Australia have won a gutsy bronze medal in the men’s team pursuit as the event climaxed with more drama at the Olympic velodrome after three tumultuous days.
The New Zealanders were building a lead halfway through the 4000-metre final when Aaron Gate touched the wheel in front of him and went down at the rear.
Italy then broke the world record in a riveting gold medal ride against Denmark, with their star rider Filippo Ganna leading the charge.
The crash was no way to win an Olympic medal, but the Australians could relate.
Two days ago, their gold medal hopes were dashed when Alex Porter face-planted into the Izu Velodrome boards at 65km/h because the handlebar snapped off his bike.
“This is the first time I’ve watched the team compete and felt like I was 100 per cent out there on the track. They’ve had my back the whole way through this process, and I was just so pleased that they were able to go out there and have the chance to show everyone what they’re capable of,” Porter said.
The equipment failure has sparked an AusCycling investigation and Seven commentator Scott McGrory said three of the men’s team pursuit bikes were changed after an inspection.
The Australians rallied in their re-start on Monday to finish fifth fastest in qualifying and then improved again in their heat to reach the bronze ride-off, with reserve Luke Plapp replacing Porter in the quartet with Sam Welsford, Leigh Howard and Kelland O’Brien.
“You never want to win a bike race that way ... [but] we got dealt a pretty rough hand on day one and it’s just a part of the sport,” Plapp said.
New Zealand’s third rider also lost touch because of Gates’ crash, gifting the Australians the win as they caught the third New Zealander inside the last kilometre.
“For us to bounce back from what happened on our first day was pretty special. We really wanted to go out there and show the world what we can do and fight back and show that really true Aussie Olympic spirit. That we can go out there and fight all the way to the line no matter the result and really rally together as a group, and I think it’s something special that we can all be proud of,” Welsford said.
“Honestly, it does [feel like gold]. With the rough start we had, you know, we went out today to see if we could get a medal that’s almost worth gold from us. It’s not the colour we wanted, but for us to be on the podium today after what we’ve been through is just as special, I think.”
Added O’Brien: “Bit emotional, to be honest. It’s been a crazy few days for us and even more hectic five years, really. We’ve been through a lot together. We wanted gold. It’s what we came for. In some respects I think we can really hold our heads high.”
Denmark had built a lead of nearly one second in the gold medal ride, knowing Ganna would power Italy home, and it came down to the last lap.
Italy clocked three minutes 42.032 seconds to beat Denmark by just 0.166 of a second.
Over the last five laps, the Italians - Simone Consonni, Ganna, Francesco Lamon and Jonathan Milan - wiped out a deficit of nearly a half-second to win.
“We are so happy for this gold medal and so happy for this world record,” said Ganna, whose massive turn at the front allowed Italy to make up the deficit. “We have a beautiful team, like a family, so for me and us, it means a lot.”
Italy have now won the team pursuit a record eight times at the Olympics, but this was their first victory in the event since the 1960 Rome Games in Rome.
There had been drama throughout the men’s team pursuit, with the Danish world champions coming under scrutiny after all four riders wore medical tape on their shins during qualifying.
The tape curiously was not seen again once other countries informed race judges.
Then Denmark collided with the rear British rider in their Tuesday heat, leaving the Danes furious and generating much conjecture about which team would progress to the final.
The judges took well over an hour before ruling that Denmark would join Italy in the gold medal ride.
Also on Wednesday, Australian Kaarle McCulloch finished second in her keirin repechage heat to progress to Thursday’s quarter-finals.
Until McCulloch’s progression and then the team pursuit bronze, it had been a dim afternoon for the Australians.
Top sprint hope Matthew Glaetzer pulled out of the event, with the team saying he was unwell after combining with Matthew Richardson and Nathan Hart for a frustrating fourth on Tuesday in the team sprint.
Richardson and Hart were knocked out of the sprint in the first-round repechage.
After the disaster of Rio, even with the team pursuit bronze, it is proving another testing Olympics for the track team - but they have company.
After dominating track cycling at the past three Olympics, Great Britain have lost their men’s and women’s team pursuit crowns.