Cycling should be a relatively straightforward sport, like track. Three things ensure that it’s not:
1. Drafting. Cyclists conserve so much energy riding behind someone else that they’ll do just about anything to avoid being in the lead until the end.
2. Doping. The modern-day scandals are merely a vestige of the old days of cyclists sacrificing themselves by putting anything and everything in their blood streams. It’s ironic and sad that half-witted cultural commentators pronounce mixed martial arts as some civilization-ending return to the days of the mortal gladiatorial combat when the reality is that sports of a few generations ago were far more brutal.
3. Oddities. Also brutal and yet colorfully amusing were the old six-day races, full of all-night pedaling and the occasional serenade. This tradition lives on in track cycling’s complex Madison race.
British athletes fare well in events that involve sitting (cycling, rowing, sailing), so they’ll be looking for a few medals on home roads and tracks.
Predictions are fraught with difficulty. Road cycling is one of those sports in which the Olympics aren’t necessarily the grand prize. The track cycling program has been reshuffled like a poker deck. Mountain bike and BMX racing circuits have their own idiosyncrasies as well.
So here we go …
Men’s road race: In typical road races, professional teams that train together work out tactics to help their best riders get to the finish line. Think of Lance Armstrong riding behind George Hincapie or Viatcheslav Ekimov through the foothills of France. World Championship and Olympic races reshuffle the teams so that riders from the same nation have to work things out. It’s a bit like Olympic basketball — if the gold medal were awarded only to the team’s leading scorer. Still, there’s always room for a talented rider without much of a team to tag along in a breakaway and win the final sprint. Didn’t happen in Beijing — the powerful Spanish team got Samuel Sanchez to the line first, though Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck was comfortably in the group of seven that crossed in the same time after nearly 6 1/2 hours of racing. The London course has no bruising mountains, and the flat finish will favor sprint specialists like Britain’s Mark Cavendish, who won five stages in the 2010 Tour de France.
2008: Samuel Sanchez (Spain), Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland), Alexander Kolobnev (Russia). Original silver medalist Davide Rebellin (Italy) was stripped of his medal after a positive test for blood booster CERA.
Projection: Mark Cavendish (Britain), Alessandro Petacchi (Italy), Philippe Gilbert (Belgium)
Top Americans: Chris Horner finished 10th in the 2010 Tour de France. Levi Leipheimer, 11th in the 2008 Olympics, struggled in 2010. George Hincapie has had success in one-day classic races but is getting on in years. Christian Vande Velde, Tyler Farrar and Jason McCartney are dependable support riders. David Zabriskie also can ride but may conserve himself for the time trial.
Men’s time trial: Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara has won four world titles in this event as well as the 2008 Olympic gold and the only substantial time trial in the 2010 Tour de France. Britain has a legitimate contender in 2010 World Championship runner-up David Millar. Germany has a couple of contenders with success in 2010.
2008: Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland), Gustav Larsson (Sweden), Levi Leipheimer (USA)
Projection: Switzerland, Britain, Germany
Top Americans: Leipheimer’s form will be watched over 2011 and 2012. Zabriskie placed fifth in the 2010 Tour time trial, and youngster Taylor Phinney won the under-23 World Championship in 2010.
Women’s road race: Versatile Dutch rider Marianne Vos appears to be focusing on track cycling in 2012. She’s not the only cyclist to go back and forth between road and track (and maybe cyclocross) — world champion Giorgia Bronzini has solid track credentials as well. British rider and 2008 gold medalist Nicole Cooke is more of a road specialist. Those three and Sweden’s Emma Johansson finished in the same time at the 2010 World Championships.
2008: Nicole Cooke (Britain), Emma Johansson (Sweden), Tatiana Guderzo (Italy)
Projection: Britain, Italy, Sweden
Top Americans: Amber Neben is more of a threat in the time trial but is usually in the mix in this race as well. See below for Kristin Armstrong.
Women’s time trial: Two-time world champion and 2008 Olympic champion Kristin “No Relation” Armstrong has expressed an interest in returning after taking time off to start a family. Britain’s Emma Pooley won the 2010 world title, followed by Germany’s Judith Arndt, New Zealand’s Linda Villumsen and the USA’s Amber Neben. France’s Jeannie Longo finished fifth, pretty impressive for a 51-year-old rider.
2008: Kristin Armstrong (USA), Emma Pooley (Britain), Karen Thürig (Sweden)
Projection: Britain, Germany, USA
Top Americans: Besides Neben and possibly Armstrong, the USA has a challenger in Evelyn Stevens, sixth in the 2010 Worlds.
The UCI was kind enough to hold the World Championships this past weekend, so we’ll rely heavily on that for predictions, bearing in mind that many events at Worlds are no longer on the Olympic program. The UCI also has helpful national rankings.
