Simon Jones was brought to AusCycling to reverse the country’s Olympic Games medal performance, but no matter how prepared the athletes have been for Tokyo, the Briton is keenly aware that even having a shot at a medal cannot be taken for granted. .
The team are achieving their lofty goals on the track, while the road selection includes riders who have achieved the best results in some of the biggest races on the calendar and who have worn the rainbow stripes. There is a mountain biker who stood on the podium at the world championship last year and the BMX team has a recently crowned world champion. However, with the Tokyo Games taking place in the midst of a global pandemic, making sure these runners actually have the chance to run isn’t straightforward.
“These Games are unique and extraordinary, being on the start line is actually a goal. All it takes is close contact with COVID, ”said Jones, AusCycling performance director. Cycling news in an interview last week, before announcing he would be stepping down from the role after the Olympics. “Everyone has to travel overseas… we have to make sure people are healthy and we are really strict on social distancing and preventative measures.
“If we get to the start line, I think we have a chance and we have several chances in the 22 medal events. “
The changing landscape has also had an impact that extends beyond the unprecedented uncertainty of getting to the start line, with the change from the 2020 Olympics to 2021 moving the goalposts as the team was in the middle of his run.
“We won some and we lost some, I would say,” Jones said of the delay. “If you take a pure bottom line perspective, we’re probably slightly worse for the extra year… across the board.”
One of the main negative factors Jones highlighted was the loss of track sprinter Stephanie Morton, with the retirement of the four-time world champion. This left Australia a short for the team sprint, an event where Morton and Kaarle McCulloch had won gold and silver at the 2019 and 2020 World Championships, so the nation went from favorites to even not aligned.
There have also been the emergence of powerful new rivals in the men’s time trial, with Australian Rohan Dennis, world champion in the discipline in 2018 and 2019, but falling back to fifth place in 2020. Although ‘there have also been a few emerging riders from Australia who have helped balance the scales, among them Australian time trial champions Sarah Gigante and Luke Plapp, the latter of which is part of the endurance team on track.
When asked about the medal chances, BMX was one of the first opportunities reported by Jones, where Logan Martin won the BMX Freestyle World Champion title in June. This is the first time that the discipline has been entered in the Olympic Games and only nine runners take part, which initially leaves a one in three chance of winning a medal, but it is hard not to see the medal potential when the ‘we line up the runner who was recently named the best in the world.
“He’s a world champion, he’s trained, he’s healthy and I think we have a good chance there,” Jones said. “It will potentially be the best chance for gold, but I don’t want to put pressure on anyone. He’s just going to go and do his best. “
Track races have the most medals available, so it’s no surprise that they offer one of the greatest opportunities for success. At the Rio 2016 Olympics, the tally of two cycling medals – one silver and one bronze – came from the track, while in London in 2012 it was five from the track and one from the BMX.
This time, however, it is an unusual confrontation with the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting strict quarantine requirements in Australia, making it impossible to compete abroad. The lack of international competition makes it more difficult to assess the track team – composed of Matthew Glaetzer, Nathan Hart, Matt Richardson and McCulloch in the sprint team and Annette Edmondson, Ashlee Ankudinoff, Georgia Baker, Maeve Plouffe, Alexandra Manly, Sam Welsford, Leigh Howard, Kelland O’Brien, Luke Plapp and Alex Porter in endurance – stack up.
“In the timed events we improved,” said Jones. “We haven’t raced for so long so all I know is we’re going a lot faster than before. I guess the question is, what is everyone doing?
“We have set some pretty ambitious goals and are hitting them, but again that doesn’t give you any guarantees, so we’ll know in two weeks where we stand. But I know we have progressed physically and we have progressed technically. “
On the road, the more predictable of the two events is the time trial. However, there is still very little certainty with the men’s 44.2 kilometer course including the added challenge of almost 850 meters of vertical drop and also the likelihood that the weather will play a role.
Dennis will line up for Australia in the event and Richie Porte is also on the starting list. Dennis looked like he was heading for a medal at Rio 2016 when he had to change bikes in the time trial because there was a crack in the aero bars, but does he stand a chance this time ?
“I think the gap between fifth place and the podium is going to be really, really, really tight, maybe fifth from first place,” Jones said, adding that the heat could be a real leveling point.
In the women, who cover half the distance with half the elevation gain, Grace Brown and Gigante, 20, will line up. Brown placed fifth in the time trial race at the World Championships and recently won third place in the mountain time trial at the Giro d’Italia Donne. Gigante hasn’t had the chance to see how she performs in the discipline on the world stage before, but the fact that she beat Brown twice for the Australian title bodes well.
“They’ve progressed and they’re better than they were… but we can’t control the others,” Jones said. “Let’s get into the starting line healthy and I think we’re there with a scream, but there will be tiny margins of error. I think a bronze medal in the time trial is not an unrealistic goal.
The road is still unpredictable, and the men line up with a team of four, with Dennis, Lucas Hamilton and Luke Durbridge supporting Porte “because he’s got climbing form”. The women have a maximum team size of four – with Amanda Spratt, Brown, Gigante and Tiffany Cromwell – but they have a formidable Dutch team to face as they feature four of the top five riders in the world.
“You have to run your own race, and you have to run according to your strengths and think the way you get an edge over the competition,” Jones said. “You have to really know the enemy and my point is that if we respond to the Dutch it’s going to be quite difficult, so we have to be proactive.
“We actually have to adopt tactics where it can be a bit of a gamble, but also, if we don’t, then there’s a good chance we won’t get anything anyway. We have nothing to lose.