By Martyn Herman
IZU, Japan (Reuters) – China’s team sprinters took the first gold on offer in the Olympic track cycling program as Bao Shanju, and Zhong Tianshi powered to victory at the Izu Velodrome on Monday. The duo broke their world record in the first round, and although they were fractionally slower in the final, it was enough to beat Germany and retain the title.
If the opening track day was anything to go by, the fans allowed into the venue, the only indoor arena at the Olympics to permit it, are in for a treat. The riders reported fast track conditions, and Germany’s women’s team pursuit also set a world record — obliterating Britain’s mark from Rio five years ago.
The quartet of Franziska Brausse, Lisa Brennauer, Lisa Klein, and Mieke Kroeger completed 16 laps of the 250m Izu track in 4:07.307 to smash the record by nearly three seconds. “In training, we saw that the track is pretty fast and that our shape is good and we are pretty harmonic together, and so we aimed for it (the world record),” Kroeger told reporters.
Britain, whose previous mark had been the 4:10.236 they clocked to beat the United States in Rio’s 2016 gold medal showdown, was the last team to go in the qualifiers and looked set to claim back bragging rights. But after being a full second ahead on comparisons at the 3,000m mark, they faded and finished in 4:09.022 — better than their Rio time, but leaving them with plenty to think about.
The British team, including four-time Olympic gold medallist Laura Kenny, were second quickest and will now ride against the United States, breaking the old world record. Fourth-quickest Italy will take on a buoyant Germany. The women’s team sprint final was a showdown between reigning Olympic champions China and Germany, for whom Emma Hinze and Lea Friedrich were in tandem.
The Chinese edged it by 0.085 seconds. It was a second consecutive Olympic gold for Zhong, who took the Rio title with Gong Jinjie. “It feels perfect because for the last few years I’ve had a lot of problems. Everything has been a problem, so for me, it’s amazing,” Zhong, referring to knee injuries, told reporters. “Going into the final, we said, ‘Just do it.”
There was drama in the men’s team pursuit qualifiers as Australian Alex Porter crashed after the handlebars of his bike snapped off. They were granted a re-run which meant an anxious wait for Britain, winners of the gold medal for the last three Games, who were fourth quickest on the time charts.
Australia could not beat the British time, however, meaning Ed Clancy’s dream of a fourth gold medal in team pursuit lives on, at least until they ride against the Danes on Tuesday. World champions Denmark set a searing pace with a new Olympic record, minutes after Italy had done the same.
Denmark, who took track cycling’s blue riband event into new territory at the 2020 world championships when they lowered the world record three times, clocked 3:45.014. It was massively quicker than the 3:50.265 Britain clocked to win the gold in Rio, a then world record, but just outside their own world best of 3:44.672 set in Berlin last year.
New Zealand was third quickest and will face an Italian team powered by road world champion Filippo Ganna. While five teams went below 3:50 — Clancy said it could have been quicker. “We were fully prepared for perhaps four or five teams to break the world record, so if anything, I’m surprised more teams weren’t going quicker,” he said.
Track cycling is the only event at the COVID-19 hit Olympics to have spectators in an indoor venue. The Izu velodrome is 130km away and not under Tokyo’s state of emergency. Around 1,000 fans were present on Monday. (Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond)