Alarm bells ring for British cycling team

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 July, 2012, 12:00am


The last time thousands of Britons lined The Mall, it was to honour the queen, who was celebrating her diamond jubilee. This time there was no party, with the air filled with disappointment after Mark Cavendish failed to give the hosts the expected gold medal in the men's road race.

The great expectations that the 'Manx Missile' could get the Olympics off to a winning start for Britain were dashed by opponents who he later accused of being 'happy not to win as long as we don't win'.

This attitude is almost universal across many sports as far as England is concerned. As long as England is knocked out early be it in the European soccer championship or Rugby World Cup , the rest of the world does not mind who wins. The neutral fan in cricket will always back the team playing against England. South Africa's recent win in the opening test would have been greeted with joy from Australia to Zimbabwe. There is an us-vs-them feeling every time an English team front up, us being the world united against the English.

But you had to feel for Cavendish. He was the only British rider to return from the Beijing Olympics without a medal four years ago, although everyone thought that would be addressed in London. And confidence was brimming because a week earlier, his teammate Bradley Wiggins, the fastest man on two sideburns, had won the Tour de France.

That victory was greeted as if it was the second coming. Commentators rushed to pour tribute on Wiggins, most calling it the greatest sporting achievement by a Briton in history. Perhaps by an individual for even if you loathe them, you have to grudgingly admit they once did win the soccer World Cup.

Yet considering this country had been trying to win the toughest cycling race on earth for nearly a century, Wiggins' feat was remarkable. It probably gave the country a false sense of security. Everyone thought that all Team GB had to do was to turn up at the start of the road race and it would end in a ceremonial ride-through 250km down the historic avenue which lies in the shadows of Buckingham Palace.

'We are here to see Cavendish win,' pony-tailed Jenny, who with her friends had come early to grab a vantage spot along the tree-line boulevard, said. Sadly they left disappointed, tucking their little Union Jacks into their bags.

Planning for victory began almost three years ago. When the course was announced last year, British Cycling travelled the distance more than 50 times planning strategy. With no radio communication during the race, they looked at the best spots to plant people with Formula One-style pit boards which would relay information to the riders.

Cavendish's bike, clothing and helmet had been developed with the latest technology to attain maximum performance. The best advantage was that the race was in their own backyard. But the best laid plans all came undone.

Cavendish and the team, limited to five riders, gave their best, but perhaps their tactics backfired. They hung back in the peloton , allowing a group of a dozen or so riders to dictate the pace in front. At one stage, the gap between the two groups was more than six minutes but this was brought back to under a minute at the end of the nine laps around the Surrey Box Hill.

Each lap was of about15km along a zig-zag route with long, hilly stretches. It was here that the British might have misjudged. Instead of reeling in the leaders early, they sat back and played a waiting game, confident in the talent of Wiggins and Tour de France runner-up Chris Froome, as well as David Millar and Ian Stannard that they could shepherd Cavendish into a sound position so that the world's best sprinter could finish off the rest of the field coming down The Mall.

But Team GB got it wrong. They had thought that riders from other countries would help them by setting the pace. Instead everyone sat behind the British, waiting for them to make a move.

Setting the pace is exhausting and soon, one by one, Cavendish found his support falling away. It left him with no one to follow. He was bitter at the end and took a swipe at the Australians. 'They sat there riding negatively. But I'm proud of the rest of my team, they did everything and more. We were the victims of our cycling success.'

It is sad, because a win by Cavendish on the first day of competition would have set the Games up perfectly for the hosts. Even the president of the International Olympic Committee shed his neutrality and came out before the race hoping for a host-nation victory.

But like Jenny and her friends, Rogge left disappointed.

The road-race debacle might have even further repercussions. Wiggins, who is a medal favourite in the time trial, looked totally drained and the country will be praying he recovers in time for his pursuit of Olympic glory.

The long, hard haul of becoming the first Briton to win the Tour de France might just be catching up with the man who rang the Olympic bell inside the stadium on opening night. That bell heralded celebrations but now there is another bell ringing inside the British cycling camp - an alarm bell.