London 2012 review: How Great Britain's cyclists repeated the Beijing gold rush
We look back on an unforgettable fortnight for Team GB on the road and the track
Great Britain’s cycling medal haul in Beijing, we’d been told, couldn’t be matched in London, and so it proved, as the nation’s top cyclists amassed 12 medals compared to 14 four years ago. But eight of those were gold, as they had been in China, and a couple of near misses meant that earlier performance could well have been emulated or even surpassed. It was a stunning performance.
Indeed, tweak the numbers to account for the new one-rider-per-individual-event rule on the track that prevented Great Britain from repeating the two-medal haul in three of the events at Beijing, and London comes out ahead 12 to 11.
The British capital, for a fortnight the centre of the sporting world, put on an unforgettable show.
Across a range of sports the country’s athletes put in stellar performances to conjure up a total of 29 gold medals that even the wildest of optimists would not have dared predict at the start of the Games, still less as we reached the first Wednesday without a single home success.
Once again, cycling was the leading sport for medals won, just as it had been in Beijing, this time round accounting for more than one in four of the country’s gold medals. Moreover, two in three of the 12 cycling medals won in total were gold, a better conversion rate than had been seen in 2008.
UK Sport’s target for cycling had been for between six and ten medals across the four disciplines – road, track, BMX and mountain bike. The upper end of that goal would be comfortably beaten.
That had seemed a distant prospect as 2012 began. At last year’s track world championships in Apeldoorn, Great Britain had picked up just one gold medal, in the women’s team pursuit, and it seemed to many that Beijing would stand as a glorious one-off.
Changes to the Olympic programme that limited countries to one rider for each individual track event and introduced five events for each gender, dispensing, among other races, with the individual pursuits – responsible in Beijing for four British medals, two of them gold – also appeared to have hampered the host nation's chances.
British Cycling Performance Director Dave Brailsford, however, insisted when speaking to road.cc shortly before Christmas that plans for London were very much on course, pointing out that if the country had only won that solitary gold in the Netherlands, medals had been clinched in a number of other Olympic events.
By the time this year’s track worlds in Melbourne had come and gone, Great Britain’s cyclists were heading to a home Olympics with world champions in six of the 16 Olympic events, five of those on the track, the other on the road.
Road race slips away from Cav despite terrific GB effort...
The holder of that latter title, Mark Cavendish, had been widely tipped to set the gold medal count rolling in the men’s road race, the first event of the Games in which Great Britain had a realistic chance of success.
If there were a medal for trying, the British team would have won it for the way they controlled the race until a crazy couple of minutes on the last circuit of Box Hill saw a big group full of strong riders get away.
They would maintain enough of an advantage to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of home fans who lined the roadsides of South West London and Surrey were denied the win they craved as Alexandre Vinokourov took gold for Kazakhstan.
... but not everyone saw it that way
Many of those watching knew how close Cavendish and his team mates had come to defying the odds, how hard they had worked to try and ensure the race came down to a bunch finish.
BBC News sports editor David Bond wasn’t one of them, the world champion publicly questioning whether he knew anything about cycling after he was asked, immediately after the end of the race, whether tiredness from the Tour de France had been a factor.
Dozens of fans took to Bond’s blog to point out his misreading of the race, including the assertion that Wiggins and Froome had found the pace too tough when in fact they had simply eased off the gas and drifted back, their work done.
Besides underlining that cycling has a large and knowledgeable fanbase in the UK, that day also provided the first taste of something that would become one of the defining features of London 2012 – huge home support eager for British success, yes, but also willing to cheer on all athletes, regardless of nationality, competing in the Games.
It was a pattern that would be repeated at the venues in the Olympic Park, at Eton Dorney, in Greenwich Park magically transformed into the most picturesque of arenas for the equestrian events and everywhere else the Olympics touched, and it wasn’t just confined to fans of the sport in question; anyone who’d been able to get a ticket, or who grabbed a roadside spot to see one of the free events, was giving it all they’d got.
Armitstead sets medal count ticking
Any disappointment over Cavendish missing out on gold was dispelled within 24 hours as Lizzie Armitstead rode through the rain in the women’s road race to take silver on The Mall behind Marianne Vos of The Netherlands, Great Britain’s first medal of its home Olympics.
