Alison Shanks has boldly dipped her toe into the Olympic cauldron before; yet this feels a bit like uncharted waters.
One of the most recognisable of the current crop of New Zealand Olympians, Shanks quickly packed her world championship individual pursuit gold medal in the drawer. Now, she's issuing the rallying cry for the women's pursuit team as they search for the elusive seconds to launch them on to the Olympic podium in August.
That search took Shanks, Lauren Ellis, Jaime Nielsen and Rushlee Buchanan from Melbourne, to Hawke's Bay for the national club road champs, and will this month take them to the unlikely destination of Kutztown, Pennsylvania, an Amish community and favoured training venue of coach Dayle Cheatley. Their hi-tech bikes and on-board computers will whiz past horses and carts as they ride the endless country roads in solitude.
Shanks went solo in Beijing four years ago, slogging her way to fourth in the IP. Now with the well-documented scrapping of her favourite event, Shanks is the unofficial team captain as they look to build on their fourth at last month's world championships.
"We're very much a close knit unit and it's about getting yourself prepared to race as an individual but then it's so important to put that together as a team. That's part of Dayle's role as a coach and a little bit of my role as a team leader to pull the girls together," Shanks said.
The task is exciting, rather than exacting, for the 29-year-old at this stage of her career. If it involves delivering something of a verbal spray, then so be it. They were pipped for bronze by Canada in Melbourne, more than 4sec adrift of Britain, who beat Australia with more than a second to spare. Shanks described their effort, where they faded in the last kilometre as "not good enough for a world champs, or an Olympics".
"It was a fair indication of where we're at and there's a few teams over the World Cup season who have really stepped up and made a lot of progress.
"We know that we've got a lot of work to do in the next three months. There's a very small gap to that bronze, only 0.3sec, and there's a bigger gap to the gold and silver. The thing with the Olympics is it's three rounds, not just two, spread over two days and that's a whole different ball game again. Even just being [in] the Olympic environment is different again. We wouldn't discount anything happening at all."
Central to that chase for crucial seconds is Shanks' fiance, Craig Palmer, a sports scientist who travels with the team and crunches all the numbers. Onboard computers measure the power output of each rider in watts, and shows at which point they're flagging.
And on a personal level, Shanks (who has a double degree in marketing and human nutrition) has a calming influence, trackside. "He's very much involved and it's very different to the home environment but we're very lucky that we can travel together while others have to leave their loved ones at home."
The team have been honing their combination for the past three years. Ellis, proudly following in the Olympic footsteps of Hayden Roulston, her mentor and Tinwald Cycling Club team-mate; Nielsen, the former world under-23 rowing champ who was the star turn of BikeNZ's Power to the Podium recruitment drive three years ago; and Buchanan, likely to soon be confirmed as the fourth member, having been inspired to chase Olympic success as a teenager when she cold-called Sarah Ulmer after her gold medal-winning deeds.
It will largely fall to Shanks to provide the soothing words when they step out in London before a deafening 6000-strong crowd, as they experienced in the World Cup event there in February. She will lead them out, followed by Ellis and Nielsen. Then, as the lungs scream for oxygen in the final kilometre, it's down to every woman for herself and the desperate commands from Cheatley.
"You're doing 56kmh with aero helmets on and you can't really hear anything. Especially with the crowd noise we experienced in London at the World Cup, it was just crazy ...
"You're sitting very close to the wheels going that fast as well so it's having trust and faith in your team-mates to deliver their laps so you can carry on."
Shanks' goal of riding the perfect race still beckons. She and her team have three months, and counting, to find it.
- © Fairfax NZ News