Britain’s new Golden Girl dominates in Minsk

It was appropriate. The last woman standing after 5 days of relentless competition was Becky James. The girl from “The Land of My Father” could not have looked happier as the strains of “God Save the Queen” echoed around the Minsk Arena. The Welsh woman, just 21 years old, put all the pain of Olympic rejection behind her, to scoop 4 medals in Belarus, 2 of them gold.

The James smile became the signature sight on the last few days of competition, as Great Britain’s mix of old and new opened up the throttle and left their rivals for dead. James burst onto the scene as a medal winning teenager at the Dehli Com Games, and after injury and non-selection curtailed her progress, she has now firmly established herself as the new British sprint star following on from Victoria Pendleton. The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen. The watching Meares would of raised an eyebrow.

If James and the Union Jack dominated the latter part of the week, Michael Hepburn and Advance Australia Fair, headlined the opening days. Heppy was in a league of his own in the Individual Pursuit, retaining the title won on home timber 11 months ago. And he led a new look Pursuit quartet to gold over a similarly new look British team. 18 year old Alex Morgan made his senior debut, and walked away with a team gold and an individual 4th. Watch this kid.

Hepburn will now head to road, seemingly banishing the track to the past. But the way he approached the week in Minsk and the way he has matured as a person over the past six months, don’t be surprised if the Queenslander is in the skinsuit at the Rio Velodrome. He has the talent and the team to allow him to juggle commitments. If the desire is there, and the team to match, Hepburn will be there.

It was an uneven week for the Aussie team. The endurance athletes shone with the sprint squad, minus Anna Meares and Shane Perkins, struggling to keep up. There were encouraging displays from Matthew Glaetzer who took 5th in the Sprint and Andrew Taylor, who claimed a Keirin 4th in his Worlds debut. Steph Morton too, showed that she is not out of place at the top table and will only get better.

But Kaarle McCulloch will leave Minsk with regrets after failing to stamp her authority on the event in the wake of Meares “Gap Year”. McCulloch is super quick against the clock, but looked to struggle when she was joined on the track by others. Bunch races do not suit her, and a spell in the Japanese Keirin series may have come at the ideal time. Go away. Regroup. Change of environment. Start again. With Morton and Taylah Jennings in the wings and Meares set to return, theres no time to waste.

The two other stars of the show were Glenn O’Shea and Annette Edmondson. Both claimed bronze medals in the Omnium, both got team pursuit medals, and Nettie also grabbed an IP bronze. The workload undoubtedly took it’s toll, especially on O’Shea who relinquished his World title in the very last event. Edmondson can point to a crash in the elimination race that may have cost her a silver. However, the American Sarah Hammer was a class apart in that competition.

Edmondson and O’Shea are both at the top of their sport and look set to be there right to Rio. Nothing we saw here changed that.

Outside of the Aussies it was a meet that was unpredictable, and full of talking points. Francois Pervis was the sprinter is best form but only ended up with one title. The medals were spread far and wide as the post-Olympic blues seemed to hit. Jason Kenny, the most high profile male on show, rode like a drain. He bombed out in the Team Sprint, missed the medals in the individual, yet somehow claimed the Keirin crown, having squeezed into the final following Pervis disqualification. It was that sort of meet.

But the ride, or rides, of the week came from the Emerald Isle. Martyn Irvine buried himself to make the Pursuit final. The Irishman may have been the bunny to Hepburn’s greyhound but it was silver medal and a huge achievement. And then less than an Hour later, Irvine lined up for the Scratch race, went for it 10 laps from home and only bloody won the thing! Irelands first title since the 1890’s. It was a ride to revel in. A ride that was bad on the heart, but great for the soul.

Track cycling has it detractors, but the show put on by the likes of James and Irvine showed that it is alive and kicking.

The New Guard on Track for Rio

It’s a chilly, rainy Friday night in the south-west of Sydney. A few hundred spectators have turned up at a venue that housed legends 13 years ago, but now hosts few that could be called household names. It’s a far cry from Rio.

But it’s here at the Dunc Gray Velodrome, that a new wave of Australian track cyclists have taken the first step of a journey. A long and unpredictable journey. A journey that they hope ends in Olympic Gold. And also in redemption. Redemption for a sport that led the way for so many years, before being blown away by the British juggernaut.

The familiar names of the recent Aussie track programme are no around. Perkins, Meares, Bobridge, Dennis, Tomic, Meyer, Howard. The Road. Retirement. Rest. Now it’s the new breed. Morton, Bullen, Davison, O’Shea, Edmondson.

While there’s not quite a root and branch restructuring of the track programme going on, the plates are shifting. Michael Hepburn arrived for one last hurrah in the rainbows. In just his 5th track ride since London, he recorded the 5th fastest time in history in the 4000m Pursuit. Heppy was a key member of the Pursuit team that led the world for much of the last four years before falling in a heap in Olympic year. He may well go to Minsk for this months World’s but it will be a victory lap. The future of the pursuit squad lies in the South.

South Australia to be precise. SASI Super coach Tim Decker is taking control of the pursuit programme, and things will change. The focus on numbers, data, outputs will give way to a focus on the athlete as a person. South Australia have had a stunning Championship, with their mens quartet breaking four minutes. Decker arrives at the national team in a position of strength.

The sprint squad is set for an overhaul too, with the emergence of the NSW programme as a force. The team sprint victory over a strong SA unit raised an eyebrow. And on Friday night Mitch Bullen swept the highly fancied Matthew Glaetzer with a ride of audacity and brute strength. Bullen imposed himself on the race and found a gap through sheer presence. Dare I say it was Hoy-esque.

The women’s team is set for less dramatic changes, but the absence of Anna will allow the existing talent to shine. The spotlight will be turned elsewhere. And the first place will be Annette Edmondson.

Nettie is the next bona fide star of Australian cycling. Articulate, photogenic, and outrageously talented. World and Olympic medals in 2012. Two national titles so far in 2013, and surely favouritism for the Ominum in Minsk. And anything else she fancies. Nettie is the leader of a band of endurance riders that are the envy of the world. Add Melissa Hoskins, Amy Cure, Ash Ankudinoff. The Women’s pursuit squad will be the strongest group for years.

In the sprints, the gap year for Meares was the chance for Kaarle McCulloch to shine. But suddenly the gap left by Anna is being filled by two emerging sprinters with vastly different backgrounds. Steph Morton won Paralympic gold as a pilot last year. This week she claimed team and individual sprint gold, beating McCulloch in the process. Morton has arrived at the nationals leaner and meaner. On the bike she resembles Meares in style. A powerful diesel that hits the front and never looks like losing it.

The other challenger is Queensland teenager Taylah Jennings. Jennings dominated last years World Juniors in Invercargill, sweeping all six events in the Ominum, before switching to the sprints for her first senior year. She cuts a diminutive figure on the bike, with her build still more akin to a pursuiter, but she is dynamite. Bronze in the individual sprint was her initial reward from the nationals, but this is just the start. Her future is bright.

All of the riders I’ve spoken about are looking, not just at Minsk in 3 weeks, or Glasgow in 18 months, but toward Brazil. The boards of Rio and the Australian resurgence.