Approaching the final kilometre in driving rain, the chants of ‘Lizzie! Lizzie’ could clearly be heard ringing out from the crowd. Cycling in Britain had never seen support like this, Armitstead brushing away tears of joy as she crossed the line to write her name into British Olympic history.
Wiggo turns yellow into gold
Three days later, a few hours after rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning had won the first of those 29 gold medals at Eton, further downstream at Hampton Court Bradley Wiggins was busy adding the second in the individual time trial and afterwards he too made reference to what would be described as a Mexican wave of noise from the crowd.
It was the fourth Olympic gold medal of his career and one that followed a month in which he had become the first British winner of the Tour de France. Chris Froome, runner-up in that race as the Team Sky pair scored an historic British one-two, secured the time trial bronze for good measure.
If his Olympic preparations meant that Wiggins was unable to fully appreciate the buzz caused by his win in Paris, he was able to relish the applause in a brief surprise appearance at the Olympic opening ceremony apart where, dressed in a yellow jersey, he rang the bell to get the show underway.
He was certainly revelling in the adulation it at Hampton Court after clinching that gold medal, however – giving V for Victory signs as he sat, rather improbably, on a throne presumably borrowed from the state apartments for the occasion.
Britain's greatest Olympian?
Wiggins’ success also saw him move ahead of Sir Steve Redgrave as the most decorated British Olympian, with seven medals against the former rower’s six.
Five of Redgrave’s were gold of course, but that record too would be gone within a week after the action switched to the velodrome, where Great Britain’s cyclists would dominate, just as they had in Beijing.
Sir Chris Hoy was the man who took that crown, claiming his fifth career gold in a team sprint where eyebrows were raised at Philip Hindes’ post-race admission that he had engineered a fall to force a restart, then winning his sixth after a stunning ride in the keirin on the final day of competition in the velodrome.
There, waiting to greet him at the trackside was none other than Redgrave himself, and the conversation between the two, for those who witnessed it on TV, was one of the abiding memories of the Games, one-time rower Hoy insisting that no matter how many medals he might win, for him the man whose crown he had taken would always be the greatest.
It’s a debate that will doubtless resurface whenever the Olympics come round in future.
Tears and cheers
Hoy, who during the opening ceremony had tears streaming down his cheeks as he carried the union flag to lead Team GB into the Olympic Stadium to the strains of David Bowie’s Heroes, found it hard to control his emotions again as he took to an Olympic podium for the final time.
Another unforgettable image was provided by another rider racing their last Olympics, Victoria Pendleton, also in tears after being beaten 2-0 by her great rival Anna Meares in an individual sprint final in which she had taken the opening race, only to be relegated – harshly, perhaps – for deviating from the sprinter’s lane.
The tears, though, weren’t those of frustration at being beaten to gold in the last race of her career, nor were they due to any sense of injustice at a second commissaires’ decision following the earlier her earlier relegation, along with Jessica Varnish, in the team sprint for an illegal changeover. Pendleton at least managed to secure gold in the keirin after a terrific ride in the final.
Instead, they were born from her relief that she would never again have to go through the discipline, the self-denial, the single-mindedness, the pre-race nerves – something she was particularly prone to – in pursuit of sporting perfection. Normal life – well, as normal as it can be with two Olympic golds and nine world titles to your name – beckons.
The only place to be
Hoy and Pendleton were already household names, but others are well on their way to joining them as the Velodrome became the hottest ticket in town, due to the combination of high expectations of British success and its tiny capacity compared to other venues. Nowhere would the decibel level be higher, and nowhere would Team GB experience more success.
World records tumbled in the men’s and women’s team pursuit, Geraint Thomas and Ed Clancy adding to their Beijing gold in the former alongside first time Olympian Peter Kennaugh and Steven Burke, who had won bronze behind Wiggins in the team pursuit four years ago. After their victory, Hoy used Twitter to remind us to spare a thought for Andy Tennant, the fifth member of the squad, who didn’t get a ride.
In the women’s event, it was another Beijing medallist – Wendy Houvenaghel – who missed out as the young trio of Laura Trott, Dani King and Joanna Rowsell cruised to victory in what was had been the most nailed-on cycling gold prospect for Great Britain as the Olympics approached.
