s the velodrome doors swung open for the first time at these Olympics, you got a sense of why many in cycling fear it will not prove quite the medal factory it has in recent Games for Team GB.
Britain’s team pursuiters, who have won the last three men’s titles and the only two women’s golds ever awarded, looked in fine form, a quartet of Elinor Barker, Katie Archibald, Josie Knight and four-time gold medallist Laura Kenny qualifying second-fastest for tomorrow’s second round and the male four, including three-time defending champion Ed Clancy, breaking the British record as they went through in fourth.
But the rest of the world has caught up and ‘fine’ might not be enough. Both could only watch as medal rivals laid down daunting markers, Germany’s women smashing what had been Britain’s world record by almost three seconds, before men’s world-record holders Denmark breezed inside the new Olympic record that had been set by Italy only minutes earlier.
On the women’s side of things, Britain’s record, set in Rio, had not been expected to survive these Games, but the sight of it being obliterated by such a margin by the German quartet in qualifying was frightening.
Britain seemed intent on delivering an immediate response, and while the old mark had stood for half a decade, it looked for much of their ride that the new one would barely last half an hour.
A blistering start from Archibald had Team GB half-a-second up after a kilometre and, as Kenny came to the fore, it was more than double that at one point. However, having set such a ferocious early tempo, things went awry in the closing stages, Knight bowing out as the remaining trio became splintered and eventually crossed the line in 4min 09.022sec, still the second-fastest ride in history, but one that will have to be fine-tuned and, certainly, better paced if they are to contend for gold.
“I think it’s unfortunate for us that Germany was so much faster than the old record,” Barker said. “We maybe came out a little too strong and paid for that slightly towards the back end.”
The men, meanwhile, were slick with their changeovers but lacked the out-and-out speed of the Danes. Their time of 3:47.507 was enough to go into fourth and, after a nervy wait while Australia were afforded a restart due to a freak crash, enough to stay there, thus keeping their hopes of a fourth-straight Olympic title alive. But they must somehow now bridge a two-and-a-half-second gap to the world champions when they meet tomorrow to decide who rides for gold.
“There’s no doubt that the standard of the team pursuit has moved on,” Clancy conceded. “The Danes have taken it to a new level.
“It’s going to be a fight, it will be hard work, but that’s the beauty of sport. We’re still in it to win it.”
Opening night ended with China clinching the first gold of the meeting in the women’s team sprint, beating Germany in the final, with the Russian Olympic Committee taking bronze. That Britain were absent from the event after failing to qualify was another sign that things are not quite as they were.