Thursday, 2 August 2012

Welcome to the velodrome: how track cycling has changed since Beijing

The Olympic track cycling has just started at the velodrome. It's a beautifully designed building and a fitting tribute to all the success that our cyclists have achieved since the state-of-the-art Manchester velodrome was built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

Great Britain won seven gold medals, three silvers and two bronzes on the track in Beijing, including three golds for Chris Hoy and two for Bradley Wiggins. To put that into perspective, we won seven of 10 events and 12 of 30 medals available. Of our entire track cycling team, only Mark Cavendish failed to win a medal, and (as most of you know) he's since become the most successful road cyclist in the world. That's an astonishingly dominant performance by any measure. Even more so when you consider that the prestigious men's 1000m race - at which Britain's Jason Queally and Chris Hoy had won the previous two Olympic golds - was surprisingly cut from the Olympic programme prior to Beijing.

Repeating that performance was always going to be a difficult task, especially with several other countries increasing investment in the sport to try to catch up. But changes introduced by the UCI (the sport's governing body) at the behest of the IOC have made it an impossible one.

Firstly, each country can now only enter one rider or team for each event. This immediately means that no country will ever emulate our Beijing feat of winning more medals than there were events. The main headache this created for the GB selectors was who to pick for the men's sprint, since Jason Kenny and Chris Hoy would both be favourites to win medals. The selectors have picked Kenny on the basis of his better recent form, so Chris Hoy cannot now defend one of his three Olympic titles. As mentioned above, this is now the second time that Hoy has been prevented from defending an Olympic title.

Secondly, several events have been cut from the Olympic programme. This is an unfortunate consequence of the admirable objective of enabling women to compete in just as many track cycling events as men. Rather than adding women's equivalents of the existing men's events, the UCI have been forced to remove some events to avoid increasing the total number and thereby diluting the value of a gold medal (as the IOC would see it). The men's madison has been cut, along with the men's and women's individual pursuit events (previously won for Britain by Chris Boardman, Bradley Wiggins and Rebecca Romero) and the men's and women's points races. These events have been replaced with the women's team sprint, the women's team pursuit, the women's keirin and the men's and women's omnium races. For those of you new to track cycling, the omnium is a hexathlon of disciplines aimed at rewarding all-round cycling skill where competitors tackle a short time trial, a flying lap race, a points race, elimination race, pursuit race and scratch race.

It's worth remembering that these changes are great news for some riders - Victoria Pendleton now has the chance to ride for three gold medals rather than one, and to translate the staggering dominance she's exhibited at recent World Championships into the Olympic arena in front of an adoring home crowd. But it's a real shame that administrators couldn't have found a way to retain traditional events such as the individual 1,000m and 4,000m races while also introducing long overdue equality. Even taking into account that there are also a few mountain bike, BMX and road cycling events at London 2012, it must be pretty devastating for track cyclists to see swimmers and track and field athletes competing in 34 and 48 events respectively. I'm certainly not arguing that any sport should be structured to ensure that Great Britain wins as many medals as possible. I'm arguing that the sport should be properly represented at the Olympic Games, and that we should be able to see athletes competing to become Olympic champions in the most prestigious track cycling races.

In short, don't blame Team GB's track cyclists when we fall short of our Beijing medal tally. Blame murky manoeuvrings behind the curtain of sporting politics.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

A beginner's guide to the Olympic time trials

After your kind comments on my guide to the weekend's Olympic road races, I've been persuaded that something similar might help you all through the road time trials on Wednesday. You'll be very relieved to hear that there aren't any complicated tactics to grapple with, so this post will focus on the competing riders and assess the prospects for British success.

Hello!  Hypothetical moron reporting for duty again.  Did you miss me?

Not so much.

So I really enjoyed the road races, despite the TV coverage.  I'm ready for more cycling, and I've heard the time trials are next.  How do they work?

This time, the riders will set off one by one separated by intervals of 90 seconds. The winner is the rider who completes the course in the shortest time. It's really that simple! Is that all you wanted to know? Can I get back to watching the archery now?

Not so fast!  I have LOTS more questions for you to pretend that I'm asking.  When and where will these races happen?  Can I go and watch?

Both races take place on Wednesday - the women's race begins at 12:30 and should finish at about 13:45, and the men's race begins at 14:15 and should finish shortly after 16:00. The course winds its way from Hampton Court around south-west London and back to the palace again over a distance of 44km (with a reduced course of 29km for the women). I think Hampton Court is the only ticketed part of the course, so you can rock up anywhere else on the day and see the best riders in the world for free. Take a look at the course maps and get there early for the best views.

