Vélo Files: Give Me A Reason

Anthony Tan

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Vicky Pendleton and Anna Meares all smiles at the London Olympic Games. Meares edged long-time rival Pendleton in the sprint final to take gold. (Getty Images)
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There are a multitude of reasons to feel disillusioned, but there is also one reason to hope, writes Anthony Tan. Her name is Anna Meares.

If there is a reason not to turn our back on the sport, Anna Meares has just given it.

With all that is bad in cycling swirling around her, how can Anna Meares, 2012 Australian Cyclist of the Year, vow to ride on?

“Cycling has been exposed as a fraudulent sport,” David Millar told The Guardian in an interview last Monday.

“It was, until recently, a deeply criminal business. We’re facing the darkness of that period, and it is so necessary. This is the only way that cycling is going to climb out of the abyss,” he said.

I imagine Meares has chosen to go on because she loves it – no matter what the crisis.

As an athlete, she can only control that which is around her, and either block or ignore what is out of her hands.

Besides, so far removed is Meares from the world of men’s professional road cycling, to expect her to offer an opinion on the subject would simply be unfair – particularly last Friday, the night she was crowned Female Elite Track Cyclist of the Year, the People’s Choice, and, of course, the Sir Hubert Opperman Medal as Australian Cyclist of the Year.

“I’m different. I made mistakes. I doped. I cheated. I have an obligation to be vocal and transparent,” Millar said. “But I honestly don’t think it’s the duty of the clean guys (to speak out about doping).”

Meares’ single-minded, committed, meticulous approach with Gary West, who took over as national sprint coach after our lugubrious performance at the 2008 Games in Beijing, allowed her to metamorphose from Olympic 500 metre time trial champion in Athens to Queen of the Sprint in London.

It took three years of planning and preparation for Anna to reach her apotheosis in the sprint, arguably the purest of track cycling disciplines. Beginning with an A3 sheet of paper, she and West listed their goals and stepping-stone targets, which included a project they dubbed ‘know-the-enemy’, where they analysed all her opponents and developed tactics required to beat them.

Just before the London Games, where the Australian team based themselves in Montichiari, Italy, they enlisted Alex Bird from the men’s AIS program to mimic possible race scenarios Anna might face, with Bird taking on a method actor’s role in mock battles.

"They would tell me to do everything wrong," Meares said in an interview in the current issue of RIDE Cycling Review.

"I’d go out and deliberately do things incorrectly so then I could feel and get a recognition on spatial awareness and what was wrong and learn to do it right so could recognise the differences – from both the opponents’ view and my view.

"There were little processes built into the training that were based around decision making. Sometimes I would have to race Alex at the start of the day, sometimes I have to race him at the end of the session so that fatigue became a factor."

Leading into London, Meares knew Victoria Pendleton, her long-time archrival and defending champion in the match sprint, was faster.

"Vicki has the best top-end speed of any women," she acknowledged.

But we knew Anna was smarter; a shrewder opponent you will not find.

Heading into the final Meares therefore intended to force Pendleton into her most fallible position – in front – by utilising something she hadn’t done since the 2011 Track World Championships in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, when the pair met in the semi-finals: a track stand.

"Ever since, I’ve not ever pulled a standstill against her for the very reason that, had I drawn her in London, that’s what we wanted to do. In the second race of the final in London, I opted for a very non-traditional place to do it for that very reason."

On August 7 this year, the atmosphere inside the London velodrome was electric, the crowd in a state of delirium, raucously urging on ‘Queen Victoria’ in the final event of a career she later admitted a love-hate relationship with, but Meares did not hear a thing.

Well positioned in the first heat of a best-of-three final, she intended to come over Pendleton in the fourth and final turn, the pair momentarily colliding as Anna leant into her opponent. It seemed to cause Vicky to simultaneously veer off and out of the red line, for which Meares encountered severe ignominy from the partisan crowd, despite UCI commissaires ruling in her favour.

"They (the British public/commentators) were saying that my elbow leaning on Vicki caused her to come out of the sprint lane. If I’m leaning on Vicki, I don’t understand how I can push her up the track," Meares protested.

"She was relegated for coming out of the sprint lane. If we collided and she stayed in the sprint lane the result (Pendleton initially won the heat by 1/1000th of a second) would have stood."

Given the commotion and cries of foul play, heading into the second heat, one would have thought it was Meares’ feathers that had been ruffled.

Au contraire!

Anna stayed cool as a cucumber, and as per her master plan, by way of a standstill she had long since perfected, she forced Vicky to the front. It left her challenger vulnerable, exposed, a palpable cacophony of nerves.

One almost felt sorry for Pendleton, for even before Meares made her winning move, you knew the race was hers.

"I just had that feeling that I was ‘home’. It was an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and a pressure release. Riding in front of that crowd was difficult. And they were very quiet when I won.

"I was able to live a dream that I had spent the last 18 years trying to have happen," Meares said last Friday upon collecting her second ‘Oppy’, the first being in 2008 after she resurrected herself following a broken neck to win silver in Beijing, Australia’s only cycling medal.

But the dream is not yet over. “I would like to continue on for another four years through to Rio and the next Olympic campaign,” she added.

If there is a reason not to turn our back on the sport, Anna Meares has just given it.

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