LONDON -- That's a wrap, folks. Olympic track cycling is history for another four years, at which point the British might be a
Team GB scooped up two more gold medals tonight, running their tally in this distinctive venue, the so-called Pringle, to seven out of the 10 awarded. So dominant have they been that rival coaches and riders have been whispering about illicit advantages enjoyed by the Brits. The director of French cycling, one Isabelle Gautheron, admitted her suspicions:
"We are looking a lot at the kit they use. They hide their wheels a lot. The ones for the bikes they race on are put in wheel covers at the finish [of a race]."
The French had apparently misunderstood a statement by David Brailsford, the director of performance for British cycling. In response to question about the team's wheels, he deadpanned that his team used wheels that were "specially round."
The humor was lost in translation, leading to a headline in the French paper,
Sir Chris Hoy may lack specially round wheels. But he was sitting on five Olympic golds and hoping to make it six in the men's keirin, the final event of the night. With 150 meters to race, things weren't looking so hot for the 36-year-old known as the Knight Rider. He was overtaken by his German rival Maxmilian Levy (Could there be a better name for a rival?). In the final turn of his illustrious Olympic career, "I drooooovvvvve like I've never driven before," recounted Hoy in that euphonious Scottish accent, and his voice trailed off, because everyone knew how this ended.
The first person to greet him in the mix zone was fellow Knight, Sir Steve Redgrave, whose British-record five gold medals Hoy had just surpassed.
The party continued on an unusually crowded podium: behind Levy, judges could find no space between the wheels of New Zealand's Simon (the Rhino) van Velthooven and Dutchman Teun Mulder. Their Solomonic verdict: give 'em both a bronze. Mulder, in particular, was ecstatic, and cried happy tears in the arms of his coaches and teammates.
Lot of that going around. Holed up in his ninth-floor apartment in the Olympic village the night before, he'd watched the Dominican Republic hurdler Felix Sanchez cry on the podium. "I thought, 'Poor lad, he can't keep it together.'" Of course, as soon as the opening notes of "God Save the Queen" were audible, Hoy puddled up, needing the backs of both hands, his knuckles and both shirtsleeves to dry his own tears.
Addressing his country's superb showing at these Games, Hoy had described the Olympics as "just the most amazing party." He might as well have been talking about the Brits at the velodrome. If Team GBs cyclists were a nation unto themselves, they'd be tied for seventh, ahead of Germany, Australia, Japan and Spain to name a few.
There was a skunk at this garden party. It just wasn't the skunk Americans hoped it would be. Sarah Hammer got off to a strong start on the second day of the six-event Omnium, winning the individual pursuit. A gutsy second in the 40-lap "scratch" race -- an event her top competitor, Team GB's Laura Trott, admittedly "ballsed up" -- Hammer appeared to gain a firmer grasp on gold.
And then it was gone. Her fourth place in the final event, the 500-meter time trial, was eight-tenths of a second slower than Trott's winning time of 35.110 seconds. It cost Hammer the gold. "Last race, last heat for the gold medal ride -- everything I'd been dreaming of," recounted Hammer, who seemed copacetic with silver. "I am now the proud of owner of two of these," she said, referring to Team USA's second-place in Team Time Trial, behind who else but the host nation.
Her voice was drowned out right then by the roar for Victoria Pendleton, who seemed very close to a lock for gold in the women's sprint. Her archrival, Australia's Anna Meares, had looked punchless and past her prime in the women's keirin, won by Pendleton four days earlier.
But the expectations of a nation weighed on the Brit. The sprint is a three-lap race that starts slow, the two riders lazily feeling each other out, weaving up and down the track. At some point, usually with 400 meters to go, the switch is flipped: someone launches, and the event goes from dreamy to frantic. With the race at full boil on the final lap, the two old foes traded paint, and elbows. Pendleton was relegated, meaning she lost the heat.
The sprint is a best-of-three format. She could still salvage this thing, but she was in deep trouble. Unlike anyone in the competition so far, Meares had answered Pendleton's fierce sprint in the first heat, which seemed to prey on her mind in the second. At the gun, Meares floated up to the rail and practically stopped -- employing the "track stand" that some bike commuters use at traffic lights, unnerving motorists. The idea was to force Pendleton to the front, to make the Brit lead out the sprint.
Meares later admitted she'd been planning that tactic for three weeks. Alex Bird, who rides for the Aussie men's team, had been asked by team coaches to study Pendleton, learn to ride like her, and then Meares in practice, "so I had some tactical feel" for the Brit.
The track stand worked, forcing Pendleton forward. Left with little choice, the Brit led out the sprint, and was trounced by Meares the way Meares had been trouncing her foes.
Pendleton, who retired after that race, wept upon dismounting, touched, perhaps by fans chanting "Vicky! Vicky!" -- letting her know they still loved her. She wept again at her press conference, where she admitted that her primary emotion, now that it was all over, was relief. She wanted to get on with her life, go skiing, get married, have a life.
"I've been racing track bicycles since I was nine years old. I think people understand if I want a break."
She finished with an understatement that applied to an entire nation: "I think I've done a good job."