The Olympics in London don’t officially open until the last Saturday in July when the cycling road race kicks off the 2012 Games—and a predicted one million home fans hope to be cheering Mark Cavendish to a sprint victory in front of Buckingham Palace. But Britain’s gold-medal hunt really begins this February weekend, when three-time Beijing Olympic champ Sir Chris Hoy, 35, opens his bid to be his country’s single selection for the match sprint. His competition? Fellow Brit Jason Kenny, 23, who just happens to be the current world champion.
Nations were allowed two sprinters in China four years ago, but the rules have changed to one track rider per individual event to accommodate a restriction on the number of total athletes per sport. So we won’t see a repeat of Beijing when, with raw speed, Hoy overcame Kenny 2-0 in the best-of-three final of the match sprint competition. And with just one spot available this year, both Brits will need to be at their best when they compete this weekend on the brand-new London Olympic Velodrome in the UCI Track World Cup finals—which sold out within half an hour of tickets going on sale!
Anyone who has watched match sprinting knows how intense, fast and dramatic it can be. There are elements of a heavyweight title fight in the early parts of the contest, when the two riders feel each other out, slowly circling the banked track, not wanting to commit too early to an all-out effort, knowing they can sustain their top speed of about 45 mph for only 10 seconds or so.
The best sprint matches are between riders who have brute strength and speed (like the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Hoy) and those who have high acceleration, great tenacity and a keen sense of tactics (as 5-foot-10, 180-pound Kenny does). In many decades of following this sport, I’ve been privileged to see some of track’s most exciting sprinters. When I was kid, my dad took me up to Herne Hill velodrome to see a pair of classic British sprinters: the old fox, Reg Harris, and his younger challenger, Cyril Peacock, both of whom won world titles.
But the sprinter I remember the most was Harry Kent, a sheep farmer from New Zealand, who was a strapping six-footer with an intimidating build. My indelible memory of Kent came at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland, in a qualifying round of the match sprint. He’d already won a gold medal in the one-kilometer time trial, and knew he had to make a long-range effort to win a two-man sprint.
Only inches away from where I was sitting in the press box, Kent began his main effort from behind his opponent as the bell rang for the final 250-meter lap. There wasn’t really enough space between his opponent and the wall, yet a fearless Kent went for the gap—and made it through, while grinding his right pedal along the fence as he raced to the lead. He didn’t crash, nor did he get to the final, but Kent’s bravado won star rating with me and the fans.
That same year, I was thrilled to see Frenchman Daniel Morelon win the fourth of his seven world sprint titles (he also won two Olympic golds). Morelon was an atypical sprinter, racing more like a gazelle; he was not unlike Belgian star Patrick Sercu—who besides taking 59 track titles and a record 88 six-day races in a 20-year career, also won 14 stages of the Giro d’Italia and the sprinter’s green jersey at the Tour de France. But track racing has become far more specialized in this age of power meters, heart-rate monitors and sponsorships that give athletes like Hoy and Kenny the resources to train year-round specifically for the sprint disciplines.
The intensity of that training was emphasized by Hoy when he wrote in his Blog this week: “We’re used to working hard on the track, road and gym, week in week out, but [the lactic-acid-tolerance] drills on the turbo [trainer] stand alone in terms of pain. After the full set of sprints, which are interspersed with very short recovery times, I usually collapse into a heap on the crash mat next to the bike.”
That sort of training has made the two British champions the men to beat, but it’s possible they will not race against each other this weekend. Their first commitment is to this Friday night’s three-man team sprint, in which Hoy and Kenny team up with Ross Edgar to face the other major medal contenders: Australia, France and Germany. A packed house of 6,000 fans will be eager to cheer a home win, which would give impetus to the Brits for Sunday’s individual event. “There’s nothing like hearing a huge cheer when your name is announced as you line up,” Hoy said. “Very good for morale!”
But with sprinters like Shane Perkins of Australia and Kévin Sireau of France to contend with, a Hoy-Kenny final is not guaranteed. The French face a similar Olympic dilemma as the British. At the last three world championships, Grégory Baugé, 27, a 6-foot, 185-pound black sprinter from Paris, has dominated the match sprint, winning each time. But after recently being given a backdated one-year suspension for violating the UCI’s anti-doping-test notification rules, Baugé was stripped of his 2011 rainbow jersey—which was presented retroactively to runner-up Kenny on Thursday night.
Baugé, his suspension over, is not expected to be at his best this weekend, but like the other sprinters, he will get a second chance for Olympic selection at the 2012 world track championships, April 4-8, in Melbourne, Australia. There, the battles between Baugé and Sireau, and Hoy and Kenny, are likely to be equivalent to the Olympic semifinals, with one Brit and one Frenchman moving on to contest gold in August.
No matter who progresses to the London Games, you can be sure that the sprint racing will be spectacular. Maybe there won’t be a Harry Kent dashing through gaps that don’t exist, but the Olympics will see a contest between the world’s fastest cyclists, faster now than ever before. A true battle of the titans.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson