Australian track team faces uphill struggle to Beijing
There was no Anna Meares to deliver a much-needed gold but Australia were given a slight lift when Leigh Howard and Belinda Goss boosted their sagging medals haul here Sunday.
Meares, who was absent from the world track championships as she recovers from injuries sustained in a crash last January, joined Katherine Bates in winning gold on the final day in Mallorca last year to hoist Australia up the medals table.
After 18 events were completed here Sunday, Australia departed the home of British track cycling without a single gold – and drawing up drastic plans to try and narrow the gap which now yawns between them and their big rivals.
Great Britain set down the big markers in Mallorca last year with seven golds from 17 events, and finished their hosting of the championships here with a stunning 11 in total and nine gold – seven in Olympic events.
Australia, who dominated the Athens velodrome in 2004 with nine medals and five gold, but left with one silver and three bronze.
While the men’s endurance team can look forward to Beijing, after winning bronze here with three of the riders that won the Olympic title in Athens, Australian’s speed men are trailing in the wake of Scotland’s Chris Hoy, Dutchman Theo Bos and a strong French contingent.
“It’s going to be tough in the sprint area, no question, as we’ve seen some great results from the French, from the Brits, and they’re really leading the standard at the moment so we’re just hoping that we can lift the percentage to be in medals contention,” said Australia’s Performance Director Shane Bannan.
Hoy is taking nothing for granted and knows anything can happen in the Beijing velodrome.
But he insists the Brits have yet to reach their potential, and could spring a few technical surprises on their Olympic rivals.
“It’s a huge mistake to underestimate your opponents. If you think they’re just going to crawl away under a bush and quiver till Beijing then you’re mistaken,” he said after successfully defending his keirin crown.
“They’ll be going away now, licking their wounds and coming back with even more determination.”
Hoy, 32, also won a sprint competition in which Olympic sprint and keirin champion Ryan Bayley’s mediocre season so far was exposed to the full.
The Scot, who has been getting valuable tactical advice in the sprint from former world champion Jan van Eijden, added: “I still don’t believe we’re at our best. There’s area to improve on for all of us.
“There’s little tweaks here and there, new equipment we’re bringing in, little things that can make the difference. We’ve been deliberately holding it back until after the world championships.”
Australia, due to a lack of having the right riders at the right time this season, have not qualified a team for the Madison, in which Graeme Brown and Stuart O’Grady are the Olympic champions.
Brad McGee will however look to challenge Bradley Wiggins’ pursuit dominance, and hopes he can play a part in an Olympic final in the team event – which Britain look sure to feature in having defended their title here and beat the Aussies’ old world record of 3min 56.610 in 3:56.322.
Kate Mactier is the women’s medal hope in individual pursuit, having claimed a third bronze here this week, while Meares will bid to give Britain’s Victoria Pendleton a run for her money in the women’s sprint.
Bannan admitted that last year’s world championships had given them a wake-up call.
But he knows the team have serious work to do in the coming months if they are to punch above their weight in Beijing.
“There have been flashes of brilliance but there’s also been areas that we really need to improve on so the objective is for the coaches and riders to have some good discussion about those areas,” said Bannan.
“I think in most areas we’re a little bit down on where we feel we should be, but not that far down that we can’t do anything about it,” he said. “That’s what we’ll be working pretty hard towards.”