August 23, 2004 – Men’s Team Pursuit: Ten countries contested this event with Australia going in as the world record holder in a time of 3:57:280, which was set at the 2003 Track Worlds in Stuttgart, Germany. Four years ago the Germans won the Olympic race in a time of 3:59:710 in Sydney. The first qualifying event whittled the field down to the top eight: Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the Ukraine, Great Britain, France, Australia, and Lithuania. In the first round Germany beat the Netherlands 4:03:785 to 4:04:605. Spain took the Ukraine in 4:02:374 to 4:05:266, while Britain overtook France to finish in 3:59:866, and Australia overtook Lithuania in 3:56:610 to set yet another world record at this very fast track.
These finishes set up Spain against Germany for the bronze medal and fourth place, with Australia taking on Great Britain for the gold and silver medals. While the qualifier and first round were run in super hot conditions, temperatures for the late afternoon final were a cool 30 with an even cooler breeze, making a more comfortable atmosphere, but not one as conducive to the fast times recorded on the track during the very still, hot weather.
In a major upset, Spain took Germany, the former Olympic gold medallists, in a decisive match for the bronze in a time of 4:05:523 to the German’s 4:07:193. The perennial grudge match between Britain and Australia favoured those down under in an even more decisive 3:58:233 to 4:01:760.
Rob Hayles from the British team paid tribute to his own team and the Aussies. “It was a nice final. We tried very hard for the best performance that we could achieve. I am very happy for the medal. Congratulations to the Australian team. It was the best.”
Meanwhile, the Aussie gold medal train became very patriotic. “The job is done,” said Brad McGee. “We got over the line. It’s always your national duty.” The team also recognized the two members of their national training squad-Peter Dawson and Stephen Woooldridge-who despite fine performances this year as pros in Europe, did not qualify for one of the hardest national teams in the world to make. “After the race it was more about our team,” said McGee. “The two guys that didn’t make it-we were thinking about them.”
Women’s Individual Pursuit Final Four years ago in Sydney when Leontien Zijlaaard-Van Moorsel of Holland set a world record of 3:30:816, no one thought it was breakable. How wrong we were. In May 2004, New Zealand’s Sarah Ulmer recorded 3:30:604, which turned out to be just a tease before the storm she performed in Athens. During the qualifying rounds, Ulmer smashed her record by an astounding 4:204 seconds, a feat unheard of today as world records normally only change by miniscule amounts.
Each day at the velodrome was hotter than the previous one as competitors warmed up and down in ice vests. Twelve countries entered this event and after the first round, eight remained with Australia’s Katherine Bates taking on Elena Chalykh of Russia, which ended with a triumph for Bates. Ziljaard-van Moorsel made short order of Switzerland’s Karin Thuerig, as did Australia’s Katie Mactier of Great Britain’s Emma Davies. In the final heat Ulmer caught Russia’s Olga Slyusareva.
These finishes set up the bronze and fourth place race between Ziljaard-van Moorsel and Bates, with Ulmer and Mactier facing off for the gold. It was Ziljaard-van Moorsel’s last race of her career and she rode her fastest time ever in 3:27:037 to take bronze with Bates bringing it in in 3:31:715. With a packed stadium, and every New Zealander in Greece there, the two long-time friends faced off under stinking hot conditions. After the first lap Ulmer was up .407 seconds and maintained her slight lead for the next two half- laps.
Then the clock switched and Mactier crept up, first with .060 and for the next nine half-laps, Mactier’s lead wandered up to nearly one second as she recorded a .929 lead. And then, once again, things started to change as Ulmer shaved the time down so by the eighth of twelve laps commenced, she was up again by .383 seconds. From here, the Ulmer train, all 137 pounds of it, just kept accelerating. At the start of the ninth lap, she was ahead by 1.044. At lap 10 it was 2.253, lap 11, 2.512, and by the end of the 12th and final lap, Ulmer was 3.24 seconds in the lead and had recorded the astounding time of 3:24:537 for the gold. Mactier finished in 3:27:650 to take the silver.
No one could have predicted that the most astonishing time Ulmer set in the qualifying ride would fall the next day by 1:863 seconds. Ulmer needed help off her bike, but then the celebrating began. She and Mactier rode together in the victory lap, arms around each other to a thunderous standing ovation. It was a moment in sport history of the same magnitude of Bannister’s cracking of the four-minute barrier.
When asked what the limit may be for this event, Ulmer, who couldn’t stop smiling during the press conference, replied, “Every ride I do I give 150%. Who knows what’s possible?” But, asked one journalist after another, How did this happen? Ulmer and Mactier couldn’t stop giggling, but finally Ulmer answered. “Previously Leontien has held (the record) for many, many years. She is a bench mark that we all worked towards.”
Mactier added that she had “3:27” taped to her bedroom wall since the World Championships in Stuttgart in 2003. “And then this one went and did 3:26:00” she said, laughing. Zijlaard-van Moorsel believed that “something special” had taken place. “This is the fastest women’s pursuit field in the history of cycling,” she said. All three medallists had, after all, broken the world record. For now, though, after setting two world records in two days, Ulmer says she will “put her feet up, and enjoy the two of them for a couple of days.”