The run up to the Rio Olympics couldn’t really have gone worse as far as British Cycling was concerned. In May, Jess Varnish made a series of explosive allegations in the media after she was dropped and (as she saw it) denied a chance to compete - allegations which divided opinion and threw any semblance of team unity into disarray.
Her principal claim, that Australian-born technical director Shane Sutton presided over a culture of sexism and intolerance, was swiftly backed up by several current and former members of the team, including cycling superstar Victoria Pendleton and her boyfriend, BMX medal hopeful Liam Phillips. But there were heavy hitters weighing in on the other side to deny it too, with Sir Bradley Wiggins a notable Sutton supporter.
Sutton eventually resigned, still denying the accusations, his guilt or innocence to be decided by an upcoming enquiry. But the episode left a lingering suspicion that something wasn’t right. As if that wasn’t enough, just weeks out from the games it was revealed that road cyclist Lizzie Armitstead had missed multiple doping tests. Her appeal against a possible ban was granted but the incident cast a further shadow over British Cycling’s squeaky clean image.
“It looked like the wheels might finally be falling off this well-oiled medal machine."
After the huge success in the past two Olympics, where British cyclists had won an incredible 16 golds and 26 gongs overall, it looked like the wheels might finally be falling off this well-oiled medal machine.
That was until this weekend. In a series of ridiculously dominant displays, Team GB’s track cyclists have laid to rest any demons that might have lingered from the nightmare-ish run-up and re-asserted themselves as the reigning kings and queens of the velodrome.
First there was Jason Kenny, Callum Skinner and Phillips Hindes’ victory over World Champions New Zealand in the team sprint. That it was unexpected only made it all the more glorious. Then on Friday evening the men’s team pursuit team - veterans Ed Clancy, Steven Burke and Sir Bradley Wiggins were joined by newcomer Owain Doull for a nail-bitingly close race that saw them beat their Australian opponents only in the last few laps, breaking the world record in the process.
The British squad were noticeably absent in the women’s team sprint (Jess Varnish’s event) but on Saturday the women’s team pursuit foursome made up for it by putting in arguably the most impressive performance of the whole weekend. Having broken the world record in qualifying, Laura Trott, Katie Archibald, Elionor Barker and Joanna Roswell-Shand proceeded to break it again in the final, smashing their American opponents by more than two seconds in the process - a huge margin in a gold medal race. There was another medal for Britain later on Saturday night too, with Becky James taking silver in the women’s keirin.
But if any doubts still lingered that Britain reigns supreme when it comes to track cycling then they were finally laid to rest yesterday by the utterly dominant performances in the individual sprints. James and teammate Katie Marchant set the fastest times in the women’s event, setting themselves up for a potential Brit-vs-Brit final on Tuesday. The men’s competition meanwhile saw just that. Apart from a brief lapse by Jason Kenny against Russia’s Denis Dmitriev, he and Callum Skinner destroyed the competition, posting the fastest times in qualifying and then bumping off their opponents one-by-one in clinical fashion.
Their all-British final was complicated further by the fact that Kenny and Skinner are not just friends and team sprint teammates, but also roommates in the athletes’ village. Whether or not either got much sleep the night before is doubtful - it must’ve felt a bit like preparing for a battle with your brother. In the end, despite a valiant effort from Skinner, the match went the way that form - and Sir Chris Hoy - predicted, with Jason Kenny winning both races. But Skinner, just 23 years old to Kenny’s 28, will surely get another crack at the gold in four years time. And if anyone can console him it will be Kenny, who knows exactly what it’s like to settle for silver against a senior teammate - he was beaten by Chris Hoy in the same event in Beijing 2008.
— Liam PHILLIPS (@liamPHILLIPS65) August 14, 2016
Kenny’s title takes his personal tally up to five gold medals in the past three games, putting him on a par (as far as golds are concerned) with Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Bradley Wiggins and one behind Hoy. If Sir Hoy is correct in his predictions and Kenny goes on to take a third gold in the keirin on Tuesday, that will seal the deal on the knighthood which is surely coming his way in the next honours list.
His may not be the only medal yet to come of course. Fresh off the back of a highly successful Tour de France campaign, the veteran road racer Mark Cavendish has returned to the track to try and claim the Olympic medal that has eluded him at two previous games. He is currently looking good in the omnium. Becky James and Katie Marchant may well meet in the women’s sprint final, and given her form you’d be silly to bet against Laura Trott in the women’s omnium. Then of course there is Liam Phillips, who’ll start the men’s BMX race as favourite next Friday.
On the road British Cycling’s team have not fared quite as well. Armitstead couldn’t better her silver from London 2012, finishing fifth in the road race while Emma Pooley only managed 14th in the time trial. Meanwhile bad luck and a nasty crash denied Geraint Thomas a proper crack in the men’s road race, and Chris Froome also struggled. But Froome rallied to win a bronze medal in the men’s time trial a few days later. And the very fact that his Olympic bronze was viewed by some as an under-achievement shows just how far Britain has come as cycling nation.
“If any doubts still lingered that Britain reigns supreme then they were finally laid to rest yesterday by the utterly dominant performances in the individual sprints."
With medals galore, more on the way and potential knighthoods awaiting, talk of a crisis in British Cycling now seems ridiculous. But perhaps it always was. In a pre-Olympic interview with Chris Boardman - a man who knows a thing or two about British cycling - we asked him if the supposed scandals would rock the boat.
“It won't have an effect on the team," he said. “Every company has a point where something goes wrong and they have a chance to be audited. And I think it's really healthy. British Cycling is kind of overdue for one. But will it effect their performance [as a team] for Rio? No. Because you've got coaches with years of experience - and athletes who’ve got years of experience."
As to whether the departure of a key player like Sutton would change things, Boardman said: “It's like walking away from the wheel of a supertanker. If it's going to go off course at all, it doesn't suddenly just veer left or right, it just trundles. The momentum is there and I don't think there will be any negative impact, let's put it that way."
Interestingly, even with that optimism Boardman only predicted three golds for Team GB. "I've watched the world championships which is the last real indicator and they were competitive in most events. But the events that were nailed on before (that's 'we should get a gold in the women's team pursuit and the men's team pursuit') they were like 'ooh that's going to be close.'
"It's taken finally two, well three Olympic games but they [other countries] have all cottoned on to technology and the understanding of aerodynamics. But law of averages says that if you're competitive in all the events then you'll probably win out of three of them, get three golds."
With four golds and two silvers plus Chris Froome's bronze already in the can, British Cycling's success of this weekend has already surpassed his predictions. Neither behind-the-scenes scandals nor the best efforts of their rivals have been able to knock Team GB's cyclists off track. Their success - especially in the team events - shows that the spirit which drove their winning ways in London and Beijing is alive and well, and the slick operation that journalists have dubbed ‘the medal factory’ is currently running as smoothly as ever. Long may it continue.