Men’s Keirin: Like Spinal Tap and Cheap Trick, this event is big in Japan. The riders start out behind a motorcycle or moped that goes gradually faster and then swerves off the track, leaving the riders to sprint, jostle and crash — see the video of 2008 gold medalist Chris Hoy in a nasty three-bike pileup. Or this one from Japan in which you’ll be amazed that half the starters finished. Hoy finished second to Australian Shane Perkins in Worlds, but top-ranked Azizulhasni Awang (Malaysia) missed the event after a February crash put a piece of the track in his leg. Ouch.
2008: Chris Hoy (Britain), Ross Edgar (Britain), Kiyofumi Nagai (Japan)
Projection: Britain, Australia, Malaysia
Top Americans: None
Men’s sprint: Slow … slow … slow … FAST! Yes, it’s a tactical race, with each rider trying to avoid letting the other slipstream until the last second. The World Championships featured a Britain-vs.-France showdown for both gold and bronze, with Gregory Bauge (France) beating Jason Kenny for gold and the ubiquitous Chris Hoy taking bronze over Mickael Bourgain. Fellow Frenchmen Kevin Sireau leads the world rankings.
2008: Chris Hoy (Britain), Jason Kenny (Britain), Mickael Bourgain (France)
Projection: Britain, Britain, France
Top Americans: Jimmy Watkins is ranked 52nd, while Giddeon Massie nearly qualified for the knockout rounds at Worlds.
Men’s team sprint: The individual sprint is head-to-head. This is more of a time trial. After each lap, the lead rider peels off, leaving his teammates to keep going. The last lap is a solo effort. After the qualifiers, the finals are done with two teams at a time like a short team pursuit. France and Germany have pedestrian rankings but show up for the big events, with France winning the showdown at Worlds.
2008: Britain, France, Germany
Projection: Britain, Germany, France
Top Americans: Finished 12th in qualifying at Worlds.
Men’s team pursuit: Head-to-head, with teams starting on opposite sides of the track. If one team catches the other, it’s over, but you’re more likely to see one team just a little faster than the other. The World Championships nearly mirrored the world rankings: No. 1 Australia beat No. 2 Russia for gold, No. 3 (tie) Britain beat No. 5 New Zealand for bronze. Tough to argue with that.
Britain, Denmark, New Zealand
Projection: Australia, Russia, Britain
Top Americans: Ranked 23rd.
Men’s omnium: A combination of the following: Flying lap, points race, individual pursuit, scratch race, time trial, elimination race. Check the UCI site for event specs and the staggeringly detailed rule book. The flying lap is a short time-trial sprint in which riders have a couple of laps to get up to speed, the points race puts everyone out at once with points awarded for the top few finishers every 7-10 laps, the individual pursuit is just like the team pursuit, the scratch race is a simple race with everyone on the track at once, the time trial is rider-vs.-clock, and the elimination race cuts the last-place rider off the pack every two laps. For a real bit of fun, check out this Russian elimination race and see how the action turns tactical in the last few laps and wonder why they’re listening to English-language dance music.
The New Zealand-Australian rivalry is in bloom here — third-ranked Australian Michael Freiburg edged top-ranked New Zealander Shane Archbold at the World Championships. Belgian Gijs van Hoecke took third, while Spaniard Eloy Teruel Rovira matched his world ranking by finishing fourth. Canadian Zachary Bell is second in the rankings and won the flying lap phase at Worlds but faded to sixth overall.
2008 points race: Joan Llaneras (Spain), Roger Kluge (Germany), Chris Newton (Britain)
2008 individual pursuit: Bradley Wiggins (Britain), Hayden Roulston (New Zealand), Steven Burke (Britain)
Projection: New Zealand, Australia, Spain
Top Americans: Bobby Lea ranks 30th and finished 20th at Worlds.
Women’s Keirin: Australia’s Anna Meares and France’s Clara Sanchez have pulled away in the rankings, though Belarus’s Olga Panarina managed to sneak in between them for second at Worlds. Victoria Pendleton, another of British cycling’s literal royalty and one-time FHM cover model, ranks third and won the B final at Worlds to rank seventh. She won the sprint in 2008 and counts a Keirin win among her many world titles.
Projection: Australia, France, Britain
Top Americans: Not in the top 40.
Women’s sprint: The contenders in the Keirin are also contenders here. Meares won this event at Worlds as well, needing a third race in the best-of-3 semifinals to beat Pendleton before outracing Lithuania’s Simona Krupeckaite in the final. Pendleton, ranked second in the world behind Meares, beat Keirin medalist Olga Panarina for bronze. China’s Guo Shuang is ranked third.
2008: Victoria Pendleton (Britain), Anna Meares (Australia), Guo Shuang (China)
Projection: Australia, Britain, Belarus
Top Americans: Again, not in the top 40.
Women’s team sprint: The big four in the world rankings are China, Britain, Australia and France. Because the World Championships turned into the Anna Meares show, Australia took gold ahead of Britain, with China beating France for bronze. The projection here figures that home-track advantage has to pop up at some point.
