By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – Trying to knock Britain’s track cyclists off their perch at the Olympics has proved a fruitless task for their rivals.
Just when the Australians, Dutch, Americans and any other nation with aspirations to dominate on the boards think they have caught up, the Brits ride off into the distance.
That was the case in Rio five years ago when Britain, despite pre-Games talk of vulnerability, scooped six of the 10 titles, one down on the seven they won in Beijing and London.
Once again, talk is that the marginal gains Britain’s extravagantly-funded team have been so adept at finding, are beginning to dry up.
At last year’s worlds in Berlin, the measuring stick of form, Britain finished seventh in the medals table with one gold, their worst haul at a pre-Olympics worlds since 2000.
The women’s team pursuit squad were soundly beaten by the Americans, while Denmark raised the bar significantly in the men’s event with Britain failing to medal.
The Dutch men swept the speed events, with flying machine Harrie Lavreysen announcing himself as the man to beat in Tokyo by winning the individual and team sprints and keirin titles.
Elinor Barker won Britain’s only gold in Berlin, in the points race that is not even an Olympic discipline.
Had the Games taken place on schedule, Britain’s domination may have been ended. But there is mounting confidence that, when the action finally begins, they will peak again.
Golden girl Laura Kenny, Britain’s most-decorated female Olympian with four golds, was just back from a shoulder injury in Berlin then suffered a crash in the first event — omnium — which left her bloodied and bruised.
Her husband Jason, who has a joint British record six Olympic golds was well off the pace in the sprint, but often under-performs outside of the Games.
There are other factors at play too. British Cycling has made a habit of keeping it’s latest bike and skinsuits under wraps, before revealing them at an Olympics.
Governing body the UCI has tweaked its rules to avoid a technology arm’s race but the new radical-looking British-designed Hope/Lotus bike, designed to reduce drag caused by the rider’s legs, could turn out to be a stealth weapon.
While Britain may struggle to match the feats of Rio, London and Beijing, six-time Olympic champion Chris Hoy believes, things are falling into place.
“Having seen some of their recent training sessions I think the extra year has definitely helped them,” Hoy, an ambassador for the new UCI Track Champions League, told Reuters.
“The GB team under-performed across the board for various reasons last year in Berlin; some of which were out of their control due to illness and injury etc and they have had time to go away and lick their wounds, reset and come back with what they hope will be a bang.”
Hoy also believes that with Laura Kenny firing on all cylinders again, Britain can fend off the challenge of Chloe Dygert’s U.S. squad and win the women’s team pursuit for the third Olympics in succession.
Lavreysen will be favourite for the men’s sprint and keirin while in the women’s sprints, Germany’s Emma Hinze will look to emulate the great Kristina Vogel, her compatriot who won gold in Rio but suffered a crash in 2018 that left her paralysed.
Several changes have been made to the endurance track programme with the two-rider Madison, featuring the distinctive hand sling, being re-introduced for the men and given a debut for the women. The multi-discipline omnium will now run over one day and feature only bunch races.
Home hopes will rest on the shoulders of Yuta Wakimoto in the keirin — an event that is part of Japanese cycling folklore — after his silver medal in Berlin.
“For a home rider to win a medal in the heart of the keirin school would make them a legend in their country forever,” former keirin Olympic champion Hoy said.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)