Britain defends its pursuit cycling title, but U.S. is getting closer
For almost two minutes, Sarah Hammer and her teammates were the best in the world.
Halfway through their gold-medal race against powerhouse Britain, the U.S. team pursuit riders held a slight lead.
“It shows that little teams can come and try to play,” Hammer said.
But if Britain represents the standard in Olympic cycling, then the Americans have a ways to go before they truly measure up, because they were overpowered in the second half of Saturday night’s race.
The British defended their Olympic title in dominant style at the Olympic velodrome, finishing in a world-record time of just over 4 minutes and 10 seconds.
How good were they? In three days at the 2016 Summer Games — through qualifying, the first round and the final — they kept pushing the world mark lower and lower.
“We felt like a machine,” team member Laura Trott said. “A well-run machine come together really well.”
This race served as their opportunity to rebound from the disappointment of last spring’s hiccup at the world championships, where they finished a surprising third.
For the Americans, who won the silver, it was a chance to show they belonged at — or at least near — the top.
As recently as four years ago, their best time at the world championships was 4:39. Though their program has less resources and paid staff than do other top teams, they vowed to improve.
Which meant chasing the British.
“What brings out the best in everyone is to have high-level competition,” said Andy Sparks, the team’s director and Hammer’s husband. “Waking up every day to know that only your best is even going to be close to putting you in the game.”
After winning the 2016 world title, the U.S. showed up in Brazil with a foursome led by the 32-year-old Hammer but bolstered by Jennifer Valente and Kelly Catlin — both in their early 20s — and 19-year-old Chloe Dygert, a recently converted road racer.
“Every time we line up together, we definitely get better,” Valente said.
The U.S. also had a technological boost.
Track cycles are kind of like cars on the NASCAR circuit — they are engineered to turn left a lot. That means they are built slightly asymmetrical.
A few months ago, the Americans began secretly riding new bikes that had thinner wheels and — more importantly — a drive train moved to the left side, which allowed for smoother air flow around the outside of the frame as they made their way around the track.
They debuted their new rides only a few months before the Games, so there would not be enough time for other nations to build replicas.
“We’re really comfortable with these bikes,” Catlin said.
It showed with a solid time in qualifying Thursday, followed by a 4:12 on Saturday morning that would have been a world record if the British hadn’t gone even faster.
In the final, a fast start put the U.S. in front through the first 1:44. Even after Britain took the lead, the Americans hung close for another few laps.
But the gap began to widen as Trott, Katie Archibald, Elinor Barker and Joanna Rowsell-Shand pushed harder.
“It wasn’t until that last lap that I could sort of tell we were ahead,” Archibald said. “You kind of get a little bit of an extra drive when you think you can win.”
The U.S. riders were left with a mix of pride and resignation, knowing that their best is not quite enough.
“We didn’t make any mistakes,” Catlin said. “We gave it everything we had. That’s all we’ve got.”
Follow David Wharton on Twitter @LATimesWharton
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