Projection: Britain, Australia, China
Top Americans: Ranked 20th; didn’t compete at Worlds.
Women’s team pursuit: Yes, Britain can win women’s medals without Pendleton involved — the British team raced away from the USA in the world final. They’re ranked third and fourth but qualified for the finals ahead of Pacific rivals New Zealand and Australia.
Projection: Britain, New Zealand, USA
Top Americans: Sarah Hammer and Jennie Reed have a handful of World Championship medals. They teamed with Dotsie Bausch to take silver at Worlds.
Women’s omnium: Stop! Hammer time … American Sarah Hammer is the world champion in individual pursuit and took silver in this event at Worlds. Canada’s top-ranked Tara Whitten took second in three of the six phases of the competition to win in a landslide. Hammer’s consistent top-fives and individual pursuit win left her well ahead of the scramble for third, which the Netherlands’ Kirsten Wild claimed ahead of third-ranked Polish rider Malgorzata Wojtyra.
2008 individual pursuit: Rebecca Romero (Britain), Wendy Houvenaghel (Britain), Lesya Kalitovska (Ukraine)
2008 points race: Marianne Vos (Netherlands), Yoanka Gonzalez (Cuba), Leire Olaberria (Spain)
Projection: Canada, USA, Poland
Top Americans: In addition to Hammer, Cari Higgins is in the top 20.
And we bid farewell to the men’s Madison, the impossible-to-follow event which finished as such in 2008: Argentina, Spain, Russia.
A little simpler than track cycling, at least at the Olympic level — you get one cross-country race per gender.
Men’s race: From 2004 to 2008, French rider Julien Absalon won four world titles and two Olympic golds. He’s still second in the world rankings behind the Czech Republic’s Jaroslav Kulhavy despite an uncharacteristic fifth-place finish at the 2010 World Championships. Fourth-ranked Jose Antonio Hermida-Ramos (Spain) won the world title ahead of Kulhavy, South Africa’s Burry Stander and perennial podium finisher Nino Schurter (Switzerland). Switzerland has six riders in the top 11 of the world rankings, while France and Spain also have multiple medal threats.
2008: Julien Absalon (France), Jean-Christophe Peraud (France), Nino Schurter (Switzerland)
Projection: Czech Republic, France, Switzerland
Top Americans: Todd Wells has had a couple of disappointing rides in World Championships and Olympics but is ranked 12th.
Women’s race: Plenty of contenders here, with no clear-cut favorite. Austria’s Elisabeth Osl holds a slim lead in the rankings over American Willow Koerber, closely followed by world champion Maja Włoszczowska of Poland. Russia’s Irina Kalentieva took second at Worlds, just ahead of Koerber and Canadian Catharine Pendrel. Joining those five in the world rankings’ top six is American 40-something Mary McConneloug. The USA and Switzerland have deep squads listed 1-2 in the national-team rankings.
2008: Sabine Spitz (Germany), Maja Włoszczowska (Poland), Irina Kalentieva (Russia)
Projection: Austria, USA, Poland
Top Americans: Four in the top 20 — Koerber 2nd, McConneloug 5th, Georgia Gould 9th and Heather Irmiger 19th.
Also one event per gender, though the riders go through a complex series of qualifying rounds to whittle the field down to eight riders per final. The event made its Olympic debut in 2008.
Men’s event: Traditionally an American specialty, but the 2010 World Championship final didn’t include any Americans. Defending champion Donny Robinson was out injured, leaving Olympic and 2008 world champion Māris Štrombergs of Latvia to win another championship ahead of host-country favorite Sifiso Nhlapo (South Africa). Štrombergs is barely ahead of Australian Sam Willoughby in the rankings, with New Zealand’s Marc Willers a distant third. This might be a question of who’s healthy at the right time.
2008: Māris Štrombergs (Latvia), Mike Day (USA), Donny Robinson (USA)
Projection: Latvia, Australia, USA
Top Americans: Robinson and Day are certainly young enough to give this another spin. Nicholas Long (8th), David Herman (9th) and Josh Meyers (14th) are the leaders in the rankings.
Women’s event: In this rough-and-tumble sport, it pays to have strength in numbers. And Australia is gearing up to make a big run here — as of the March 22 rankings, the nation had three riders in the top eight, with none older than 21. Top-ranked Laëtitia Le Corguillé (France) is among the oldest on the list at 25. Good news for the 2012 hosts: Britain’s Shanaze Reade has won three of the last four world titles. Her reign was interrupted in 2009 by New Zealand’s Sarah Walker, who has finished on the podium in four straight World Championships.
2008: Anne-Caroline Chausson (France), Laëtitia Le Corguillé (France), Jill Kintner (USA)
Projection: France, Australia, New Zealand
Top Americans: Nearly as strong as Australia. Alise Post finished third in the 2010 Worlds and is ranked fifth. Tenth-ranked Arielle Martin made the 2010 final and finished third in 2009. Amanda Geving is ranked 11th; Amanda Carr 13th.