And the medals kept on coming – Clancy a bronze in the men’s omnium after recovering from a scratch race in which he lost a lap to his rivals and seemed to have fallen out of contention, and Trott taking gold in the women’s version including what has now become a signature victory in a thrilling elimination race.
Jason Kenny, victorious in the men’s team sprint alongside Hoy and Hindes, added a second gold in the individual sprint, beating world champion Grégory Baugé of France for the first time in the final.
Team GB's golden couple caught on camera
For all the talk about Britain’s track cyclists having a secret weapon in the shape of ‘magic’ wheels – which turned out, in fact, to be nothing more than the same 'Mavic' wheels they had used since Athens in 2004 – there was a secret within the track team.
It proved to be one that no-one outside it saw coming until pictures appeared in the papers of Trott and Kenny, two gold medals apiece, with eyes only for each other as they sat in the crowd at the beach volleyball on Horse Guards Parade.
To say it was a public display of affection is supreme understatement, given that they were sitting with two of the most photographed men on the planet; Prince Harry was sitting to Kenny’s left, David Beckham in the row immediately in front of sport’s latest golden couple. The inevitable telephoto lens trained on that section of the stand picked out Britain’s latest golden couple.
Missing a medal isn't a failure
The cycling wasn’t over yet, but Great Britain’s scooping up of the medals was. Liam Phillips and Shanaze Reade, the latter looking to put the disappointment of her crash in the final in Beijing behind her, both qualified well for their respective BMX finals.
However, the unpredictable nature of the sport, giving little chance to recover from a setback, saw both ruled out of contention in their one-race finals, Reade due to an uncharacteristically poor start, Phillips, who had gone off well, seeing his chances evaporate after he had to unclip a foot following a touch of wheels.
That left the weekend’s mountain bike racing at Hadleigh Farm in Essex, where 21-year-old Annie Last finished an excellent eighth after forcing the early pace with eventual winner Julie Bresset of France, while Liam Killeen was desperately unlucky to crash out, breaking his ankle.
None of those four riders should be seen as a failure, nor indeed the men’s road race team who had been the first British riders to challenge for a medal a fortnight earlier, despite the efforts of some sections of the media to portray them as such.
But it’s a sign of how far cycling has become, of how strong the country’s dominance is in many events at the Olympics and elsewhere, that anything other than first can now be viewed by some as a shortcoming.
A Dream Team for Rio?
Cavendish, the sole British track cyclist to return from Beijing without a medal as he and Wiggins failed to repeat their world championship Madison success, did get awarded a gold medal of sorts by The Guardian for being the best TV pundit after he joined the BBC team at the Velodrome.
He and Wiggins, it’s said, are now considering aiming to be part of what would be a Dream Team in the team pursuit at Rio. It would certainly be something to see, and few would begrudge Cavendish finally getting his hands on an Olympic medal, if that's how events turned out.
In that pre-Christmas chat with Brailsford, he made it clear to us that London was far from the only goal that British Cycling had its sights set on, and that already the riders were being developed who are set to form the core of the country’s challenge in Brazil in four years’ time.
Following the conclusion of the London Olympics, his thoughts have immediately turned to the challenges ahead. "We've set ourselves a platform now to push on and build on,” he said afterwards. "This could be the start of something, rather than the end of something."
A lsting legacy?
With success at London 2012 building on Wiggins’ historic success in the Tour de France, thoughts also now inevitably turn to the legacy the Olympics will provide for cyclists in London and beyond.
While the inaugural RideLondon weekend next year should prove memorable, many point out with justification that the focus should be on improving conditions for ordinary people who take to their bikes every day, starkly underlined by the death of a cyclist killed by a bus transporting media between venues, just outside the Olympic Park.
Great Britain London 2012 cycling medals
Bradley Wiggins, men’s individual time trial
Victoria Pendleton, women’s keirin
Jason Kenny, men’s individual sprint
Laura Trott, women’s omnium
Sir Chris Hoy, men’s keirin
Sir Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny & Philip Hindes, men’s team sprint
Geraint Thomas, Ed Clancy, Peter Kennaugh & Steven Burke, men’s team pursuit
Laura Trott, Dani King & Joanna Rowsell, women’s team pursuit
Lizzie Armitstead, women’s road race
Victoria Pendleton, women’s individual sprint
Chris Froome, men’s individual time trial
Ed Clancy, men’s omnium