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Golden years and repechage blues

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Photographs: Simon Wilkinson

For some, winning is a desirable outcome. For others, it is a necessity. Laura Trott belongs in the second category. From exhibition races to Olympic finals, national road race triumphs to Commonwealth titles, all of which make Track World Cups only a semi-important staging post, she rides with only victory in mind. Her return to the London Olympic Velodrome on a cold December weekend provides yet another example of a mindset to match her formidable speed.
There are team pursuits and omniums to be won at the London round of the Track World Cup and Trott obliges in both, combining skill, speed, and showmanship to keep the crowd in thrall to her outrageous talent. 2014 has been yet another golden year. On a Saturday afternoon, with the excitement of a gold medal-winning ride in the women’s team pursuit the night before already a fading memory, she goes about the business of adding the omnium title to her haul, winning the scratch race and the 3km individual pursuit.
Laura Trott wrapped up another golden year with gold medal rides in the women’s team pursuit and women’s omnium at the London round of the Track World Cup. pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com
Her partner, Jason Kenny – like Trott, a double Olympic gold medallist in London – is having a more testing time. A victim of the flu virus that has swept the men’s sprint team, his has been an under par weekend and his preparation for the opening round of the men’s keirin must seem like another necessary if uninspiring step along the road back to his best form.
He is on the rollers nearly an hour before his heat, British Cycling’s deep blue lycra straining to contain his outrageous thigh muscles. Kenny’s facial expression is one of concentration, though all around him is calm. His head is lowered and the white cables of his headphones hang loosely, gleaming white beneath the roof lights.
The two Chris’s, Boardman and Hoy, mingle nearby, part of a heavyweight deployment of backroom staff by British Cycling to this home round of the Track World Cup. Head coach, Shane Sutton, and men’s sprint coach, Ian Dyer, are also in attendance, though Kenny seems oblivious to all.
Even a visitor to Planet Earth would need little time to pick out the fashion designer from the assembled hordes. 56 was, as ever, the velodrome’s best dressed guest. pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com
Another champion sprinter, Anna Meares, has entered a still-deeper phase of concentration. She is sat in the middle of a short row of chairs immediately adjacent to the track; helmet on, the focus of her gaze undetectable behind the shaded visor. The Australian team’s head mechanic, Michael Winter, stands a respectful distance from his charge, holding her bike. He has spent years with Meares, and knows the drill: these are critical moments where she must be shielded from all distraction.
The heat might almost be the final, such is the quality of the competitors. Meares is drawn against world champion, Kristina Vogel, the German sprinter who has replaced Victoria Pendleton as Meares’ closest rival since the Briton’s retirement. Vogel leads out, but soon the Australian strikes with a typically predatory attack, diving to the inside line and completely upsetting her rival’s plans.
After the mediocre fare of the afternoon session, broken only by Trott’s victories in the two scheduled rounds of the women’s omnium, it is clear that we are suddenly in the presence of a better class of competitor. Vogel is too good to be unshipped by Meares, despite the precision of her rival’s attack.
Jon Dibben produced a creditable performance in the individual pursuit round of the men’s omnium, but was crushed by the on-rushing freight train of Colombia’s Fernando Gaviria Rendon . pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com
As they tear towards the finish line, the crowd holds its breath for a moment, until the giant electronic display confirms Vogel’s victory by an impossibly narrow margin. Meares will finish sixth overall, but after a planned absence following the Olympic Games, has already shown that she retains the power to compete with the very best.
56 arrives in track centre, so immaculately turned out that a visitor from another planet asked to identify the fashion designer among the track suited horde would have little difficulty. He makes his way among the riders and machinery that fill the ‘mixed zone’, still obviously in thrall to the sport he fell in love with as a child, and later exchanges a few words with the announcer across the velodrome PA.
Kenny has retired from the rollers and sits quietly in a corner of one of the British Cycling pens. Jon Dibben is briefly the focus of attention, but is blown away by Colombia’s Fernando Gaviria Rendon in the individual pursuit round of the men’s omnium, despite his own best efforts and those of the crowd. Dibben’s position remains solid throughout, his increasing effort betrayed only by an increasingly contorted facial expression, but he is simply not fast enough. Rendon bears down upon him with the ominous intensity of a freight train pursuing a jogger who has chosen a railway line as a running track.

Finally, it is time for Kenny to rise and compete. He returns briefly to the rollers, but this time it is only for the gentlest warm up, his legs turning the slowest cadence, perhaps, of which they are capable. After little more than a minute, he leaves the bike and swaggers to the rider’s waiting area. Modest – it seems not in Kenny’s nature to swagger, but with legs such as his, he has little choice in the matter. The sprinters are cycling’s heavyweights, and in the bunch race conditions of the keirin, a little machismo, even if unintended, can only be a good thing.
Kenny must wait for better times to come. He finishes fourth, forcing him to take the repechage to the second round. Sixth in the final is doubtless a disappointment to a man who last year was world champion in the discipline, but he will come back stronger. Having racked up sufficient qualifying points for the World Championships at the last round in Mexico, London is little more than a staging post. His Tweet on the opening day of competition at a venue in which he won two Olympic titles said as much for his opinion of sentiment as his dry wit. The crowd make a venue, he will say later; a velodrome is merely track and seating without.
The crowd have played a part for the winners, however. Victory on the opening night for Great Britain’s team pursuit squads brought them to their feet, and Trott’s omnium victory will inspire the same reaction on the closing afternoon. For now, as the sun sets beyond the velodrome’s glass perimeter, there is only the business of rollers and repechage, for Kenny at least. 2012 must seem a lifetime ago.
Pictures used with kind permission of SWPix.com.

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