Gold hopes on sprint cyclists at 2016 Olympics

MARK GEENTY IN LONDON
Last updated 05:00 10/08/2012
Simon van Velthooven
IAIN MCGREGOR/Fairfax NZ

RIO TARGET: New Zealand's Simon van Velthooven wins bronze.

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Having snared the two Olympic track cycling medals they targeted, BikeNZ sees the sprinters as the budding heavyweights to help turn bronze into gold in four years at Rio de Janeiro.

The relief was palpable on the final night at the velodrome when Simon van Velthooven's desperate late lunge snared him a keirin bronze in a dead-heat with Dutchman Teun Mulder.

With success almost exclusively gauged by medals won, it showed the fine line some sports can tread, especially after road rider Linda Villumsen missed bronze by 1.8 seconds in the time trial.

BikeNZ received $18.3 million in pre-Olympic backing from High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) across all cycling disciplines, second only to rowing ($19.2m), so the targeted two track medals allowed officials to breathe easier with a view to funding.

"If we're brutally honest, the events we targeted medals in, we got medals in," BikeNZ high-performance director Mark Elliott said.

"We knew that women's pursuit, team sprint, Eddie Dawkins in the sprint, and our omnium riders would have to do something special, PB their life away and get the right breaks to put themselves into medal contention.

"Men's pursuit and Simon were the ones we believed were medal contenders and they delivered."

The men's pursuiters - Jesse Sergent, Sam Bewley, Marc Ryan and Aaron Gate - repeated the team bronze from Beijing in 2008. But with Sergent and Bewley declaring they would dedicate themselves to road careers, a period of rebuilding looms for the pursuit team.

Not so the big boys, with van Velthooven winning New Zealand's first Olympic sprint medal, and just their sixth on the track.

The young sprint team of van Velthooven, Dawkins and the flying Ethan Mitchell finished fifth, after a poor opening ride then a cracking effort against eventual silver medallists France.

With the capable Sam Webster on the sidelines, because of a limited number of New Zealand spots, the personnel is there for a successful 2016 at the velodrome in Rio de Janeiro.

"He [van Velthooven] is a special guy. It's not only what he does on the bike but how he conducts himself off the bike. The attributes that make a world-class athlete - he's got them all," Elliott said.

"The challenge for us now is to put a programme around him and the other sprinters so that they can emulate what the Brits do and continue to do that for the next couple of Olympics. These guys are young enough to do that."

A major obstacle, in the form of the revered Chris Hoy, the 36-year-old six-time Olympic gold medallist, should also be gone after the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, his targeted retirement.

The women's pursuit team rode a personal best, but could manage only fifth as other nations made faster progress in the new Olympic event. Alison Shanks is considering her future and her presence appears vital for them to continue to improve.

Dawkins and omnium rider Shane Archbold were both disappointing, going on their world championship form. Dawkins suffered from early nerves, but has time on his side, while Archbold finished seventh and struggled in the distance events. His omnium future is uncertain too, with a road career a possibility.

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Sprinter Natasha Hansen was in London for experience with a view to Rio de Janeiro, acknowledging she needs to get stronger to compete with the topliners.

Jo Kiesanowski, former road specialist, never threatened the omnium podium, finishing no higher than seventh across the six events.

Britain were dominant, winning all but three gold medals on offer at the velodrome, where a slew of world records fell. Elliott said BikeNZ would learn plenty from the hosts, but their money pool is deeper than HPSNZ's total budget.

Overall the track campaign got a cautious pass mark from Elliott, anxiously awaiting BMX riders Sarah Walker and Marc Willers, who need to podium early tomorrow (NZ time) for BikeNZ to reach its stated four-medal target.

"Overall this Olympics, it's hard to get a medal and it's so tight at the top. It's a pass, but we're always looking for more. I'm not saying we're happy, because I know we can deliver more."

- Fairfax Media

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