There was an air of a crisis here on Thursday morning among the British media and the home crowd. A number of furrowed brows and a few questioning whether what they had just witnessed had really taken place.
The British women’s team pursuit squad of Ciara Horne, Joanna Rowsell-Shand, Laura Trott and Elinor Barker, having split in two midway through their four kilometre qualifying effort, ultimately posted only the fifth fastest time. It brought an end to a sequence of eight straight gold medal rides at the Track World Championships, dating back to when the International Cycling Union first introduced the women’s team pursuit onto the programme.
Six golds and two silvers in eight stagings were won by the British, as well as two Olympic titles, and the event has become synonymous with the country's success. The fifth place was viewed as an almost symbolic moment in which Britain’s era of dominance on the track had drawn to a close.
It also came the night after their women’s team sprinters, Jess Varnish and Katy Marchant, had failed to secure a berth at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, despite ending fifth. The duo immediately questioned the selection policy of British Cycling over the two-year qualification period, asserting that “bad decisions” had been made en-route to them missing out on one of five European places available.
Come the close of the evening, the mood in the velodrome had completely shifted. Trott hit back to claim a scratch race gold medal, the men’s team pursuit squad claimed a closely fought silver against Australia, while Becky James delivered another feel good story by ending two years of injury problems to win keirin bronze.
Stunning gold medals followed in the next two days for Jon Dibben and Jason Kenny in the men’s points race and sprint respectively, while the women’s team pursuit squad set a national record to take bronze. Another Trott triumph in the omnium and triumph for the Sir Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish double act in the madison then increased the feel good factor some more. Having failed to secure a gold one year ago to ending top of the medals table with five. Crisis, what crisis?
The Championships, however, did continue to underline that the gap between Britain and the rest of the world has considerably shortened since competition was held at the same velodrome at London 2012. The Olympics saw the hosts finish comfortably top of the track cycling medals table, with seven golds in 10 events. Taking into account only the Olympic disciplines at the World Championships here, they would have ended with two golds, a silver and two bronze.
Certainly, replacing stalwarts such as Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton was always going to set the British team back. However, rather than their team going backwards, it feels like the rest of the world has moved forwards.
The women’s team pursuit provides the clearest example of this. Britain were blessed with a full contingent of strong riders when the move was made to have the race mirror the men’s competition, where a four-person team compete over four kilometres, rather than three riding one kilometre less.
Other countries were less fortunate.
For instance, when the British team claimed the world title in 2014, they posted a winning time of 4min 23.407sec, whereas the United States clocked 4:39.026 to come fifth. Fast forward two years and the American team achieved 4:14.806 en-route to gold, with Britain achieving a national record 4:16.350.
Looking ahead to Rio 2016, the discipline looks likely to be one of the highlights of the track cycling programme, with five teams arguably in contention to claim the gold medal. With world record holders Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States all within four seconds of each other five months out from the Games, an event which had been dominated by one country is now wide open. A world record in the event feels almost a formality.
Equally the men’s event looks likely to provide a fascinating battle, with Australia and Britain leading the way. Sprint competitions also appear to be more competitive than ever, a point made clear by four previous world champions contesting the women’s keirin final.
Rather than suggesting an era might be about to end, we should perhaps be lauding the fact that track cycling looks more unpredictable than ever heading towards Rio 2016. It would also be wrong to suggest that a chasm between the British team and the rest of the world ever existed. The gap was already tight and has now got tighter.
The unpredictability has certainly provoked added excitement throughout the duration of these five-day World Championships. Interestingly, perhaps the most exciting races have proved to be ones that are not currently on the Olympic programme.
The points race, removed as an Olympic discipline after Beijing 2008, delivered throughout the duration of the week. Jon Dibben’s victory in the men’s race arguably proved to be the highlight of the Championships, as the Briton launched into a powerful sprint in the final two laps of the 40km event to move to the top of the leaderboard. Equally as part of the omnium, the race provided a tight four-way battle for the gold medal in the closing stages of the competition, ultimately leaving the top three level with the same number of points.
Although the discipline is one of the more lengthy events on the programme, it is hard to argue that the points race is not a crowd pleaser. Similarly, while the madison is one of the difficult events to follow for a new viewer of the sport, its spectacle is clear. With International Cycling Union President Brian Cookson eyeing having more track disciplines added to the Olympic programme for future Games, the two disciplines, which were removed to allow for more women’s races to be held, would surely feature highly as possible candidates for inclusion.
Their addition would add further opportunities for endurance riders, with disciplines currently appearing to be weighted in favour of sprinters. Fans still look set to be treated to an unpredictable and exciting mix of races throughout Rio 2016, with medals likely to be spread across various countries.
It would not come as a surprise, however, to see Britain heading the track cycling medal table again.