By Malcolm Knox
Nobody has ever travelled up the Izu Peninsula in search of speed. The lush mountains south-west of Tokyo offer a retreat from Japan’s urban frenzy: hot springs, temples, tranquil resorts and even an English-themed narrow-gauge steam train. The bullet train doesn’t go there.
It’s a different story inside the Olympic Games velodrome in the hills outside Izu. A bubble within a bubble, the velodrome has turned into a free-fire zone of crashes, broken bikes, stewards’ inquiries, sundry stinks and Olympic after world after Olympic record.
The speed first. Australia’s team had a better night on Tuesday, recovering from the shock of a broken handlebar on Monday for Alex Porter in the men’s team pursuit and disappointing early results for both pursuit teams. The women came out nearly four seconds faster on Tuesday than the previous day, climbing up into a ride-off for fifth and sixth position, some consolation but no competition for the British and German teams, who both broke world records.
Australia’s men’s sprint team set an Olympic record, a blistering 42.371 seconds, in their qualifying round. Their time was soon eclipsed by the Netherlands and Great Britain. Too much speed was never enough; in their next round, Australia set another Olympic record of 42.103 which, minutes later, the Jason Kenny-led British team beat, only to be passed again by the flying Dutchmen. Fast track? In an hour, the existing Olympic record in the team sprint had been broken six times.
Meanwhile, the Australian men’s team pursuit set an Olympic record of their own, nearly catching the Swiss on their way to 3.44.902. It was a good comeback. Pursuit team member Kelland O’Brien said: “It’s obviously been an interesting 24 hours for us. It says a lot about who we are as a nation and a team, the way we bounced back. The Olympics throws curve balls at you that no other competition would … But every country’s in tip-top shape, we knew that.”
Australia’s Olympic record only lasted as long as your head took to stop spinning: Italy burnt up the track with a world record of 3.42.307, scarcely believable.
These cyclists were going so fast, something had to break. Sure enough, in a grudge race of sorts between Great Britain and Denmark, the stink arrived. Denmark had been banned, from one day to the next, from wearing an aerodynamic tape on their shins on Monday. In the final stages of their team pursuit against Britain, the Danes crashed into the British rider who had peeled off and was cycling around at the base of the track. There were scowls and snarls and mass confusion over rights and wrongs as the matter went to the stewards. Denmark had been flogging Britain, but due to the crash, only two Danish riders finished while three of the British did. It’s been a while since the Viking invasions but cycling has a habit of reheating even the oldest feuds.
The stewards initially announced they had settled it by sending Denmark through to the final, though the legal grounds were unclear. Must have been the vibe. Officially, the reason was that when Denmark caught Britain, the race was over. It was just a very abrupt way of catching them. The Danish rider involved, Frederik Madsen, tore his pants and had a few choice words for Britain’s Charlie Tanfield. “I was just frustrated by the whole situation,” Madsen said later. “It was nothing against Charlie.”
Phew, OK. The onsen was beckoning. Some time for contemplation at a nearby Shinto shrine. The pine trees stood tranquil in the warm evening.
But no, here was the German women’s pursuit team, obliterating Great Britain to set another world record in winning gold.
Australia had to wait for the second-last race for their big competitive moment, a bronze medal ride against France in the men’s team sprint event. Their first two legs were solid but the third wheel, Matthew Glaetzer, was burnt off. “It’s a brutal wheel to ride, I know that from experience,” teammate Matthew Richardson said. “But we gave it our all.”
All, in fact, gave it their all. Australia’s night was a campaign to claw back some self-respect after Monday’s stumbles. They did that. They came back a lot faster, but in this velodrome in the hills, faster is never fast enough.
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