So it's all about times, is it?  What happens if the organisers screw up again and fail to provide proper time checks to broadcasters?  If I can't make it to the course, should I even bother tuning in?

You're right in the sense that watching a time trial without being able to see intermediate checks would be horribly masochistic. But I think the Olympic broadcasters have got the message now - even though the IOC is publicly claiming that their road race failures were caused by overexcited spectators tweeting too much! The women's road race benefited from far more accurate time checks and rider identification the following day. In any case, the time checks during a time trial are provided by computers positioned at two or three fixed checkpoints around the course, so (even if you rather generously choose to believe the IOC's explanation) interference shouldn't cause a problem here.

What happens if one rider catches another who started earlier?

Catching the rider ahead of you has no impact on the final result, though it's an encouraging sign as it obviously means that you're 90 seconds ahead of their time to that point. The starting gaps at the Tour de France time trials are usually two or three minutes, so we could see more catches in this Olympic format. When a rider gets caught, they'll be watched very closely by the race officials to make sure that they don't try to gain an advantage by staying in the slipstream of the faster rider. Doing this could result in a time penalty or perhaps even disqualification.

Do the riders use different equipment for time trial races?

Yes. Every aspect of the rider's kit and bike is fine-tuned to reduce weight and make them more aerodynamic. Even the rider's position on the bike will be different, as they keep their heads low over the handlebars to cut through the air with as little resistance as possible. Without getting too technical, look out for extremely tight lycra skinsuits, a carbon disc wheel rather than the usual spokes at the back of the bike, ovoid chain rings to help riders conserve every last drop of momentum out of a consistent pedalling rhythm and even tiny packets of gel taped to bikes to replace more cumbersome drink bottles.

I'm still a patriotic Brit because you're being consistent.  Which British riders are competing?  Could we win a medal?

Bradley Wiggins is the favourite for gold in the men's race. He comfortably won time trial stages of 41.5km and 53.5km at the Tour de France over similar terrain this month, and his background in pursuit events on the track makes him ideally suited to this event. The only cause for concern (apart from his sideburns) is that he might not have fully recovered from his exertions in trying desperately to pace Mark Cavendish back to the leaders in Saturday's road race.

Chris Froome is the only other Brit riding the time trial. Primarily a climber, he's made massive improvements in time trialling since joining Team Sky a couple of years ago. In those Tour de France time trials I mentioned, Froome finished second to Wiggins both times. He'd have an excellent chance to give Wiggins a run for his money on a more hilly course. Nonetheless, he'll still be expecting to finish in the top five and possibly to claim a well-deserved medal.

Emma Pooley and Lizzie Armitstead are riding for Britain in the women's time trial. A Cambridge engineering graduate currently studying for a PhD, Pooley won a silver medal in the same event at Beijing and has since taken gold and silver at the last two World Championships. However, all three of those courses were much better suited to her climbing prowess and efficient technical style than the flatter London course, which will probably favour stronger, heavier riders. On paper Armitstead is far less likely to win a medal, but perhaps Sunday's brilliant road race might propel her to another special performance - especially if she's been reunited with her lucky sunglasses

Sounds very promising!  Who are the other favourites?

Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara (known as 'Spartacus') is the Olympic champion and a prolific time trial specialist. You might remember that he crashed towards the end of the road race and burst into tears after finishing last, fearing that he'd broken his collarbone for the second time in three months and would miss the chance to defend this title. But the collarbone was only bruised, and his reputation for resilience was earned the hard way. Cancellara beat Wiggins in the prologue at the Tour de France over a much shorter distance, but performed poorly in one of the other time trials and pulled out of the race to concentrate on the Olympics.

Why is his nickname 'Spartacus'?  He doesn't look much like Kirk Douglas.  Does he pay a few other decoy riders to use the same nickname, just to confuse the Romans?

I don't know. It doesn't make much sense. At one point he was using "Tony Montana" as a back-up nickname, so perhaps the Swiss only allow partially-sighted people to go to the cinema? Anyway, shush, we've got more riders to talk about. Tony Martin won the time trial at September's World Championships for Germany, beating Wiggins into second place. It's difficult to assess his form as he broke his wrist at the Tour de France and missed both time trial stages. He started Saturday's road race but stopped very early to conserve energy for the time trial. If he's fully recovered from his injury, he should win a medal and could certainly take gold. As for any other contenders in the men's race, it's a very small field and that was reduced further when Australian star Cadel Evans was forced to pull out citing fatigue. Among the other 33 riders, only Luis Leon Sanchez (who finished third in one of the Tour de France time trials) and Sylvain Chavanel have a realistic shot at a medal.

