After tomorrow’s individual time trials, Olympic cycling heads to the Velodrome where on Thursday Victoria Pendleton and Jessica Varnish will be aiming to repeat their performance there in February’s World Cup when they set a world’s best time in the team sprint.
Since then, Germany's Kristina Vogel and Miriam Welte have beaten that time in storming to a win over Australia in 32.549 seconds at April’s World Championships in Melbourne, upsetting predictions that the Olympics would come down to a straight fight between the British pair and Australia’s Anna Meares and Kaarle McCullouch. Pendleton and Varnish themselves finished fourth, edged out by China in the bronze medal race.
Yesterday, we spoke with Varnish at Team GB House next to the Olympic Park in Stratford to get her thoughts on London 2012 and beyond. The 21-year-old from Bromsgrove is competing in her first Olympics, while her partner Pendleton, aged 31, retires after the Games.
When changes to the track programme were announced a couple of years ago, much of the attention focused on the individual pursuit for men and women being dropped, as well as the men’s Madison and men’s and women’s points races.
Female sprinters have benefited the most, with three events now featuring rather than one, the individual sprint in which Pendleton won gold in Beijing four years ago.
With just one rider allowed per country in the individual events, she defends her title here in London and also races in the keirin, but Varnish knows that the changes to the programme present her with a big opportunity in the years ahead, including at Rio in 2016.
“Obviously looking past Thursday I’m really excited to be able to focus on the individual sprint and the keirin,” she explains.
“I’m really looking forward to that because for the last couple of years I’ve been focusing on the line one position and it’s a totally different thing you need, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what I’ve got at that, to be honest.”
With the women’s team sprint set to be one of the most hotly contested events in London, Varnish reckons that spectators could be in for a treat.
“The level of competition is getting higher and higher and it’s always progressing in the women’s team sprint which makes it more exciting to be honest.”
Referring to the World Championships where Germany scored a surprise win, she said: “Just before we got to Melbourne I was sick, I picked up a virus after I’d been on the plane which wasn’t ideal, but it’s not an excuse, I wasn’t going really badly or anything like that.”
“It’s going to be anyone’s game, I think, and I think it makes it even more exciting to watch.”
Varnish says that she’s benefited from Pendleton’s experience and believes she will continue to do so even once her team mate retires and she herself becomes Great Britain’s main contender in the individual events.
“She always gives me great advice,” she reveals. “It’s really handy to have a much more experienced athlete than me in the competition and on my team, that’s really good. I’m sure she’ll help me in future with the individual events.”
At the outset of her career, Varnish had another role model to follow – her father, Jim, was Cycle Speedway World Champion in 1985, but she says it certainly wasn’t a case of her being pushed into following him into the sport; quite the opposite, in fact.
“He didn’t ever force me into anything, he didn’t say ‘I want you to train,’ usually I was the one saying ‘Can we go out on our bikes?’ or whatever, but it’s great to have him there to look up to and see what he’s doing.”
While Varnish has yet to secure World Championship gold – she and Pendleton took silver in Apeldoorn last year but missed out on a medal in Melbourne, where Varnish took bronze in the 500 metre time trial – a repeat of that World Cup performance earlier this year will see the pair challenging for the top step of the podium on the biggest stage of all.
Women’s team sprint qualifying, semi-finals and final, Thursday 2 August, 1600-1830
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.