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U.S.' Sarah Hammer could break up Great Britain's cycling party


LONDON -- By now the routine is well established. The victorious rider tires, finally, of taking victory laps draped in his or her Union Jack, then dismounts, to be embraced by coaches and staff. The electric buzz in the velodrome recedes, slightly, until the orchestral strains of "Chariots of Fire" are heard over the loudspeakers.

A company of Royal Air Force soldiers in ceremonial dress marches smartly to the podium. Medals are then presented, after which the announcer declaims the phrase that has become the unofficial theme of this venue:

"Ladies and gentlemen, please stand for the national anthem of Great Britain!"

Following Sunday night's startling anomaly -- a non-Brit won an event at the Pringle! -- we have now returned to our regularly scheduled broadcast.

Monday night, the unassuming 24-year-old Jason Kenny took gold in the men's sprint. So dominant was his victory over France's powerful Gregory Bauge that the Frenchmen himself wanted to know how he'd done it; Bauge commandeered the microphone at their post-race press conference and asked, with a smile, what had changed since Bauge had beaten the Brit at last April's world championships.

Kenny responded with a version of the "marginal gains" oration we've been hearing since before the Games, really, when Britons Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome were finishing one-two in the Tour de France, before finishing 1-3 in the Olympic time trial.

"When it comes to the Olympics, we just make sure we get every little detail right ... It's not one little thing, it's just about doing everything right, making sure every box is ticked."

In the women's competition, Victoria Pendleton has ticked all the boxes, and then some. She competes tomorrow in the finals of the women's sprint, an event racers usually snatch by a wheel-length or less. However, Queen Victoria has been winning by multiple bike lengths. She is Secretariat; her rivals are the rest of the field in 1973 Belmont Stakes.

Hoping to take a hammer to the edifice of British track cycling dominance is U.S.' 28-year-old Sarah Hammer, who is competing in the omnium, an ungainly casserole of six different disciplines making its Olympic debut in London.

The omnium demands incredible skill and versatility. But, as British men's bronze medalist Ed Clancy pointed out, you've also got to be luck. "It's great entertainment, but whether it fits in with the whole higher, faster, stronger ethos of the Olympics, I don't know." (I congratulated him afterward for his use of "ethos" in a sentence. Gotta love the Brits ...)

Hammer is the current world record holder and a four-time world champion in the individual pursuit, which was pulled off the Olympic menu to make room for the unpopular omnium. "It was pretty devastating, having the pursuit taken out," she allows. "I was quite shocked, actually."

Instead of whining, she went to work. To adapt to the omnium, she's added muscle for the sprint events that weren't in her wheelhouse. In the first of those today, the 250-meter "flying lap," she placed fifth out of 18 competitors. Another fifth place in the 80-lap points race, followed by an impressive second in the "elimination race" (aka, Devil Take the Hindmost) left her tied for first, with three more events tomorrow.

The first of those: the individual pursuit -- "a great way to kick off the second day for me," she said on her way off the track. "I'm feeling strong, ready to go."

Laura Trott, the woman sharing the lead with Hammer is a member of -- take a wild guess -- Team GB. But there is hope for the American. Neither appears to have a clear advantage tomorrow. Hammer left the track in excellent spirits, thinking, perhaps, of this lyric from David Bowie, whose voice is piped over the speakers at the end of the medals ceremony:

We can be heroes, just for one day.