Mark Cavendish insists that results so far in the track cycling at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games aren’t a reflection of Team GB being “in decline” – but instead demonstrate that “the rest of the world is stepping up.”
Team GB riders won seven of the 10 track gold medals on offer at Beijing in 2008, followed that up with an identical performance in London four years later, and in 2016 took six golds at Rio.
The country currently tops the medal table in all cycling disciplines thanks to victories in mountain biking by Tom Pidcock and the BMX race by Beth Shriever and the new event of BMX freestyle by Charlotte Worthington.
But after dominating events in the velodrome at the past three Olympic Games, track gold has eluded the country in the four events out of 12 decided so far – with Team GB being defending champions in three of those.
Instead, just two silver medals have come, in the men’s team sprint, won by the Netherlands, and the women’s team pursuit where, despite setting a world record on their way to the final, the British quartet were beaten by Germany.
The 36-year-old, who last month equalled Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins at the Tour de France, and is a three-time Madison world champion on the track, has joined the Discovery+ commentary team as a pundit while taking a break from racing.
“GB aren’t in decline, the rest of the world is stepping up," he told Eurosport. “Great Britain were always the pioneers in new technologies and advancements to make the sport quicker. But as you advance the amount of things you can do get smaller, you can’t get the big gains you used to.
“The women’s [team pursuit] world record now, in Athens  that’s what the men were doing. That’s crazy. You’re talking 23-30 per cent quicker times, it’s a different sport now.
“Team pursuit almost isn’t an endurance ride any more, it’s a sprint sport," he continued.
"There used to be bunch riders coming in and doing the pursuit.
“Now you have four or five men and women dedicated for four years to just these four kilometres,” he explained, “and that’s why it’s moved so far.
“If you’re in the velodrome you can see the speeds they are doing, you don’t quite get the sense of it on television.”
Cavendish raced in the Madison with Wiggins in 2008 and was favourite for the road race in London, but finished outside the medals both times, before clinching silver in the omnium at Rio five years ago.
“Obviously I was at Beijing, London and Rio, so it’s been a long time since I wasn’t in that [Olympic] bubble,” he said.
“And to be able to watch as a spectator, not just the cycling but all sports, it’s been brilliant.
“It’s been an exciting Olympics – it’s a year overdue so everyone’s excited for it.”
In what many have said could be the most thrilling men’s team pursuit race ever, Filippo Ganna – who last week finished fifth in the individual time trial on the road – put in a storming last couple of laps to help Italy overhaul Denmark and take gold.
Cavendish said he was impressed with the Italian rider’s ability to switch seamlessly from the road to the track, drawing parallels with the way he and others had approached the Olympics when changing disciplines.
“Italy have come in and been spectacular, especially with Ganna – he rode the road time trial remember, he’s reigning time trial world champion,” he said.
“It didn’t quite go how he wanted it to [in the TT, where he finished fifth), but he’s come straight off the road to ride the track.”
Prior to Beijing and Rio, Cavendish cut short his participation in the Tour de France to prepare for the track events, and while Ganna was not in the Ineos Grenadiers line-up for the Grand Tour this year, race, he was still racing on the road until the weekend before the Tokyo Olympics began.
“In 2016 I rode the Tour de France but had to stop halfway because I wouldn’t have had enough of time to adapt to the track, and then I flew to Rio,” Cavendish said. “Even that was on the limit.
“Elia Viviani, who’s riding here, he beat me in the omnium [at Rio], he got gold and I got silver. And he stopped his road season in May to prepare, so three months before.
Still referring to 2016, he added: “Brad had stopped a year and a half before, that’s what you usually need for team pursuit.”
After his current break from racing, Cavendish will line up with Deceuninck-Quick Step at the Tour of Denmark, which begins next Tuesday.
The country’s capital, Copenhagen, hosts the Grand Depart of next year’s Tour de France – an opportunity, provided he secures a contract for 2022 and is selected for the race, to move ahead of Merckx and become the most successful rider in the race’s history in terms of stage wins.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.