Whitten’s family gathered by the red cedar panels outside the velodrome on the final day of the track competition with father David Whitten – a Masters mountain biker in his own right – standing the proudest. Edmonton to London is a 7-hour time zone change… easy to handle if you’re there to watch your daughter.
But a podium finish was not to be. Whitten was sitting in third position after the first four of six events, but lost ground in the Scratch race and the 500m time trial ending up in place fourth in the final standings. Gold went to Team GBR’s Laura Trott, silver to American rider Sarah Hammer and bronze to Aussie Annette Edmondson.
Everything had been designed to result in a top performance for these two days. It almost happened but now the journey is over. That is the relief; the pain is that it didn’t quite take her where she wanted to be.
“My main goal going into this event was to have no regrets about my preparation. I really feel that even though it didn’t go how I wanted it to – I felt I was in the best shape of my life,” said a very teary-eyed Whitten. “I’ve always just focused on the Olympics – to do my best here. Every waking moment it’s been now to be better; how to get an edge on my competition; we all just want to do [our best] for Canada,” she added, unable to go on because of her tears.
When asked if these lopsided results where Great Britain wins virtually every cycling track event is because a small cycling country like Canada has to go up against “machines for organizations” Whitten replied, “Honestly, I’ve had so much support over the last two years – I couldn’t ask for better support. I went to the Commonwealth Games in 2010 to experience a Games atmosphere. I felt comfortable and ready – I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the Olympics.”
Trott picked up her second gold medal of the day. At only 20 years of age, she is a wunderkind. “I cannot believe this is happening to me. I was losing my head a little bit between the events because they weren’t going the way I wanted them to. I am so happy.”
Hammer too was picking up her second medal of the Games. She had won silver against Trott’s gold in the team pursuit. “I now get to have two of the big medals….I’d gone for gold – that’s what I wanted – but the silver medal is fine.”
While Trott, Hammer and Whitten were most often in the top three, it was not a predictable event. In the 250metre flying sprint, Whitten didn’t have the sprint she can normally pull off, placing 7th in a time of 14.516. Trott won the event in 14.057; Clara Sanchez of France was 2nd in 14.058; Edmondson took 3rd place in 14.261 while Holland’s Kirsten Wild was 4th.
The points race was where Whitten gained. She quickly took 2nd by a tire width in the first sprint as Australia’s Edmondson just snuck by. But Whitten missed the break when Trott, Cuba’s Marlies Garcia Mejias, China’s Li Huang, Spain’s Dorronsoro Olaberria, Poland’s Malgorzata Wojtyra and Edmondson gained a lap on the field.
Whitten’s reaction to that, once she and the other riders had been lapped, was to jump with New Zealand’s Joanne Kisanowski and USA’s Sarah Hammer, steal the lap back from the six and lap the rest of the field. She was on a run then, winning 20 bonus points for lapping the field, and followed this up with a 2nd in the sixth of eight sprints.
In the final sprint she took third. The final tally put Wojtyra in first with 34 points, Belarus’s Tatsiana Sharakova and Whitten with equal amount of points (28) in second and third, Belgium’s Jolien D’hoore in 4th and Hammer in 5th. Overall, this moved Whitten into 3rd overall.
Trott, who won the Elimination race in a deadly sprint against Hammer, moved into first place overall. Hammer had the same amount of points (12) and was given second place. Australia’s Annette Edmondson was third with 17, while Whitten finished in fourth with 18, but Belgium’s D’Hoore is right behind her with 20. Wojtyra of Poland took fifth place so far with 24.
“There were a few up’s and down’s. The points race was one of the best points race I’ve had in the past couple of years. I knew I needed a good points race and had to take advantage of any opportunity. But the Elimination race was a bit of a disappointment,” said Whitten as the day wrapped up. “Usually it’s an event I can count on. I just got caught [at the back].” Indeed, it appeared Whitten did not know what a dangerous position she was in as the pack rounded the banking to the sprint straightaway as she didn’t counter moves made by riders getting by her.
“I think I can go back up on the rankings [tomorrow]. I have a really good pursuit. So, looking forward to that and then we’ll see with the Scratch race and the 500 what my strategy will be.”
Tuesday morning was crucial for Whitten. She needed a top time in the 3,000 metre individual pursuit and she got it. Perhaps not quite as fast as she hoped, as USA’s Sarah Hammer beat the field with a 3:29.554 – off her world record of 3:22.269 set two years ago in Mexico, but good enough to move her back into first place overall.
