This evening, for Britain’s cycling fans at least, London 2012 will seem one more step closer as the Velodrome in the Olympic Park in Stratford makes its competitive debut in the final round of the 2011/12 UCI Track World Cup Classics series, which doubles as the venue’s test event for this summer’s Games. Among those relishing the chance to get out and race on the track is Geraint Thomas, who in August will be aiming to repeat his gold medal success from Beijing in the Team Pursuit.
“It’s obviously the track everyone’s going to be racing on come the Games so everyone’s going to want to head out on it and see how it is, and with all the number one line-ups from the team pursuit nations we can really see where everyone’s at,” the Welshman told road.cc when we caught up with him earlier this month.
“Over the winter, there’s been some good times posted in Astana and New Zealand and you think, ‘Oh, they’re going well,’ but it’s hard to really know when the conditions are so varied. So it will be good to get everyone in the same place and see where everyone’s at.
Thomas is one of two survivors from the quartet that beat Denmark to the gold medal four years ago, the other being Ed Clancy, and they plus Peter Kennaugh and Steven Burke will be up against opposition this week including a strong Australian squad that is likely to be their chief rivals for Olympic glory in the summer.
The Australian line-up for the men’s team pursuit in London this week will be led by Jack Bobridge, who last year beat Chris Boardman’s longstanding world record in the individual pursuit; the previous year, the Australian had set what was then the second fastest time in history, beating the time set by Thomas himself in 2009.
That event, in which Bradley Wiggins has won gold at the last two Olympics, has now been dropped from the Olympic schedule, and he himself has decided to focus on the individual time trial on the road for his home Olympics.
Meanwhile, in sending Bobridge alongside the three men who rode with him to world championship success in the Netherlands last year - Rohan Dennis, Luke Durbridge and Michael Hepburn – as part of what is a strong squad across both men’s and women’s events, Australia is underling that Britain’s track cyclists are going to have a real fight on their hands come August.
Another factor causing added anticipation ahead of the Games is the billing of the track in London as the world’s fastest, although whether that translates into world record times come August will depend on other factors as Thomas explains.
“Every track’s slightly different but at the end of the day, it’s still a big wooden bowl. The actual shape of the track doesn’t affect the times too much, it’s more the conditions, whether it’s hot, the air pressure, things like that. It takes just a couple of sessions and you’re dialled into it really,” he said.
Besides being one of the test events under the London Prepares series, there are also very serious aspects to the competition in the coming days, as UCI President pat McQuaid has explained.
“The stakes will be extremely high in London this weekend,” he sais. “First and foremost, it is the final of the World Cup series, with athletes vying for the overall title.
‘This London event is also one of the last occasions to gain points towards the UCI Olympic Track ranking, so important for those nations still trying to secure starting spots for London 2012.
“And of course, as a London 2012 test event, this weekend is a vital test for the organisers and for the athletes wanting to get a feel for the Velodrome.
McQuaid added that taking all those factors into account meant that this week’s event would be “unforgettable.”
Meanwhile Thomas says that since the new year began, the Olympics have come into sharper focus for him. “As soon as it was 2012, it was a case of ‘Finally we’re in that year and the Games are coming,’ it feels a lot more real, racing’s started.
“Back in November and before that, you’d hear talk about 2012 and it seemed so far away, but it’s within touching distance, it’s on us now.”
Qualification for the team pursuit takes place tomorrow evening with the final on Sunday, and the full programme of the coming days can be found on the London Prepares website.
There will be live coverage of Friday, Saturday and Sunday’s racing on BBC Two, the BBC’s Red Button service and on the BBC website. Further details can be found here.