If you’re not a fan of the team pursuit, you think it’s too clinical, too calculating, too true to the form book then you need to watch last night’s European Track Championships finals.
Not only is this track meet the starting point for the Paris Olympic cycle (it’s the first place to pick up points for nations to qualify) but it provided a thrilling first chapter in what could well be the defining rivalry of the cycle – Italy v. Great Britain.
But perhaps most importantly, most excitingly, for the unconverted to the joys of a team pursuit it was, to put it frankly, a bit of a mess.
In the women’s final the Italians, reigning world champions at the discipline, were down 1.5 seconds and already down to three riders with just over a kilometre to ride, when Neah Evans of Great Britain missed getting onto the back of the line and a gap swiftly yawned out to several bike lengths.
With the next rider off the front forced to drop, unexpectedly, into third place the plan for who did what seemed to be collapsing with gaps yo-yoing back and forth throughout the line in the final kilometre. By the time Katie Archibald hit the front to do her usual role of bringing the team home she was accelerating away from the other two and had to get out of the skis and pull up the banking to get them back in her wheel and bring them back together. The squad’s two second lead was getting nibbled into by the Italian
Perhaps fortunately for the British quartet though on the other side of the track something similar was happening with Italy’s lead rider leaving the other two behind. Cohesion, it seems, was in short supply in the Grenchen velodrome but Britain came out on top.
Come the men’s final almost the exact reverse scenario presented itself. Here the British men are the World Champions, the Italians the last recipients of Olympic gold. Come the two and half kilometre mark in the four kilomer test Filippo Ganna – the Italian answer to Katie Archibald – had hit the front and immediately put all his team-mates in difficulty. They swiftly lost one rider, Ganna swung up and after some ragged turns from his team-mates was once again on the front. They’d go on to take the win having come close to seeing it all fall to pieces.
While it’s doubtless a living nightmare for the riders to see gaps appearing like that at 60kph, both finals were a thrilling spectacle for everyone but those on the track.
What’s more, this ragged racing is becoming increasingly common. The clinical dominance of the era when Britain sat atop the team pursuit tree for multiple Olympic cycles has been replaced by a seat-of-your-pants knife juggling tight-rope act.
It’s the tactic that got the Danish men to the World Championship title via three world records in two days in 2020 and it seems to be really the only way to go fast enough to get the times required to be the world’s best. Despite their issues the Italian men’s time last night was inside the World Record set by Australia at the Commonwealth Games less than four years ago.
To win at this level in 2023 a team has to eke out ounces of speed that previously felt untouchable. Many teams used to go down to three riders with just a couple of laps to go, now it’s increasingly rare that they enter the final kilometre with a full quartet, having burnt matches brighter and faster in the opening half of the race.
But that has led to increased instances of the wheels falling off as we saw last night.
Often when that happens you lose the race but in the winning teams last night there were genuine all-time MVP contenders in Ganna and Archibald. If anything, last night, they were too strong for their team-mates and had to check themselves to get the result.
Both play the role of doing almost all the final 25% of the race on the front (I recall one of Arhcibald’s team-mates once telling me it was both a blessing and curse because she would find herself thinking ‘if anything goes wrong Katie will sort it out’) seeing them in action is to witness some of two all-time greats of the sport in their prime.
There’s an Italy v. GB rivalry brewing too. Not hurt by the fact that Dan Bigham works with Ganna at their trade team Ineos Grenadiers – as does British anchor-man Ethan Hayter, not present at the Euros. Archibald is also team-mates with Italian Martina Fidanza and German rider Franzi Brausse, who picked-up bronze.
That all looks certain to come to a head at the Glasgow Worlds, a home championships for Great Britain (especially Scots Archibald and Evans) and rumble on until Paris 2024. That’s before you even account for an Australian challenge, a revitalised German women’s team or Danish men’s squad or what the USA can assemble around the freakishly strong (when healthy) Chloé Dygert.
The stage is set for something just as unpredictable as last night and that is something that no cycling fan can afford to miss out on.