Track program at Rio Olympics wide open after UK dominance
Great Britain hopes a couple of faces from yesteryear can help it continue its dominance on the track.
Former Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, the reigning Olympic time trial gold medalist, has largely retired from road racing and will be part of the British men's pursuit squad aiming to repeat its gold from four years ago in London.
He has already has won three gold, a silver and two bronze medals in track cycling events dating to the 2000 Sydney Games.
His good friend, Mark Cavendish, will head from the Tour right to the track to compete in the multi-discipline omnium.
The sprint specialist decided the road course in Rio would be too challenging for him, so he opted for the track to finally capture the Olympic medal that has long eluded him.
''I've made no secret that my aim is to win an Olympic medal,'' he said. ''It's always a proud moment to be able to pull on a GB jersey and to be able to do so at the Olympic Games is extra special. I'm committed to doing my absolute best out in Rio.''
Cavendish was favored with Wiggins to win the Madison event - no longer part of the program - but wound up ninth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He did not factor into the road race four years ago in London.
Still, all eyes will be on him and the rest of the British squad in Rio, considering the team won seven of the 10 track gold medals at the London. But there are other story lines to watch, too:
GB RETIREMENTS: The British squad had to retool after the London Games when Chris Hoy, one of the most decorated Olympians in history, and popular sprinter Victoria Pendleton stepped away.
Jason Kenny began to take Hoy's mantle as Britain's best sprinter with his gold in London, but he's had an uneven past four years. His victory at the world championships left him ranked third in the world.
TEAM USA: Sarah Hammer, Chloe Dygert, Ruth Winder, Jennifer Valente and Kelly Catlin shredded the world record in the women's team pursuit in March. They offer the best U.S. chance of winning a cycling medal, but will be pushed by the top-ranked British squad and world bronze medalist Canada.
''I don't know if there's pressure (because of the record),'' Hammer said. ''I don't feel type of pressure and I don't think the girls do, either. I think the pressure we feel is that we want to be successful.''
ANOTHER POWERHOUSE: Germany may be the only nation that can rival Britain's dominance. Joachim Eilers and Kristina Vogel are reigning keirin world champs, Vogel and Miriam Welte won gold in the team sprint four years ago in London, and Roger Kluge has medal aspirations in the omnium.
Germany also has a strong men's sprint squad and Max Niederlag is an under-the-radar contender.
FROM THE LAND DOWN UNDER: Australia will be trying to replicate its success from London, when it won four track medals anchored by Anna Meares' victory over Pendleton in a dramatic sprint final.
Meares is still among the world's best, taking silver in the keirin at the world championships and teaming with Stephanie Morton to form a potent sprint combo. Matt Glaetzer is a sprint medal threat, Glenn O'Shea likewise in the omnium, and the Aussies boast the best men's pursuit squad in the world.
''I've medaled at every world championships I've ridden since the London Games. I won my world championship in an Olympic event and posted the fastest standing lap times for the team sprint,'' Meares said. ''I have to feel confident. I back my team, my coach and the preparation that I've done.''
THE VELODROME: The venue itself was among the last to be completed, the source of constant trouble for Rio organizers. Multiple test events were postponed or canceled, contractors had to be swapped out and, even after it was deemed operational in late June, there was still plenty of work to do. The track events were among the most popular cycling events at the London Games, drawing sellout crowds that included everyone from Paul McCartney to Prince William. Will the momentum carry into Rio?
''I don't want to lose any of the interest we've seen in track cycling the last few years,'' said Brian Cookson, the president of the UCI, cycling's world governing body. ''Really, the Athens and Beijing games have provided track programs that were really exciting. I'm sure we can do the same in Rio.''