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Cycling preview: Improved tech has U.S. women riding high in Rio

The U.S. women, reigning team pursuit world champions, can win the first American cycling track gold medal since the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

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Team GB dominated the track in London four years ago, winning eight of the 10 events, but with the retirement of riders like six-time gold medalist Chris Hoy and double gold medalist Victoria Pendleton—now a racing driver and a jockey, respectively—Rio 2016 will not be London 2012. This time around, the Brits arrive as world champions in just two of the Olympic events (Jason Kenny in the men’s sprint and Laura Trott in the women’s omnium) compared to six out of 10 four years back. Rivals like Australia and Germany may have a good chance of dethroning the Brits in Rio.

The track competition will take place on the 250-meter oval in the velodrome at Barra Olympic Park. The three men’s and women’s individual events consist of the individual sprint, where riders often go as slow as possible early as they battle for track position, then go all-out in a final sprint for the line, the keirin, where a group of riders are pace-controlled by a motorbike until the last 600 meters of the two-kilometer race, and the omnium, where riders collect points through six different disciplines. There are also two team events, the team sprint and the team pursuit.

In the team sprint, two teams of riders (three men or two women) start on opposite sides of the track and race around in a line. At the end of each lap the lead rider pulls off, and the winning team is the one whose final rider sets the fastest time. The team pursuit setup is similar, except that both men’s and women’s teams comprise four riders (in London there were only three on women’s teams), all riders stay in the race, and the distance is much longer: 4,000 meters for men and 3,000 for women.

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At London 2012, the U.S. women’s track cycling squad, operating on a shoestring budget and using a primitive data-driven approach, won the country’s first track cycling medals since 1992, sliver in the team pursuit and the omnium. This year, the US women enter as the reigning world champions in team pursuit and will ride on bespoke bikes—their Felt TA/TRD bike features a radical departure from cycling tradition: the gears are on the left-hand side and will be watched over by IBM’s Watson cognitive computing platform. Four years ago, Team GB set the current 3:14.051 world record time in the Olympic final. But on its way to the 4,000-meter world title in March, Team USA recorded a time of 3:12.783 at the 3,000-meter mark. So expect records to fall in Rio, and perhaps the first US men’s or women’s track gold medal since Marty Nothstein’s sprint victory at Sydney 2000.


Athletes/teams to watch

Laura Trott

Team GB needs a new leader now that Hoy and Pendleton have retired. Trott, who won gold in the omnium and team pursuit at London 2012, and is the reigning omnium world champion might well be the top candidate for that role. Born a month premature with a collapsed lung, Trott was diagnosed with asthma at 6, and carries an inhaler around with her everywhere. Still just 24, she could still have a decade or so of competition, including two more four-year Olympic cycles, ahead of her. Ample time to outdo even Hoy’s record of six Olympic gold medals and one silver.

Sarah Hammer

Rio 2016 will be Hammer’s third Olympic Games after Beijing 2008 and London 2012. Four years ago she picked up silver medals in the omnium and team pursuit, kept off the top spot by Trott and her Team GB squad. At the world championships in 2013 and ’14, Hammer reversed the results in the omnium, twice beating Trott for gold, and Hammer’s Team USA won the team pursuit at this year’s world championships in March. She is a decade older than her four teammates, who were not part of the team in London, and Trott, but heads to Rio as a medal favorite in the team pursuit and omnium.

Mark Cavendish

For all of his success in cycling, including overall points wins at all three grand tours (Vuelta a España 2010, Tour de France 2011, Giro d’Italia 2013), Cavendish has never won an Olympic medal. Together with Bradley Wiggins, he was the favorite to win gold in the madison track event at Beijing 2008, but they finished ninth. At London 2012 he was favorited to win the road race, supported by a British team including Wiggins and Chris Froome, but crossed the line 29th. As if to highlight how much this discrepancy matters to him, Cavendish pulled out of this year’s Tour de France on Tuesday, having already won four stages, to concentrate on succeeding in the omnium in Rio.

Bradley Wiggins

Wiggins won six Olympic medals, three of them gold, on the track at Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, and Beijing 2008, before gaining fame on the road. In 2012 he became the first British rider to win the Tour de France, then doubled up with victory in the London 2012 time trial 10 days later. One of very few cyclists to have significant success both on the track and the road, Wiggins then began to transition back to track racing. He broke the hour record in June 2015, and won the world championship in the madison alongside Cavendish in March. In Rio he’ll be part of the British team pursuit squad, aiming to extend Team GB’s run of three-straight Olympic titles.

Anna Meares

With her biggest opponent, Pendleton, now retired, Meares, the reigning Olympic sprint champion, could become the first ever Australian cyclist to win three Olympic gold medals in Rio—she also won gold in the 500-meter time trial at Athens 2004. She will lead her country’s delegation out as the Australian flag-bearer at the opening ceremony on Aug. 5 before turning her attention to three events, the team sprint, keirin and individual sprint. Meares is the sort of fighter anyone would want on their team. Seven months before Beijing 2008, she broke her neck in a crash during a race, but was back on her bike 10 days later, and won silver in the sprint in China that August.

Gold-medal dates

Men’s team sprint: Thursday, Aug. 11 at 3 p.m. E.T.

Women’s team sprint: Friday, Aug. 12 at 3 p.m. E.T.

Men’s team pursuit: Friday, Aug. 12 at 3 p.m. E.T.

Women’s team pursuit: Saturday, Aug. 13 at 3 p.m. E.T.

Men’s keirin: Tuesday, Aug. 16 at 3 p.m. E.T.

Women’s keirin: Saturday, Aug. 13 at 3 p.m. E.T.

Men’s omnium: Monday, Aug. 15 at 3 p.m. E.T.

Women’s omnium: Tuesday, Aug. 16 at 3 p.m. E.T.

Men’s sprint: Sunday, Aug. 14 at 3 p.m. E.T.

Women’s sprint: Tuesday, Aug. 16 at 3 p.m. E.T.