Four years ago Pieter Bulling watched the New Zealand men's pursuit team win Olympic bronze on television and realised what he was missing.
His cycling hiatus didn't last much longer, as Bulling made a choice between an Olympic dream and the joys of whatever 19-year-olds do for fun with their mates in Invercargill.
Now at 23, Bulling is ready to fly into Rio next week from the track squad's final camp in Bordeaux, as the unofficial captain of the five-strong men's pursuit team. Anything less than a medal will be a letdown, and their goal is to better their podium predecessors of 2012 and 2008 and contest that elusive gold medal ride.
It's been four months of hard slog to get this far, and maybe even some tears along the way. In a final selection race in Europe likened to the reality TV series Survivor, veteran Hayden Roulston completed his remarkable track comeback at age 35 as Alex Frame and Nick Kergozou missed the cut.
Reality is dawning for Bulling, who joins Roulston, Aaron Gate, Dylan Kennett and Regan Gough in the chosen five. Roulston (2008) and Gate (2012) are the only Games medal-winning returnees.
"Taking that time off was the best thing I ever did to refocus and figure out I really did want to do it. Ever since I got back into the sport my goal has been to do everything I can to make that Rio lineup and win a medal. Now it's starting to happen it's quite scary and I had a few weeks of not sleeping just because I was waking up thinking it's now it's happening'. I'm ready and I'm excited," Bulling said.
It can be a fickle business this track cycling, and Bulling's seen both sides this past 18 months. He and Kennett, Gough and Frame won a world title in 2015 then, when confident of defending it in London in March, the team had a shocker in their second round against Australia and were consigned to ride for seventh against The Netherlands. Australia went on to beat Great Britain for gold.
As with any top sports team who play poorly, the video review was brutal.
"We definitely broke it all down and went through it with the coaches and the riders, worked out where things could have gone better and what we could have done," Bulling said.
"Thankfully it happened there and not in Rio. It was tough, it was honest, a lot of stuff got brought up. It was good but it was really hard."
Bulling is the pulse of the group and was labelled "absolutely world class" by Cycling NZ's high performance director Mark Elliott. He's comfortable speaking his mind in that broad Southland drawl, even with Roulston who he grew up idolising.
"You need to keep the boys motivated and on top of their game and that's certainly happening.
"The confidence is high. Post world champs it was a bit low, understandably after what happened. The way the boys as a group have trained together is the best I've ever trained personally. We laid down a lot of hard solid work [before heading overseas] and it's really starting to show. We're all ready to get the job done."
Elliott is with the squad in France and said after the incredibly tough selection where they were spoilt for choice, the top-two podium spots are firmly fixed in their minds.
"They've taken a very targeted approach to this Olympics and we've always known we've got quality there. You never know what other countries are going to bring but these guys have done the best preparation they can and are certainly in the form to push for a gold-silver ride. That's certainly the goal," Elliott said.
Article and photo courtesy Stuff