Turning to the women's race, Olympic champion Kristin Armstrong (no relation to disgraced wristband magnate Lance, thank goodness) is the favourite to defend her title among a tiny field of 23 riders, though Germany's Judith Arndt should be hot on her heels.

My prediction? If you don't want to miss two British medals, you'd better stay tuned to the cycling on Wednesday. It should be well worth getting sacked for!


Since writing this post, the start times and race numbers for all the riders have been published. As expected, the favourites for gold are starting towards the end to ratchet up the tension. Here are the key times and numbers to look out for.

Women's race

Emma Pooley, GBR (number 6) - scheduled to set off at 12:57
Judith Arndt, GER (2) - 13:03
Kristin Armstrong, USA (1) - 13:04:30

Men's race

Sylvain Chavanel, FRA (8) - 14:58:30
Chris Froome, GBR (7) - 15:00
Luis Leon Sanchez, ESP (5) - 15:03
Tony Martin, GER (3) - 15:06
Bradley Wiggins, GBR (2) - 15:07:30
Fabian Cancellara, SUI (1) - 15:09

Saturday, 28 July 2012

A beginner's guide to the Olympic road race

I'm sure we're all still coming down after yesterday's incredible Olympic opening ceremony, but THE SPORT STARTS NOW people. Don't forget about the sport!

Britain's best chance of a medal today comes at the men's cycling road race. As a public service, I've allowed myself to be interviewed about it by a hypothetical moron. If you're suddenly intrigued by road cycling because we're amazing at it, or have recently suffered a life-threatening head injury, this might get you through the day.

So, road cycling. Why do I care?

Because it's a fast-paced tactical sport that produces intense moments of unforgettable drama. I can't remember whether I was going to make you a hypothetical patriotic British person, but if you are - we have a very good chance of winning a gold medal, and we've just dominated the shit out of the Tour de France.

I can ride a bike. Why should I be impressed?

They're riding 250km in less than six hours. Can you do that? No, I thought not. How about doing that almost every day for three weeks, as they do at the Tour de France? How about riding that distance at an average speed of more than 40km/h, including nine trips up a tricky little climb? Starting to sound almost impossible? It is. That's why they all deserve our attention and adulation.

Where is it? Can I go and watch?

Yes, you can still go. There are two ticketed areas on the course - the start/finish at The Mall, and part of Box Hill, the only climb on the route which the riders will tackle nine times. The rest of the 250km route isn't ticketed, so you can pop along and cheer on the riders for free. If you can find a slight incline, that might help as the riders will come past you more slowly. These projected timings should give you a good idea of when to expect the riders to pass. If you're going to sit at home, the start time is 10:00 and the estimated finish time is 15:38.

Who's riding in the race then?

There are 144 riders - you can see the full list here. Broadly speaking, they're grouped into national teams of a maximum of 5 riders, though only Spain, Italy, GB, Belgium, Australia, the US, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany have qualified to bring a full team. If you're completely neutral and desperate for someone to cheer on, scroll down to rider number 82 - yes, that's right, JACK BAUER is competing for New Zealand. Is there anything that man can't do? A couple of big names missing from the start list due to injury and illness are Sammy Sanchez, who took gold for Spain at the Great Wall course in Beijing four years ago, and Thor Hushovd, who's won the green jersey for best sprinter at the Tour de France several times and would be a major medal contender for Norway.

Let's assume I'm a patriotic Brit. I mean, you can do that, right? Since you're making me up? Who's riding for us?

There are five British riders in the race. They won't have to achieve much to beat our results in Beijing - we entered four riders there (none of whom are returning) and none of them finished due to the extreme heat - but they're aiming a little higher this time around. Taking them one by one, Bradley Wiggins has just won this year's Tour de France, the most prestigious bike race in the world. Chris Froome (who competed for Kenya until a few years ago) came second in the same race and could probably have won it if he hadn't been riding under team orders to help Wiggins. "Manx missile" Mark Cavendish has been the best sprinter in the world for at least four years, and won the road race World Championship title last year. David Millar is a veteran rider who reads the race well and will be the team captain on the road. Between those four, they won an unprecedented seven of the 21 stages at this year's Tour de France. Finally, Ian Stannard is a hard worker who will help the team to chase down any attacks that look likely to jeopardise their plan for gold.

So what are Team GB going to do? What's their plan for the race?

