The track cycling at Tokyo 2020 has begun with high drama and world records, as Great Britain were put on notice that their dominance is at risk. Neither of their Rio gold medal-winning team pursuit quartets qualified fastest on Monday, with the men fortunate to remain in contention to defend their Olympic crown.
But it was a crash by Australia’s Alex Porter that left the small local crowd, a rarity at these Games, holding their collective breath. The 25-year-old’s handlebar came clean off after four laps, sending him flying to the deck in a heavy crash. Thirty minutes later, his team had regrouped and were back in action, finishing fifth and coming within one second of ending Britain’s gold medal hopes.
“I guess sport is entertainment isn’t it,” said Simon Jones, Australia’s head coach. “Hopefully, that was entertaining.”
A rule intended not to punish mishaps in qualifying meant Australia were allowed a second attempt after Porter had passed concussion protocols. “When you land on your face at 65kmh, and you have half an hour to do that again, it’s absolutely amazing,” said Jones, a former British Cycling and Ineos Grenadiers coach. “Talk about Australian fighting spirit in getting up. We did a pretty good time, considering we crashed at a really quick pace.”
Porter will receive medical attention before Australia ride against Switzerland in the next round on Tuesday. The 2019 world champions can no longer qualify for the gold-medal race, the best they can now achieveis bronze.
“The doc checked him over,” said Jones. “We don’t have any immediate concerns, he slid on his face. He’s not as pretty as he was before, but he just had some skin off his right arm. He’s really, really lucky.”
Despite a year and half with almost no international track cycling, day one at the Izu Velodrome was expected to be quick. In the third ride of the women’s team pursuit qualifying, Germany smashed the world record set by Great Britain at Rio 2016 by four seconds, finishing in 4min 07.307sec. Great Britain qualified second-fastest, in a time that bettered their world record, but wwell off the German pace.
“We knew the world record was going to be broken and we fully expected it to be the Australians or the Americans,” said Britain’s Elinor Barker. “It was almost weirdly comforting for it to happen when we weren’t looking,.”
The British team, led by the four-time Olympic champion Laura Kenny, will race against USA on Tuesday. If they can better the Americans, a gold-medal match-up with the Germans or Italy awaits later in the day. The remaining teams will race for the fastest times to progress to the bronze-medal race – Australia’s women, who were unexpectedly slow, will be hoping for redemption.
Britain’s men face a battle to retain their team pursuit gold medal – a crown they have held since the 2008 Olympics. Denmark – who set a world record at the Track World Championships in Berlin last year – were again the team to beat, setting an Olympic record five seconds clear of the mark Britain set in Rio. In fourth, Britain faced an anxious wait to see whether Australia would ride again. The Australians spent most of their second attempt neck-and-neck with Britain’s time, but ultimately faded to leave the British as the slowest team still in gold medal contention.
Britain – who rode with Ed Clancy, Ethan Hayter, Ethan Vernon and Oliver Wood on Monday – will meet Denmark on Tuesday afternoon, racing for a place in the final on Wednesday. “We’d fully prepared for everyone – perhaps four or five teams – to break the world record,” said Clancy, who won team pursuit gold in Beijing, London and Rio. “If anything I’m surprised more teams weren’t going quicker – including ourselves.”
Clancy and his team were on Denmark’s world-record time for the first 14 laps, before coming slightly unstuck in the final 500m. “We train for this stuff, we practice it, but It’s a bit like a house of cards – as soon as one thing falls down, it all collapses in,” he said. “We sort of held it together there just about.”
In the first medal race of the competition, China’s Zhong Tianshi succesfully defended her team sprint title with her new teammate Bao Shanju. The pair broke the world record in their qualifying lap and then saw off Germany’s Emma Hinze and Lea Sophie Friedrich. The Russian Olympic Committee won the bronze medal.