Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Cycling: BikeNZ moves to temper Olympic expectations

Alison Shanks on her way to winning individual pursuit gold
Alison Shanks on her way to winning individual pursuit gold

The New Zealand track cycling team's success at the world championships in Melbourne needs to be put into context ahead of the Olympics.

Three of the five medals came in non-Olympic events, something the team is keeping in perspective, but public expectation also needs to be tempered.

The temptation is to believe the five medals (one gold and four bronze) will translate to similar Olympic success. That theory presents false hope, even though the haul is the best effort at a world championships by this country.

Three medals (Alison Shanks' gold and Westley Gough's bronze in the individual pursuit and Simon van Velthooven's bronze in the kilo time trial) were in events that will not be raced at London.

When it comes to selecting a Games team, a better gauge is to look at New Zealand contenders in the top six of Olympic events - the men's and women's team pursuits, the men's team sprint, keirin, and omnium.

A warning about over-expectation comes from the New Zealand rowing team's efforts at the 2007 world championships. New Zealand won three gold medals and two silvers (one gold was in the non-Olympic men's lightweight single sculls). The rowers finished with one gold and two bronze medals at the following year's Beijing Games. It was Rowing New Zealand's finest Olympic haul - but it was still less than initial expectations. It was a classic case of the Olympics requiring another tier to be added to human peak performance.

BikeNZ high performance director Mark Elliott has consistently said their programme (including road, track, mountain bike and BMX) wants four Olympic medals at London.

This is realistic, but would wildly surpass anything New Zealand has done before involving a bike saddle. It would double New Zealand's historical haul of cycling medals. It took New Zealand until 1992 to get the first - Gary Anderson's bronze in the individual pursuit (IP) - followed by Sarah Ulmer's 2004 IP gold, Hayden Roulston's 2008 IP silver and the effort by Roulston, Sam Bewley, Jesse Sergent, Marc Ryan and Westley Gough to get team pursuit bronze.

However, strong results over the past decade have brought significant investment from Sport New Zealand (there has been $15.1 million over this Olympic cycle, only surpassed by rowing's $15.51 million).

That sort of cash injection demands podium finishes at London. The Government is also providing $7 million to develop the cycling centre of excellence in the Waikato/Bay of Plenty.

The onus now goes on the BikeNZ selectors. They are expected to send their nominations to the New Zealand Olympic Committee by April 24. A team announcement is due by the end of the month.

There has been talk of "good selection headaches" but, whatever way it breaks down, a couple of athletes will endure gut-wrenching disappointment. While the women's team largely selects itself, the men's team (maximum eight riders) poses a problem as New Zealand looks for representation in all five disciplines.

Gough's effort in the now Olympic-redundant individual pursuit can be discounted but his strength in the team pursuit was notable. Sergent is guaranteed a return for the Games but Gough's performance in Melbourne and earlier in the year in London places pressure on his fellow incumbents - Bewley, Ryan and Aaron Gate. A call will be made after the selectors ascertain each rider's output capability. If that cannot distinguish the best candidates, discretion comes into play.

Selecting the team sprinters is also a tricky proposition. Van Velthooven's bronze-medal winning performance in the kilo time trial must be given less weight with its non-Olympic status. However, his third place in the keirin (later relegated to sixth on a technical breach) means he is a strong Olympic medal contender. If van Velthooven earns a spot on that basis, he will also be required for the team sprint.

Team sprinters Ethan Mitchell, Eddie Dawkins and Sam Webster took bronze at Melbourne, but the medal came with the disqualification of strong British and German outfits who would be favoured to finish higher in London. The fact they've been together for a sustained period makes it an even harsher decision to axe one. Mitchell is expected to stay as the specialist starter out of the gates with Dawkins, Webster and van Velthooven likely to contest the other two spots.

Shane Archbold shapes as the best omnium contender despite finishing fifth in Melbourne. A disappointing points race saw him slip out of podium contention. He took silver in the Netherlands last year.

The other loser out of the selection process will be the road team which has earned two places for London - big nations like Australia get six. In the wake of Julian Dean's fractured leg, Greg Henderson, Hayden Rouston and Jack Bauer are the contenders. To enable New Zealand to carry a reserve in the team pursuit (and rest other athletes in earlier rounds) they may opt to transfer a rider from the road. That means Sergent, Bewley or Ryan could cross to help for a portion of the 260km race before pulling out.

- Herald on Sunday

- Herald on Sunday

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