh did made our work a lot easier.
“And then Sam is Sam: the guy is arguably the best track rider in the world and I think he cemented that claim after he went out and won the scratch race 30 minutes after we’d just done a 3:48 effort in the team pursuit.”
Welsford had only just turned 23 (in January) but he is often referred to as The Next Superstar of cycling. His performances to date should eliminate the ‘Next’ from the claim and, in the cycling world at least, he is already a shining light, a beacon of strength that inspires many around him. But he hasn’t yet cracked the code that allows him – and the rest of the cycling team – get recognition from the mainstream media.
If the Australian Cycling Team continue as they have in recent months, their time will come. In the meantime, these guys keep on impressing cycling fans… and their peers.
Porter is in awe of what Welsford did to back up from the TP and win the scratch race half an hour later.
“It was incredible to watch the scratch race,” said Porter.
“Straight after the TP, I had to sit down for about 10 minutes because I could hardly walk… and Sam was frantically changing his skinsuit, getting his extra number put on, swapping from TT to normal track bike… but once he was up and running and there were about 10 laps to go, everyone in the Australian pits got this extra burst of energy and we were all standing up on chairs jumping up and cheering.
“For him to actually go out there and pull off the double was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen.
“I did the scratch race 20 minutes after riding the TP two years ago and, with about 15 laps to go, I wouldn’t have been able to peel the skin off a custard. So, for him to go out and win it – and win it by about 30 metres – was incredible.”
Highlight beyond the world record?
Aside from the obvious, what else struck Alex Porter as highlights from the 2019 championships? “I think the inspiring thing was the whole Australian team, you know?
“The world record for us was something amazing but to actually have almost everyone in the team come home with a rainbow jersey was something special.
“There was such a buzz; everyone in the team was just so happy for everybody else. That’s a special feeling and it was a pleasure to be able to be part of something like that. It doesn’t matter what race you’re doing, if you’re racing by yourself on with a group, you’ve got a whole squad – including staff – around you and cheering. It’s a special feeling.”
– By Rob Arnold