Olympics: British track stars set for Olympic gold

After a dominating performance in the world championships, can Britain clean up in Beijing?

Track giants Britain, France and Australia are making the final touches to thier preparations for an epic five-day contest that's set to thrill fans at the Laoshan Velodrome, starting Friday.

Global pacesetters Britain set the bar high by winning a record nine of the 18 gold medals at the Manchester world championships four months ago. But despite good chances of winning gold in eight of the 10 track finals, they have been warned not to take anything for granted.

"When it comes to the Olympic Games, the counters go back to zero," said former sprint great Florian Rousseau, coach of the formidable French sprint team that could be the first to test that theory in Friday's opener. Britain might be top on the track, but they will be racing knowing that Australia, France and the Netherlands have them in their sights.

Ryan Bayley was crowned king of the Athens Velodrome in 2004 where his sprint and keirin titles were the centrepiece of Australia's tally of six golds, two bronze and two silver medals. Since Athens, the Aussies have been playing catch-up to a British squad whose track programme is the envy of the world.  

Although hesitant to shout it from the rooftops, the Brits currently hold world titles in seven of the ten Olympic events to be contested here and are likely to add plenty of Olympic gold to their collection of accolades. Scottish sprint and keirin ace Chris Hoy and pursuit champion Bradley Wiggins both have a chance of winning three golds, while Victoria Pendleton is favourite in the women's sprint.

Their track dominance is completed by Rebecca Romero - a former world rowing champion who won silver in the quadruple sculls at Athens - who will become the second woman ever to win medals from two different sports at the Summer Olympics if she wins a medal in the individual pursuit event. That seems within reach, given she's already the reigning world champion.

Britain's chances

Hoy, champion of the now defunct kilometre event, will compete in the team sprint, keirin and sprint, but he'll face stiff competition from Dutchman Theo Bos and France's Kevin Sireau before he strikes gold.

Bayley has ground to make up and admits Hoy is the sprint favourite. But he isn't planning to surrender his title so easily.

"A lot of people have been settling for second best instead of trying to beat him [Hoy]. But everyone has weak points and I'm going to try and find them," said Bayley.

Wiggins is favourite to defend his Olympic pursuit crown, and will then saddle up as part of a world record-holding pursuit team in a bid to wrench the title from the Australians.

At the world championships in March, Britain set a new world record of three minutes 56.322 seconds. Australia took bronze ahead of New Zealand while Denmark took the silver.Paul Manning, one of the British world champion quartet, says they will be hard to catch.

"The team is still going quick and we are training around world record pace," said Manning.

Assuming they both get that far, Hoy and Pendleton will aim for sprint gold on the final day of competition.

That's also when Belgium-born Englishman Wiggins will team up with Mark Cavendish, a quadruple stage winner at the Tour de France, in the Madison.

Already buoyed by Nicole Cooke's gold medal from the women's road race, the Brits' track campaign would benefit psychologically from a team sprint gold on Friday.

Germany are the current Olympic champions but France are the world champions and the dominant force in the three-man, three-lap power event.

"The French team is the best around," added Bayley. "They're beatable, but you must pull out one hell of a miracle to do it."

In his last Olympics, world kilometre record holder Arnaud Tournant is expecting only one result from Friday's contest. 

"Victory. It's not a good mentality if you consider you are going to lose. That's not part of my strategy," said the Frenchman.

Stars to look out for

Bradley Wiggins (GBR)

The Englishman won a medal of every colour in Athens four years ago, he's the fastest in the world over 16 track laps and favourite to defend his Olympic four-kilometre title. With the pursuit team, Belgium-born Wiggins claimed the new world record at the world championships in March. Here, he will compete in a third potential gold medal event, the Madison, in which he shares the world championship with Mark Cavendish.

Chris Hoy (GBR)

The big Edinbugh-born Scot has adapted superbly to the removal of the kilometre event from the programme. Hoy has turned his talents to the sprint events, winning the keirin world title for the past two years and becoming world sprint champion for the first time in March. Also competing in the team sprint, Hoy has a chance of three golds. But he faces a demanding schedule and a tough battle from his rivals.

Theo Bos (NED)

Known as 'The Boss', the Dutchman comes into the Games with scores to settle. He won silver in the sprint at Athens but flopped badly at this year's world championships where he was dominated by Hoy in both the sprint and the keirin. At the Games, expect Bos to step up a level.

Kevin Sireau (FRA)

Considered one of the greatest sprinters to emerge from France since Florian Rousseau, Sireau is competing at his first Olympics. But the 21-year-old comes in with a healthy pedigree that has impressed all his rivals. Physically imposing, fresh and bursting with talent, he lost to an unstoppable Hoy over two legs at the world championships. A former kilometre specialist, Sireau will ride in the middle for France's world champion three-man team sprint on Friday.

Rebecca Romero (GBR)

After winning silver at Athens in the rowing discipline of quadruple sculls, Romero fell in love with track cycling. Her passion has blossomed, and she comes into the Games as the reigning world individual pursuit champion. Used to the demands of Olympic competition, Romero will be tough to beat. If she wins just one medal, she'll become the second woman in history to win medals in two different sports in the Summer Olympics.

Anna Meares (AUS)

Meares is arguably the Aussies' best chance of gold, despite the fact she will compete in only one event - the sprint. A bronze medallist from Athens, the 24-year-old Queenslander is the reigning Olympic champion in the 500 metre time-trial. Meares is desperate to get back on the world stage, having missed the world championships through injury after crashing horribly in the Los Angeles leg of the 2008 World Cup.

Marianne Vos (NED)

The Dutch phenomenon is only 21 years old, but has already won world titles on the road, in cyclo-cross and the track. After a mediocre performance in the women's road race, Vos will go into the women's points race as the reigning world champion. Along with Bos, Vos could bring smiles to the 'Oranje' fans.

Arnaud Tournant (FRA)

With an impressive 14 world titles, the fiery and outspoken Tournant is one of French track cycling's most successful riders. His career began at the age of 16, but it will end at Laoshan when he bids for Olympic gold as part of France's three-man sprint team and in the keirin before retirement. Still the kilometre world record-holder, he deserves a champion's farewell.

Victoria Pendleton (GBR)

Britain's 'Queen of the Sprint' is expected to dominate the event, one of only three women's track competitions at the Games. A three-time world champion, Pendleton possesses power, stamina and a refined sense of tactics. As the reigning world champion, the 27-year-old is also the world's fastest female rider over these distances.

© BikeRadar & AFP 2008

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