The UCI Track Cycling World Championships beginning in Melbourne tomorrow will be an important litmus test for New Zealand riders towards their London Olympic aspirations.
The championship is an important hit-out but for New Zealand not only in preparations for London but also in the non-Olympic events with an eye to the future.
“There’s 17 weeks to the Olympics after Melbourne. We will bring our riders back down and build again for the Olympics so we would like to do well in Melbourne,” said men’s endurance coach Tim Carswell.
“It sits well for us. We won’t be entirely at full strength but we will be targeting this. It will provide us not only with the level of racing and intensity we are looking for, but an opportunity to see just where we stand and what adjustments we need to make to the final campaign for London.”
The BikeNZ track team want to build on the strong performances they have secured since High Performance Director Mark Elliott took over the reins in 2007. New Zealand have won just 22 medals at the track world championships since Harry Kent’s silver in the kilo 42 years ago and importantly half of those medals have come in the last three years.
New Zealand has qualified a full quota of riders in endurance and sprint events for both men and women for the first time and the 20-strong team which is the biggest of all nations here in Melbourne.
It follows the late qualification by the women’s sprint combination of Natasha Hansen and Katie Schofield after world class performances at November’s Oceania Championships and the World Cups in Beijing and London.
The 12-strong men’s squad has an average age of 23 years and the women 25 years including experienced US-based professional Joanne Kiesanowski at 32. The entire 20 strong squad has an average age of under 24 years.
The seven sprinters competing in Melbourne have an average age of 22 years in a discipline where full maturity of performance is not in evidence until the late 20s or early 30s.
Overall the New Zealand team will be looking to equal if not better the record bounty of four medals at each of the last two world championships.
Leading the way will be the women’s endurance trio of Alison Shanks, Lauren Ellis and Jaime Nielsen. The BikeNZ team won a silver medal in the team pursuit in 2009 and bronze in both Copenhagen and Apeldoorn. They return to their 2009 Poland line-up and will definitely be hunting a place in the gold medal ride, buoyed by their outstanding 3:19.759 in a white hot Invercargill Velodrome at the Oceania Champs, the fastest time ever at sea level.
Hosts Australia, world champions Great Britain and USA should be the major protagonists.
While the individual pursuit is not on the Olympic event for London, Shanks is clearly keyed for a crack at her second rainbow jersey. The former representative netballer won the title in 2009 in Poland and after missing out on the podium at Copenhagen, Shanks fought back to win gold at the Delhi Commonwealth Games over Wendy Houvenaghel and was edged by world record holder Sarah Hammer (USA) by 29/100ths of a second for gold at Apeldoorn last year.
Shanks comes into the championships in outstanding form with her 3:28.475 performance to win at the Oceania contest, more than a second quicker than her previous best set in that win in Poland.
The men’s team pursuit will be chasing a medal ride, which will prove a major achievement without their star, Jesse Sergent who is required for European road racing duties for RadioShack Nissan Trek.
Hawkes Bay rider Westley Gough has won Sergent’s spot while Waikato’s Peter Latham will compete in the individual pursuit with Gough. He will join 2011 Radioshack rider Sam Bewley, the highly experienced and reinvigorated Marc Ryan and newcomer Aaron Gate, who has been a revelation since emerging from last year’s the Under-23 road squad in Europe in the team pursuit.
The team sprint trio of Ethan Mitchell 21, Sam Webster 21 and Eddie Dawkins 22, were sixth at Apeldoorn and while Rio was their initial target, there’s growing confidence that a team sprint medal for the boys in black is a matter of when and not if.
They broke the national record with their current best of 44.078 in November and will no doubt be looking to get under the 44 second barrier and move closer to the 42-high range of the world’s best.
The big improver has been burly Manawatu sprinter Simon van Velthooven. The 23 year old, who learned much from his season on the Japan Keirin Racing, comes in as the No 1 ranked rider World Cup rider in the keirin.
On the women’s front, the pairing of Hansen (Southland) and Schofield (Otago) have gone from strength to strength in the past six months, setting personal bests at every outing and clawing their way into qualification for the world championships. They need to beat Venezuela by four places in the team sprint to earn qualification for London.
The omnium is still a developing event with New Zealand represented by last year’s silver medallist in Shane Archbold, the 22 year old from Timaru, who is recovering from a significant crash at Bendigo three weeks ago, and the experienced professional from Canterbury, Jo Kiesanowski who has been rapidly improving over the time events in recent months.
The championships begin tomorrow with the men’s team pursuit and the men’s and women’s team sprint and continue until Sunday.