• Australia's Sam Welsford leads his team in the Men's Team Pursuit during day 1 of the 2020 UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Berlin (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Fourth for the men was little consolation for Australia’s team pursuit squads at the UCI Track World Championships on Thursday. After failing to defend their respective rainbow stripes, can the Australians rebound for the Olympics, Kieran Pender asks from Berlin.
By
Kieran Pender

28 Feb 2020 - 1:56 PM  UPDATED 28 Feb 2020 - 2:20 PM

Australia’s track cyclists made history on Thursday, and not the good kind.

Excluding 2018, when they did not race, the fourth place secured by the Australian men's team pursuit squad in Berlin was the first time since 2007 they have failed to medal at the world championships.

The women failed to qualify for the bronze medal ride, the only time, since the women's team pursuit was first introduced at the 2008 worlds, Australia have not at minimum, raced for third (other than in 2018 and 2008, when they did not race).

After a decade of supremacy in the team pursuit – with 10 gold, four silver and two bronze medals between the teams – it feels like the end of an era.

While Denmark smashed the men’s world record - three times at the one meet - to claim rainbows and the United States looked triumphant in the women’s final, both Australian sides appeared comparatively average.

“It is hard to swallow,” said endurance coach Tim Decker. “The reality was that we weren’t good enough here. We were solid, but just not good enough.”

Performance director Simon Jones was perplexed. “It is the first time in a long time we have not won a medal in this competition,” he admitted. “We did not come here super flash, we weren’t peaking for this, but we wanted to be in touching distance. The other teams have raised the bar.”

Australia’s male quartet began strongly against Italy in the ride for bronze, before slipping in the latter half of the opening kilometre. They surged back and had Italy at almost level pegging, before it all came apart: Leigh Howard dropped after three kilometres and Alex Porter allowed a gap to open between him and the leading duo in the final stages.

To add insult to injury, the Australians were overtaken by the Italians on their way to victory.

“It hurts,” said team veteran Howard. “We came here as one of the favourites – Denmark were probably equal favourites with us.

"We did not qualify well and we have been behind the mark from the word go. We’ve got ground to make up.”

For Australia’s women, the misfortune of finishing fifth in qualifying – rather than fourth or sixth – would ultimately prove costly. The squad posted fast times through the first three kilometres on Thursday, but lost precious seconds when they were required to overtake Ireland.

This late time loss ended any hope of a bronze medal, and re-enlivened debate about the format of the team pursuit first round (by pitting fifth against eighth, overtaking scenarios are more likely).

“We executed a really good ride, which is what we wanted, so for us to fall short is tough,” said Ashlee Ankudinoff. “I am not sure how close we could have got, but we definitely might have snuck into the 4.12s given we had to overtake Ireland. When you look at it, we’re really not far from the rest of the world. That execution yesterday [in qualification] just really hurt us.”

Despite the disappointment, both teams remained upbeat about their ultimate goal: the looming Tokyo Olympics.

“I have absolute faith that we can ,” claimed Howard. “I’ve seen what we are capable of doing in training, and with our full squad. We have had a tough year, but we will all be back together in about a month in Adelaide and we have five solid months of preparation.”

Ankudinoff was similarly positive. “This is just a stepping stone,” she said. “This is a set-back – not the result we were hoping for – but we are hungrier than ever heading into the Olympics.”

Coach Decker did not mince his words. “The team needs to realise that shit is real,” he told Cycling Central.

“I’m not overawed by the times tonight, we knew they were possible, but we need to get into it now. Any time you are not motivated, someone else is. They want to take your spot.”

Decker was adamant this particular Thursday evening in Berlin would not be remembered as the end of Australian dominance in this discipline. “I’ll make sure this isn’t the end of an era, let me tell you that,” he said.

“I love being backed into the corner.”

The mood in the Australian pits at the end of the night was unusual. It is a rare occasion for Australia to conclude a day at the world championships without a single medal. Disappointment hung in the air, but it was mixed with guarded optimism about the possibilities that the Olympics may hold. As one observer joked: “It feels like being unexpectedly dumped by Tom Cruise, but knowing you have a date lined up with Brad Pitt.” After the heartbreak of Berlin, the Australians will desperately be hoping to get lucky in Tokyo.