Victoria Pendleton did Friday night what she always does in velodromes. She wins, stays cool and calm, and stands proud for Britain as the house belts out God Save the Queen. Then this high-strung genius of a sprinter bursts into tears.
The tears from the woman who has no hesitation in baring her psychological soul meant she was overwhelmed with jubilation, and deserved to be. It’s not just that she had won gold in a truly weird cycling event called keirin; it’s that her win marked Britain’s third gold in two days in the Olympic velodrome.
Britain now utterly owns cycling both inside and outside the Olympic site. The country’s winning streak is a thing of beauty and Pendleton’s medal brought the house down. The cheering was deafening, easily making it the loudest and most enthusiastic Olympic venue so far.
Look what the Brits have accomplished in less than two weeks: Bradley Wiggins’s victory in the Tour de France, the first Brit to take the prize; Wiggins’s gold in the Olympic time trial; Olympic gold for Sir Chris Hoy in the team sprint, making him Britain’s most successful Olympian; gold in the men’s team pursuit.
Then, minutes later, Pendleton’s gold in the keirin. And while cycling’s road events are finished for London 2012, there are many more in track. Britain could add a fourth or fifth cycling gold to its tally.
Pendleton, 31, who won gold in sprint in the 2008 Beijing Games plus a rude number of world championships, said it was hard not to be distracted by the British success that came just before her own race. “I was just, like, ‘Focus, Vic, focus. You’ve still got a race,’ ” she told the BBC.
Making her victory all the sweeter is that she beat her traditional rival, Anna Meares of Australia, the reigning world keirin champion and an Olympic gold medalist herself. More than a few track-cycling fanatics thought Meares would humble Pendleton in the velodrome. The Aussie made an early move, but Pendleton surged ahead in the last one-and-a-half laps, leaving Meares to finish a distant fifth.
A young Canadian athlete making her Olympic debut, Calgary’s Monique Sullivan placed sixth and was delighted with her performance. She had, after all, made the keirin finals after two competition rounds. She competed with no less than Pendleton, the queen of the velodrome, and she almost beat Pendleton’s main rival, Meares.
It wasn’t a bad evening’s work for Sullivan, a Canadian national track champion. A year ago, she didn’t even think she would qualify for the world championships. “I was really excited to have this opportunity, to be on the line with Anna Meares, my idol,” she said moments <QL>after the race.
The women’s keirin, a race that may not make a lot of sense to the untrained bicyclist, made its Olympic debut in London. Invented in Japan, it requires the cyclists to follow a motorized scooter for the first six of the eight laps. As the scooter moves at ever-increasing speeds, the cyclists jostle for position. When the scooter disappears, the real battle begins in an explosion of energy.
Remarkably, Pendleton claims the keirin is her least favourite race.
Sullivan, who moves onto the sprint event Sunday, wasn’t the only Canadian girl beaming on Friday. Smiles could also be spotted on the faces of the 3000-metre team pursuit trio of Tara Whitten, Gillian Carleton and Jasmin Glaesser.
They placed fourth in the qualifying round, after Britain, the United States and Australia, and go to the finals on Saturday, where they could easily pick up a medal because the times among the leaders are so close. In track racing, the times are measured in thousandths of a second. Australia bested Whitten and company in the qualifying round by 0.026 of a second, which makes the blink of an eye seem glacial.
The velodrome will see another strange race when the men’s omnium starts Saturday. Canada’s Zachary Bell, who was born in the Yukon, is the one to watch, having won two world championships.
The omnium is a grind. It takes place over two days and involves a flying lap, a points race, an individual pursuit, a scratch race, a kilometre time trial and an elimination race.
Never mind the details. The point is to go fast.