Their plan will be to make sure that Mark Cavendish wins a big sprint finish on the Mall - the other four riders have no medal ambitions of their own (unless something happens to Cavendish) and are primarily there to give him the best possible chance of winning gold. If they can get him to the final kilometre in the leading group, there's a very good chance he'll win. But that's going to be very difficult to achieve. Everyone else in the race knows that Cavendish has the best sprint finish of all the riders, so the other teams will be trying to launch attacks throughout the race to gain a lead over the main field (or 'peloton'). For the same reason, the onus will be on Team GB to take the leading role (and therefore expend the most effort) in chasing down any such breakaways. Box Hill will present another challenge, as Cavendish is less suited to hauling himself over climbs than some of his other sprinting rivals - however, he's lost a bit of weight this year to try to beat Box Hill, and that didn't seem to have affected his finishing power at the Tour. Even if it does come down to a big sprint finish, there are several other riders who can beat Cavendish on their day.

How will they manage to apply those tactics out on the course?

It's going to be a bit more difficult than usual as the riders can't carry team radios in this race, so they can't get any information from their team managers. That's why a veteran rider like David Millar will be so important - he can use his expertise to read the race, determine whether a particular attack is likely to succeed and whether it contains any dangerous riders, and decide whether or not the team needs to chase it down.

You've mentioned David Millar a couple of times. I thought he was a drugs cheat? Isn't that a major problem for this sport?

Well, you're partly right. He was banned for a year in 2004 for taking EPO, a drug which increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood and therefore improves endurance by boosting production of red blood cells. Unlike many other riders in the same position, Millar confessed straight away and has since established a role as perhaps the leading anti-doping advocate in the sport. He has been accepted back into the peloton and is widely respected among his peers. Despite all that, he would still have been unable to compete in the Olympics under the BOA's policy of Olympic bans for anyone convicted of a doping offence. However, that policy was struck out as unfair by the Court of Arbitration for Sport this year after a challenge by an American runner. David Millar is perhaps the best available example of a reformed drugs cheat who deserves a second chance. and Team GB will benefit hugely from his experience and decision-making in this race. Overall, cycling has become a lot cleaner over the past decade, and cyclists are subjected to more advanced testing throughout the year than any other sportsmen. Basically, don't let Lance Armstrong put you off. As far as it's possible to tell, Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish have proved to everyone that you can still win clean.

OK, you've convinced me, I'm going to watch. Let's say it comes down to a big sprint finish. Who are Cavendish's main rivals?

After the Tour, I'd say his main rival is Peter Sagan from Slovakia (wearing number 36 in this race). Sagan is only 21 but managed to win three tough stages and take this year's green jersey at the Tour at his first attempt. He doesn't have any teammates in this race as Slovakia haven't qualified any other riders, so the lack of a team leadout for a traditional sprint is a slight handicap, but he's good enough to win alone. Box Hill gives him a slight advantage as he's also a competent climber - he even managed to attack on a couple of gruelling mountain stages at the Tour, so he's perfectly capable of winning from a breakaway group too. In a sprint, the other contenders are probably Andre Greipel (number 47), who won three Tour stages and has the support of a very strong German team, and Matt Goss (number 23), who was well placed in most of the big Tour sprints but comes out of that race with quite a lot to prove. Belgium's Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert (numbers 16 and 17) could also play a part, but neither has particularly good form this year. Anyone could win if a breakaway manages to beat the main field to the line, but France's panache-dripping Sylvain Chavanel (number 54) is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

This is going to be one of the most exciting events at the Olympics, so do watch if you can. If you enjoy today's race, the women's road race (featuring Beijing's British Olympic champion Nicole Cooke) follows tomorrow, and the men's time trial follows on Wednesday, with Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome both back and battling to beat time trial specialists Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland and Tony Martin of Germany. Track cycling follows towards the end of next week.

So stay tuned throughout the day, support Team GB and let's all cross our fingers that Mark Cavendish can win our first gold of the Games!

Friday, 13 January 2012

Friday the thirteenth

The Friday the thirteenth superstition seems to have developed organically in the nineteenth century.  Unless you prefer to believe Dan Brown and his conspiracy of time-travelling nuclear weapon -wielding space Popes of manifest destiny, or whatever those books were about.  Either way, 2012 will include three Friday the thirteenths (starting today), so this year should be as unlucky as it gets.  Paraskevidekatriaphobics should be on their guard, and not just against people cobbling together ridiculous Greek words.

Spanish-speaking cultures apparently believe that Tuesday the thirteenth is unlucky instead.  Thirteen has been considered an unlucky number ever since Judas became the world's least favourite party guest, so just add your culture's least favourite day of the week and voila - the writing's on the very superstitious wall.  It's that simple.  Assuming that you're willing to believe in things that you don't understand, of course.