Trott, world record holder in the 3,000 metre team pursuit, placed 2nd in 3:30.547 which put her second overall while Whitten took the 3rd spot in 3:21.11, moving her up to third. Edmondson was fourth, trading places overall with Whitten and standing fourth overall, even though they had the same amount of points.
Whitten rode well in the Scratch race, staying near the front, and though she didn’t initiate any breaks, she chased any dangerous ones. With Hammer and Trott within striking distance and Edmondson right behind her in points, she had to ride warily. Whitten didn’t let anyone escape. But Edmondson didn’t just sit behind her in points, she sat behind her literally, like a shadow until 12 laps to go when Whitten was able to reverse the position.
With only the 500 metre TT left and too many points to make up, Whitten couldn’t catch the top three, but going up against Edmondson on the other side of the track was particularly difficult. The Aussie produced a top ride, moving into first place overall while Whitten was slower than her normal pace, finishing with a with 36.507 to put her 10th. This result kept her in 4th place, just off the podium. Edmondson took 2nd place in 35.140, while Team GB’s Trott won it and moved into the gold medal position with a 35.110. Hammer, who rode to a 4th place 35.900, taking silver.
When Whitten was able to talk about how her races went, she said making the mistake of getting boxed in Monday’s Elimination race was a real problem for her because she normally uses that race to gain more points. After that disappointment she had to gather her physical and psychological strength and use the Scratch race to the best of her abilities. It wasn’t to be.
The result was not what Whitten came to London for, but she must not forget she had already won a bronze medal in the team pursuit and has been a leader – putting women’s cycling on the map in her country as a two-time world champion and now as an Olympic bronze medalist. “It’s definitely a high-light to win the bronze in team pursuit,” she said, still very emotionally. “We really had to pull together as a team to pull that one off. I felt really proud of that. The level of competition has increased dramatically and we’ve had to keep pace with the development.”
But still, Whitten could not hold back the tears – they weren’t so much there because she didn’t win a medal, because she did. They were the culmination of five years of preparation for this day, and now it was over. “When I think I have a bit more perspective – I have to regroup – I’ve loved this journey,” she said referring to the many years it took to get to the London velodrome.” It’s been an experience both with successes and failures. That’s part of sport. I love the process of trying to be the best.”
Right now she says her future is “all a blur.” She has planned to go back to her PhD in neuroscience. “I’ll probably spend time in Edmonton, but I’ve always just focused on the Olympics.”
Men’s Keirin: Sir Hoy Becomes King
The free subway paper had a painting of Sir Chris Hoy on the front as a super-hero the day before the Keirin commenced. “The Knight on a bike, cycling’s Mr. Incredible, the most powerful thing on pedals with the thighs to prove it; he likes to leave it late, but his opponents will wish it was never.” These verses pretty well sum up the Keirin race as Hoy never faltered, from the qualification ride in the morning when he went for a ride around the track and left only New Zealand’s Simon van Velthooven able to contest.
In this race Greece’s Christos Volkakis took the win, Spain’s Juan Peralta Gascon was second and Trinidad’s Nicholas Nijsane Phillip took third. Veloce, in fourth position, was now out of the event. “The experience has been great. I’ve learned a lot. I had good form and just need more experience to get tactics down,” said Veloce after the race. “Second race I knew I had to conserve energy and start riding around the blue line clearly, so tried to stay down as long as possible. I got caught up a bit coming around the last corner and had nowhere to move. “
The final was the usual British performance. Once Hoy made his move it did not matter how strategic anyone else has been, they were swallowed up. It appeared that Levy could possibly win the race; he was ahead of Hoy going into the final stretch, but it is as if there is a special gear that Team GB riders have been able to move up to. With deafening home country cheering that made it feel as if the roof would come thundering down (it had already sprung three leaks during a rainstorm), Hoy and his thunder thighs flew to the finish. Levy took second and in a progressive move two bronze medals were awarded as there was no way to distinguish whether New Zealand’s van Velthodven or Holland’s Teun Mulder had taken solely taken third spot. The photo finish showed them absolutely exact as they crossed the line.
