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Cycling: Leading from the front matter of split-seconds

Dylan Kennett has been the national pursuit team No 1 since 2013. Photo / Photosport
Dylan Kennett has been the national pursuit team No 1 since 2013. Photo / Photosport

Few Olympic sporting assignments are more intimidating than leading a team pursuit of cyclists out in a velodrome.

The fan cacophony reverberates off the ceiling and on to the Siberian spruce track as opposing quartets power through their gargantuan gears in a 4000m chase.

Dylan Kennett is the favourite to be New Zealand's 'man one' in Rio, assuming his team spot is confirmed in early July.

He's been in the job since the London Games when the core of the country's Olympic team who won consecutive bronze medals left to pursue road careers.

Kennett and the team earned world championship bronze at Cali, Colombia, in 2014, gold at Paris in 2015 and slipped to seventh at London this year. The 21-year-old's already experienced the full gamut of emotion associated with the job.

He is an advertisement for the benefits of community sport. When he wasn't staying up to watch the Tour de France on television, Kennett rode at social meets in Waimate where "we thought we were the big time in front of the crowd".

Then something special happened.

"I remember seeing Marc Ryan dominating racing in his skin suit, and thought I'd like to give that a go," Kennett said. "I watched him get bronze in 2008 at Beijing and my mum worked with his aunt, which increased the interest. Then I saw Hayden Roulston get silver in the individual pursuit. That fixed my liking of the sport.

"Then we moved from the country into town, close to the velodrome. Dad bought me a bike, I ended up winning my first race and I haven't looked back."

However, that creates a rare downside in what he considers a privileged job. He can't return to his local track often enough.

"We're unlucky the world championships and carnival racing are at similar times on the calendar, so we can't go to the local meets. It's a bummer because surely more kids would do it if they could go along and watch."

Kennett relishes the responsibility as the lead-out rider in the opening throes of a team pursuit. He must get the tempo right. It is a scenario dictated by split seconds as coach Tim Carswell calls the times from the side of the track.

"It's a pretty big job for myself and Piet [Bulling] being cemented as No 1 and No 2 since 2013. It is a lot of pressure but we enjoy that.

"I have to be within 0.1 or 0.2 seconds of what we want. If I go too fast, Piet knows the feel of my turn, so he'll give it more gas to keep on pace [and not lose the draft of Kennett's wheel]. Usually I'm bang-on or slightly quicker. We've got it fine-tuned, but sometimes we can be rusty at the start of training.

"It's important we don't get overawed by the occasion, because it has big consequences. Our whole ride's in trouble if we're too fast or slow early on."

A crucial part of Kennett's mojo is his bike set-up which is designed to combat a series of injuries to his knee and back.

"Somehow you've still got to manage the hard training. It can be harder if you're a bit less conditioned, but we've had such a good training block recently that I'm on equal terms.

"On the track, my main problem is the knee. My back is not as affected because the rides are so short. Everyone else's rides are set up for optimal performance, whereas mine tends to be set up for comfort to get me through trainings. My pursuit saddle height is lower than it used to be, and I do a lot of stretching before sessions.

"It's no use being super-aerodynamic if you can't turn the pedals around. Likewise, it's no use being comfy if you can't push the watts to win."

Kennett's first rainbow jersey, earned with the 2015 world championship, still reminds him of his capability, which has helped at a low ebb in training.

"Last year I looked down, saw the rainbow on my sleeve, and it gave me an incentive to keep going when I was suffering. We've been on the top step. We should be able to do the same in Rio."

Kennett still has plans for the track, like excelling in the omnium and individual pursuit, before he makes a more permanent transition to the road. Within five years, he hopes to complete a circle back to childhood, but with a distinct difference. This time, he'll be riding rather than watching Le Tour.

- Herald on Sunday

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