Here's an exhaustive list of bad (note: not remotely unfortunate) things that have happened on Friday the thirteenth.  In 1996, Tupac Shakur was pronounced dead - not shot, just the subsequent procedural formality.  In 2010, an engineering train decoupled for 13 minutes causing some minor delays on the Tube.  In 2029, an asteroid might pass unusually close to the Earth, and I'll admit that this has already inspired several godawful films.  Perhaps worst of all, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were born on a Friday the thirteenth in 1986.  But that's it.  That's all I could find.  The invasion of Poland, Hiroshima, Coldplay album releases, Lockerbie, Chernobyl, Diagnosis Murder being cancelled, Fukushima, the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the birth of James Corden, Katrina, the Great Fire, Kate Winslet getting married, 9/11, 7/7, a critical mass of people deciding that 24/7 is an acceptable adverb, the Titanic sinking, the Belgrano sinking, Pirates Of The Caribbean - none of these indescribably awful things happened on Friday the thirteenth.

One study estimated that behavioural changes cost the US economy almost a billion dollars each Friday the thirteenth.  Ascribing unlucky everyday occurrences to the coincidence of a number and a day is certainly much more fun than accepting responsibility or bothering to analyse causation.  But don't forget to buy your lottery ticket today.

Saturday, 31 December 2011

2012 quiz of the year

If you've made it through Christmas without being subjected to a seemingly interminable quiz poring over every conceivable aspect of 2011 in forensic detail, congratulations.  Really.  You deserve some sort of medal, or perhaps even a broadsheet newspaper subscription.

Trivial ritual and reminiscence is all very well, but I'd prefer to look forward (if only to sustain the rather tenuous premise of this introduction).  So I've prepared this rather tricky little batch of 12 questions about the coming year instead.  If you feel like submitting your answers and haven't cheated, you can email them to me - there might* even be a small prize!  Bribing me to procure hints is positively encouraged.  If that seems far too much like hard work**, the answers will almost certainly*** appear here in 10 days or so.   Good luck!

1.   Which central American civilisation is commonly believed to have predicted that the world would end on 21 December 2012?

2.   Which undeservedly bestselling and undeniably ludicrous work of fiction published in 2009 centres around that prediction?

3.   Why was the film '2012' banned in North Korea?

4.   Which star of '2012' had previously played an illegal immigrant forced to harvest organs in a London hotel in his first major film role?

5.   2012 marks the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing's birth.  What is the Turing test?

6.   Queen Elizabeth II will celebrate her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 (assuming that she doesn't kick the bucket before 6 February).  Which date has been designated as a special bank holiday to mark the occasion?

7.   Who is the only other British monarch to have celebrated a Diamond Jubilee?

8.   London will host the Summer Olympic Games for the third time in 2012.  In which other years did London host the games?

9.   Which three other cities have hosted the Summer Olympic Games twice?

10.   Which popular "historical science fiction action-adventure" video game series featuring the character Desmond Miles takes place primarily in 2012?

11.   How many Friday the 13ths will there be in 2012?

12.   Which British author would have celebrated his 200th birthday on 7 February 2012?

* (but there won't)
** (because you're incredibly lazy)
*** (because I'm incredibly lazy)

Saturday, 23 April 2011

About their Royal Wedding

In a long-overdue homage to the minds behind one of my favourite blogs, I thought I'd briefly hijack their MO to alert you to this unmissable item of royal wedding safety equipment.

Yes, it's a rather stylish Royal Wedding sick bag.  Designed by Lydia Leith, you can buy one directly from her website for the anything-but-princely sum of £3.  Or - because you know one bag isn't going to be enough to get through this - how about a matching (and suitably regal) gold and purple set for £8?  I'm proud to say I've ordered mine already. 

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

How to avoid setting a world record

You might remember that I got myself £200 of John Lewis vouchers by winning two games at the Cadbury Spots v Stripes event a couple of weeks ago.  And if you don't, why not?  I've mentioned it often enough (and then some).

The organisers have very kindly sent me some video footage of my miserable failures at two of the other games.  First up - stacking coins.  In case it isn't obvious, I was supposed to be doing this quickly.

Next up was competitive tea making - or, in other words, throwing teabags into mugs, adding spoons and touching a kettle to finish.  As you'll see, I've only explained those final stages of the game for completeness - I didn't even make it that far.  I'd DEFINITELY have done a lot better with coffee.  Watch all the way to the end for a world-class gesture of contemptuous petulance.  For reference, someone finished this game in 45 seconds...

Can you do better?