In terms of how these Olympics have wound up his four-Olympic career he said, “This is the perfect end to my Olympic career. At Sydney, I was just over the moon with a silver medal. If I’d have stopped then, I would have been a happy boy, but to go on to Athens, Beijing, and here, I can’t put it into words.” Hoy will try to compete until the 2014 Commonwealth Games as they are in Glasglow – and he is a Scotsman.
Women’s Sprint: Meares the Magnificent
The seemingly impossible occurred when Victoria Pendleton – who has been selling everything from shampoo to her nearly nude body in the lead-up to these Olympics – was beaten. Anna Meares, who won a bronze in Athens, a silver in Beijing, and was third at this year’s world championships was finally able to take the gold. She’d taken plenty of gold medals in the Keirin and the 500 metres but not in this event and not against Pendleton. China’s Guo once again won bronze as she had in Beijing while Germany’s Kristina Vogel took fourth place. Canada’s Monique Sullivan, at her first Olympics, was 11th.
In the first of the final heats of Meares and Pendleton, it looked as if Meares had the slightest of leads at the finish when photo finish was examined. (Though Pendleton said she had taken the sprint). But that wasn’t the deciding factor. It was determined that Pendleton had strayed outside the sprinter’s line in the straightaway before the finish and once in that lane, a rider must stay in it. Meares was rather aggressive too in the last 50 metres, using an elbow or two to make sure Pendleton understood her name was not really Queen Victoria.
But Meares did admit Pendleton was constantly on her radar. “She’s been that target, that goal that I’ve been working towards over the past four years. She’s a great champion. I wanted the opportunity to be the best and I think to be the best I needed to beat Vicky. I wanted to do it as much for myself as I did for my team and my country tonight.”
Pendleton, meanwhile, was very relieved to have ridden the last race of her life. “I won’t ever don a skinsuit again. I’m going to continue cycling to keep fit and that is it. I’m going to be able to do normal stuff.” She described the competition over the years with Meares as “an epic rivalry” but now that it is over, they “…had a good, solid hug and chat about our rivalry. I don’t think there are two others like us.”
Guo too was very glad the competition was over. After having being relegated to the silver in her team sprint event – most believe quite unfairly – she had to regain focus and compete in the Keirin – where she took silver to Pendleton’s gold – and then go through three days of sprint heats and finals.
“From day one after losing the gold….I quickly adjusted myself. These few days have been difficult for me but I tried not to think too much about it. I felt sad when I saw people’s encouraging messages after I lost the gold on the first day, but I didn’t want this feeling to affect me for the other events.”
Even the stoic Chinese have a limit. “I am used to these intensive races during training, but it was difficult indeed. There wasn’t any real rest for me between races and that certainly affected my performance later on.”
Despite being in a position where she was in awe of the women in the winner’s circles, Sullivan’s Olympic experience was crucial. From the qualifiers she was matched with China Hong Kong’s Wai Sze Lee in the 1/16 finals. Lee won the bronze medal in the Keirin two days earlier.
This opened up another chance for Sullivan and she moved onto the 1/8 finals against Meares. Later Sullivan said Meares, who is her foremost role-model, treated her “nicely” by not opening up too much of a space between them at the finish line. Meares took the sprint in 11.566.
Sullivan moved onto the 1/8 final repechage against Panarina and Natasha Hansen of New Zealand. Panarina won the race but Sullivan took a very close second. She would have to contest 9-12 place now against Holland’s Willy Kanis, Sze Lee and New Zealand’s Natasha Hansen. Sullivan placed 11th with Kanis winning in 11.852.
“I’m really happy with my effort,” said Sullivan at the end of the day. “I just tried to sprint as fast as I could and did my best. My only chance with Anna was to surprise her when I jumped. She was nice to me in that race,” she added, explaining that she felt Meares had held back somewhat. “Anna Meares is a leader for our sport and for women’s sport,” declared Sullivan.
The women’s sprint wrapped up five days of world record breaking racing. The velodrome is a beautiful piece of architecture with Siberian pine on the inside and red cedar on the exterior. Already people are pouring onto the road racing course in Surrey. The success of Team GB has most definitely turned Londoners on to cycling, though the sport – mainly as transportation and recreation – has already been growing by leaps and bounds.
Let’s hope there are still enough funds around after these very expensive Olympics have been tallied up to keep the facilities operating and accessible. A recent poll of Team GB athletes show a very large portion come from families that can afford private school fees. If cycling is to continue, more of the talented young people of this country have to have equal access to the legacies of the Games.
Full results Day 6 HERE.