The opening day of the Track World Championships got under way on Wednesday with ample thrills and spills – culminating with a unexpected gold medal for Australia in the men’s sprint to curtail Great Britain’s early dominance.
While Team GB won golds in the men’s team sprint and men’s scratch race, the biggest surprise of the day – bar the Aussie victory in the men’s team sprint – was that both Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton, two of the Championships’ biggest stars, failed to win any medals at all.
Britain’s disqualification (along with the much fancied Germans) in the men’s team sprint for illegal changes between their riders meant that for the first time in his career, the illustrious Hoy did not pick up a medal at the world championships for this event.
Despite being fourth best in qualifying, Australia went on to win the gold with a last-gasp victory over favourites France. This made up for the disappointment of Aussie duo Anna Meares and Kaarle McCulloch missing out on gold in the women’s sprint pair.
Meares and McCulloch’s three-year reign as world champions was ended in devastating fashion by a German duo who broke two world records in the process.
But at least Meares could take delight in getting one up on her big rival Pendleton after Australia beat the Brits in qualifying. Meares would also have presumably smiled inside when she saw Pendleton and Jess Varnish get beaten in the bronze medal race by China.
The fierce feud between Meares and Pendleton stretches back to 2006 when Pendleton accused Meares of ‘hooking’ her in the keirin event of the World Championships in Bordeaux. The incident led to a war of words that still simmers, with Pendleton this week claiming her arch rival “likes to push the rules”.
While Pendleton has largely come out on top on the track in events between the two Olympic champions over the years, recent performances have indicated that the tide may be turning.
In last year’s World Championships in Holland, Meades beat Pendleton to gold in both the individual sprint and keirin events, the finals of which take place in Melbourne this week on Friday and Saturday respectively.
More recently, in February’s World Cup event in London, Pendleton and Varnish dominated Meades and McCulloch on their way to victory and a world record (bettered yesterday by the Germans).
But in the personal Meades versus Pendleton head-to-head, the Australian replicated her performance from Holland to triumph in both the individual sprint and keirin events. With this thrilling back-story taken into account, the crowds at the Hisense Arena in Melbourne can expect some thrilling duels between these two in the days to come.
This personal rivalry encapsulates the ongoing rivalry between Australia and Great Britain which has played out over the last 200 years, most notably (in sporting terms) on the cricket pitch, on the rugby field and in the velodrome.
Four years ago, Australia’s cyclists performed woefully in the Beijing Olympics, coming home with just one silver medal (Meades was beaten by Pendleton in the match sprint). But since that low point, Australian track cycling has fought back, with Australia topping the medal tally at the last three world championships (including last year’s whopping eight gold medal haul in Apeldoorn).
And yet at February’s track World Cup meeting at the new Olympic velodrome in London, it was Great Britain which finished clearly on top ahead of Australia and Germany. This will certainly be on the minds of the competitors for the remaining four days of action in Melbourne.
In the men’s individual sprint and keirin races Australian hopes will be with 25-year-old Shane Perkins, part of the team sprint trio that picked up gold on Wednesday evening despite being knocked off his bike by a car last week.
Perkins is the reigning keirin World Champion but will face stiff opposition from Hoy, who will clearly look to put Wednesday’s disqualification behind him in emphatic fashion.
Hoy won gold in the sprint and keirin in London in February, but in the sprint event Hoy will come up against Gregory Bauge of France, Germany’s Maximilian Levi and Rene Enders, and his own British team-mate Jason Kenny, the reigning World Champion following initial winner Bauge’s disqualification in Holland.
In the women’s team pursuit event, the Australian trio will look to defeat reigning champions Team GB. When the trios faced each other in London in February, Australia broke Team GB’s world record in qualifying before the Brits broke the record again while defeating the Aussies in the final.
Will the pendulum continue to swing in Melbourne?
Other Australian hopes include Leigh Howard and Cameron Meyer in the men’s madison, and Jack Bobridge in the individual pursuit. The GreenEDGE trio have put their road racing seasons on hold to compete in Melbourne and will be highly motivated to put on a good show in front of the home fans.
The Track World Championships are also a key stepping stone on the path to the London 2012 Olympic Games – the final competitive event before the global showdown in July. For many competitors, Melbourne offers the chance to pick up crucial qualification points ahead of the London Games.
While the likes of Meades, Perkins and Bobridge are all guaranteed places in their Olympic squads, for others it is not so certain. The first day of events in Melbourne confirmed that neither the USA nor Canada could secure a place for London 2012 for their men’s or women’s team sprint squads – which just goes to show how much is at stake.
Thursday April 5
Women: Team pursuit, Points race (25km)
Men: Kilometre time trial
Friday April 6
Women: Scratch (10 kilometres), Sprint
Saturday April 7
Women: Omnium, Keirin
Men: Individual pursuit, Points race (40 kilometres), Sprint
Sunday April 8
Women: Individual pursuit, 500m time trial
Men: Keirin, Madison