'Rhino' bulls way on track to 'nation's medal'

BRONZE RIDE: Simon van Velthooven claimed New Zealand's second track cycling bronze medal, finishing in a dead-heat with Teun Mulder of the Netherlands in the keirin final.
BRONZE RIDE: Simon van Velthooven claimed New Zealand's second track cycling bronze medal, finishing in a dead-heat with Teun Mulder of the Netherlands in the keirin final.

For someone who's been in a hurry his whole career, five minutes was an eternity for Simon van Velthooven to wait to be confirmed as an Olympic cycling medallist.

And, as he circled a heaving, delirious Olympic velodrome, staring intently at the big screen, willing it to flash up his name in the bronze-medal position in the keirin, van Velthooven had time to contemplate his rapid ascent from road hopeful to sprinting star.

Just 23, the grandson of Dutch immigrants who fled their home country during World War II, van Velthooven caught the cycling bug when on weekend rides with his brother Ben, near the family home between Palmerston North and Feilding. He rode for Palmerston North Boys' High School, alongside future pursuit medallist Jesse Sergent, watched Lance Armstrong on television and dreamed of riding the Tour de France. But nature intervened and he bulked up to 90kg; a track career and the nickname "Rhino" beckoned.

He emerged from the ultimate keirin finishing school, the pro league in Japan, in 2010, ready to take on the world. Full body armour, mass pile-ups and rocks being hurled by angry punters who'd blown their last yen, applied a steely edge.

That edge had his coach, Justin Grace, predicting big things for van Velthooven in London, even with the revered Chris Hoy chasing his sixth gold medal. "Simon being on the podium was the target. We knew that Simon was capable of winning against a tough field. We also know the keirin has a lot of randomness to it. You can't just be the fastest rider in the field and win," Grace said.

Tactically, he was savvy. Shut out the back in his semifinal, last with a lap to go, he had to go to plan C. The hard way, loop the field and finish in the first three to make the final. He got within a tyre of Germany's world championship runner-up Max Levy, the silver medallist behind Hoy.

"Against a field like that it showed what a superstar he really is," Grace said.

Van Velthooven ran through every possible scenario before his final. The keirin has a five-and-a-half lap buildup behind the pace motorbike, then it's gone in a flash in the next 600m.

"I knew Hoy was going to stay out of trouble and use his strength. Max is very fast and there were riders looking for the fast wheels. I backed myself to exploit everyone's tactics. To get a bronze medal, it was all my preparation in my mind to know what could have happened, and what was going to happen," van Velthooven said.

There was one final obstacle; the bike of Dutchman Teun Mulder. The replay showed them locked together, either side of Levy's back wheel. The minutes ticked by, as Hoy waved the Union Jack and cried as 6000 home fans lifted the roof. Still nothing. Then, both riders with a three beside their names, the first time four medals would be handed out in an Olympic cycling event.

"It seemed like forever. I remember thinking at one stage 'crikey, Chris Hoy's celebrated and they're done with their celebrations and I hadn't even noticed because I hadn't taken my eyes off the scoreboard waiting for that three to tick over beside Simon's name," Grace said.

Van Velthooven's three sprint team-mates, Ethan Mitchell, Eddie Dawkins and Sam Webster mobbed their team-mate. "They're all like brothers, they share in his victory," the coach said.

Van Velthooven dedicated his bronze as "the nation's medal".

"For all that hard work, everyone that's looked after me, billeted me and fed me. It's just a huge moment for everyone in BikeNZ and track cycling."

Fairfax Media