The temperature inside the velodrome, where world’s fastest track cyclists will compete this week, is hot, so hot that everyone – cyclists, Olympic employees, reporters – is sweating profusely.
Outside, it’s no more than 20 C; inside it’s 28 and rising and is expected to hit 30 during race days, when 6,000 cycling spectators will stuff the arena to its low-ceiling brim.
Air conditioning broken? The velodrome has no cooling system and the high temperature is by design. Warm air has a lower density that cool air, allowing the cyclists to move slightly faster around the track when they are at speed – up to 70 kilometres an hour.
The velodrome was clearly designed to be the fastest of its kind, all the better to set records and make headlines. The bends on the 250-metre track are pitched at 49 degrees, steeper than most, allowing riders to “dive” into the straightaway like falling missiles. The entrances to the velodrome are covered with curtain baffles to ensure that not even the slightest wind gust disturbs the riders’ trajectory.
“There are going to be some world records on race day,” Canadian track cyclist and keirin competitor Joseph Veloce (whose surname means “fast” in Italian) said Tuesday after a warm-up on the track.
Laura Brown, the Canadian team’s alternate rider (meaning she fills in if one of the women is unable to compete), said the track is so fast that the training runs alone are happening “in under world record time.”
Now that’s fast. But perhaps Brown is being modest, because several of the Canadians are looking especially quick this year and it’ s not all because of the track. The women’s team pursuit racers, anchored by formidable Tara Whitten, is expected to win a medal. She is also highly competitive in the omnium – a hybrid race made up of six events over two days. “If Tara doesn’t win a medal, it will be a big shock,” said Robert Jones, editor of Canadian Cyclist, the online sport cycling magazine.
The Canadian men have their best chance in Zach Bell, the former wrestler from the Yukon who is competing only in the omnium. “I like our [our chances] a lot more than four years ago,” he said, referring to the Canadian cyclists’ medal shutout in the Beijing Games.
The Canadians know they can perform exceedingly well in the Olympic velodrome for the simple reason they did so on the very same track in a World Cup event last February. In that event, Canada’s women won silver, behind Britain, in the team pursuit and broke a world record.
The Canadian track team represents one of Canada’s best chances for gold in London. The track events start to roll on Thursday, with the first Canadians competing on Friday.
Watching the Canadians is not the only reason to glue yourself to the TV, because some of the biggest names of the entire Olympics are competing in the track events. They include Sir Chris Hoy, the flag bearer of Great Britain who nailed three gold medals in Beijing, making him Scotland’s most successful athlete. At 36, he is nearing the end of his career in the saddle, so watching him compete will be a treat.
Among the women, the standout is Victoria Pendleton, the reigning sprint world and Olympic champion and a household name in Britain. She is famous for being high strung, emotional and exceedingly honest about the psychological and physical pain sure endures to stay at the very top of her game. “She’s the one to beat, “ said Canadian track cyclist Monique Sullivan, who has entered the sprint in keirin races.
The women’s sprint is bound to grip all of Britain because it will pit Pendleton against her traditional rival, Anna Meares of Australia, a world champion who won gold in the Athens Games in 2004. Pendleton has said she will call it quits after the London Olympics and Meares could well do the same. The Pendleton-Meares shootout is bound to be one of the most riveting and popular events of the Olympics.
Pendleton and Hoy can be credited for taking what was a fairly obscure sport and thrusting it into the British mainstream. Whitten and Bell could do the same thing for Canadians in they win medals. Maybe that’s the real reason they’re sweating in the hot velodrome.