Before the track cycling started at Rio I was worried. I should have listened to Chris Hoy, or, as I’m now calling him Guru Hoy. He was SO upbeat about the prospects of the British team prior to the Olympics and I doubted him. I will never doubt Guru Hoy ever again. He knew. The performance of the whole track cycling team was so head-tighteningly, life-affirmingly fantastic that I haven’t been able to write about it until now because I have spent most of the last couple of weeks like this:
I started to believe when I saw Phil Hindes come out of the starting gate in the qualification round of the team sprint. This wasn’t what I had seen at the Wirld Championships earlier in the year. The GB cycling team have a tradition of keeping their innovations secret until just before the Olympics. Many of the other countries had trialled out their Olympic equipment in competitions before. Not GB. In the lead up to the Olympics details of the work of Room X (how very Turing!) at British Cycling began to emerge: new bikes, skinsuits and the recruitment of Tony Purnell, formerly of the Jaguar F1 team to oversee innovations.
Back to the team sprint. Guru Hoy had tipped Jason Kenny to get three gold medals in Rio. I doubted he could get even one medal of any colour, because I am an idiot who knows nothing about anything. Having watched the start of the team sprint competition in the Sports Bar (because I was on me ‘olidays), Mr FtW and I watched the final in bed. I can’t actually tell you very much about it because, as Mr FtW pointed out, I was more excited about it than he has been about anything in his entire life. I had to express my excitement in a silent, arm waving, tense sort of way because the Junior FtWs were asleep in their room on the other side of the lodge. I contained myself (just about.) Callum Skinner was a bit of a revelation. Many have tried and failed over the years to be the next Hoy and Kenny. Skinner looks like he might be the real deal AND he gently told off a pro-Brexit group on Twitter for using his image without permission. Good lad.
That was just the start. The men’s team sprint victory was followed by the men’s team pursuit. During the final of the TP I honestly thought I was going to stop breathing and pass out. It was SO close and excruciatingly tense. One of the things I love at the Olympics is the brain-combusting joy of first-time gold medalists. Callum Skinner experienced it on the podium during the TS medal ceremony, as did Owain Doull, who, for all of his good hair and ‘Yeah I’m off to ride for Sky’ coolness, looked like he was going to start sobbing when the national anthem started playing. Luckily Bradley Wiggins stepped in to gurn like a fool on camera and reduce the rest of the TP boys to giggling wrecks. Once you’re a Sir you can do what you like.
The women’s Team Pursuit! Oh how I love them. Four more contrasting characters you couldn’t dream up. The Jane Austen-y younger Bennett sister looks of Elinor Barker. Katie Archibald, an actual real-life version of Julia Stiles’ character from Ten Things I Hate About You. Jo Rowsell Shand, a TV presenter in waiting and the elegant, grown-up lady I will never be. Laura Trott who defies description, although she reminds me of those plucky girls from the WW2 Pathe newsreel footage: ‘Well, the Germans bombed my street so I pulled everyone out of the rubble, grabbed the family dog and cycled ten miles to get help. I’m not a hero, I just really like dogs!’
Post-event interviews are always fun. Handled by the wrong interviewer they can be mind-numbingly awful:
Interviewer: ‘You’ve won a gold medal!’
Interviewee: ‘Yeah!’ [Then spends two minutes answering the statement that has been presented to them because the interviewer is too witless to ask them a question]
Luckily Jill Douglas is pretty good at getting the post-race interview right. She even handled Katie Archibald well when she was asked about her hair after the TP final (I’m paraphrasing slightly but this was the gist of it):
JD: Will you be dyeing your hair gold after this?
KA: I dunno, I might have to ask you for tips.
I swear you could see Katie Archibald inwardly thinking OH MY GOD OH MY GOD WHY DID I SAY THAT WHY OH WHY KILL ME NOW immediately after she’d said it. I felt her pain because it’s exactly the sort of thing I would have said after winning a gold medal. In fact, it’s the sort of inappropriate thing I say on a daily basis and I’m more than old enough to know better and will never win a gold medal at the Olympics.
Then there was Becky. I’m totally #teambecky. Earlier this year I was chatting to someone (no names) who had done some media work with Becky James and apparently she is an absolute sweetie and a pleasure to work with. Being a dreadful English person, my reference points for Welshness are: 1. The Welsh rugby team 2. Gavin and Stacey. This is handy because there something very Stacey-ish about Becky and she’s going out with George North. Obviously he’s not Gavin, but… Even Dame Clare Balding got a bit overexcited when she interviewed George after Becky’s first silver medal because 💪💪
So to Jason and Laura. They just work don’t they? As sportspeople. As a couple. They complement each other perfectly. Laura’s all competitiveness, giggles and pluck and Jason is outwardly ‘Whevs’ and by his own admission a bit grumpy. She cheers him up; he keeps her grounded and they evidently look after each other. I reckon they’d be fun company at a dinner party and they love dogs. They just happen to have ten gold medals between them and are young enough to get more. The whole comparing them to reality tv couples is a bit overwrought, but they are just the kind of people that children and young people should have as role models. Brilliant enough to win gold medals but also practical enough to keep their kit in a bag for life. What more do we need from our heroes?
I was genuinely worried for Mark Cavendish when I saw him at the World Championships. He’s brilliant but I felt that the decision to focus on the Omnium was made too late; there surely wasn’t enough time for him to master the disciplines to a sufficiently high level to get a medal at the Olympics, let alone gold. Once again, I love it when I’m wrong. Gold was indeed a step too far but his silver medal was a wonderful moment. He could come back in four years….
I was genuinely sad when the track cycling finished. Dame Clare looked a bit lost standing out in the rain on her own after six nights in the company of Chris Hoy under the bright lights of the velodrome. The Olympics kind-of ended for me (triathlon aside) on the second Tuesday. I tried to get into the BMX, I really did, but it wasn’t for me. It felt too Whacky Races and random for me.
A quick note on the comments made by cyclists from other nations. Aside from the USA, very few countries bought their A-game to the velodrome. Bauge and Pervis, both great over the years, are fading forces for France. The Australian team looked dependable but not stellar (men’s team pursuit aside). There are promising signs from the teams from the Netherlands and New Zealand but the other nations looked under-par. If Sarah Hammer could have cloned herself three times and taken up all the places in the team pursuit, I feel sure that she would have done. I loved the GB whitewash in the Rio velodrome, but I hope that the other nations really bring it to them in Tokyo. The GB team funding is fuelled by Olympic achievement. World Champion jerseys are a ‘nice to have’ but they don’t fit in with the plan and they don’t get c.35 million pounds in funding to win them.
Next: the Paralympic cycling. GB should be pretty good at that, too although I won’t be making an predictions because I’m rubbish at them. However, I fancy a couple of people to turn their London 2012 silvers and bronzes gold in Rio….