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.