Australia’s sprinters did not have the smoothest of preparations for the 2020 UCI Track World Championships.
Female sprint pair Steph Morton and Kaarle McCulloch were both nursing injuries. Such was the concern about their physical condition that, rather than travel economy with the rest of the team to Berlin, they personally paid to fly business class.
The men, meanwhile, were yet to qualify for Tokyo 2020. They faced the pressure of needing to place in the team sprint top eight to secure their Olympic berth.
That became more problematic when star sprinter Matthew Glaetzer – having overcome cancer – suffered a late injury in training. Glaetzer was forced to withdraw from the squad before they departed Adelaide.
Compounding these challenges, head sprint coach Nick Flyger became a father just two weeks ago, adding parental responsibilities and sleep deprivation to his already taxing agenda.
With the Olympics just five months away, the team had only adopted a minimal taper and were effectively training through, with ongoing gym sessions.
All of which meant the men and women lined up for their respective team sprints on Wednesday with expectations not exactly sky high.
“I am really proud that, despite all of these challenges, we came away with a silver medal,” Steph Morton told Cycling Central.
“I am sure if you spoke to most athletes, they would have had some issues in the lead-in.
"But the difference – what makes a champion – is how you pick yourself up. We certainly exceeded our expectations.”
Morton faced a further hurdle on the morning of competition, when the UCI advised she could not use a certain technical component.
“In that moment I could have thrown the bike, hit panic stations and really crumbled,” she observes. “It was just a matter of controlling what we could control. I am happy that shit didn’t hit the fan. I just had to grip the bars and go – and that’s what I did.”
A bronze medal for the men was also unexpected.
“This is the first time I have been on the podium at a world championships,” says sprinter Nathan Hart. “The circumstances leading in were not ideal, and we needed a result, so we were all really happy with the medal.”
Even an unsuccessful outing in the women’s individual sprint, with neither Morton nor McCulloch reaching the quarter-finals, could not dampen the mood.
“I was happy with my qualifying time,” says Morton. “The depth yesterday was unreal. I made a mistake and a tactical error – but that’s just the nature of sprinting.”
The men’s sprinting performance in Berlin, without Glaetzer, leaves the Cycling Australia hierarchy with a dilemma.
In their desire to prioritise medal potential event at the Olympics, the men’s team sprint was floated as a discipline in which Australia might not enter a team.
“That’s the next conversation,” admits Flyger. “We need to have a chat about our shared goals and objectives.”
While the return of Glaetzer would add even more speed, his absence from the World Championships means the team would compete in Tokyo with little prior race experience together.
“We would have a fast team, but an untried team,” Flyger says.
Hart is hopeful their bronze is enough to convince the selectors.
“It is the type of event that can be balanced with individual events, like the sprint and Keirin,” he says.
“I see a lot of growth in the team. I’ve now done all I can do – I just have to hope the decision is made.”
Cycling Australia performance director Simon Jones was giving nothing away.
“We need to take a logical approach to decision making,” he says. “If we adopt an emotional approach, we would fill every spot.
“We will assess our gold medal priorities and work backwards from there.”
Beyond Tokyo, Australian sprinting could be in for an interesting transition period. Glaetzer is 27, Morton is 29 and McCulloch is 32 – at least one, and possibly all three, might retire by the 2026 Olympics.
Flyger points to plenty of depth in the male ranks.
“There are at least two or three in our academy that will push onwards in the next two or three years, and even more in the state academies,” he says. “That will keep the older guys on their toes.”
Hart is also enthusiastic about the future of Australian sprinting.
“I am pretty confident,” he says. “In the last 18 months we have created the podium potential academy. Tom Cornish was part of that, James Brister is there – he’s had success at junior worlds level. Men’s sprint has a lot of depth – hopefully we see these results continuing in the years to come.”
While Flyger admits that the ranks of upcoming female riders might be thinner, he hopes a new talent transfer program – and the change in format for the women’s team sprint – will maintain Australia’s prominence in the discipline.
“We have a talent transfer program in an embryonic stage, which is being rolled out in the next two years,” he explains. “We saw what Canada have done with athletes coming across from other sports – we hope to replicate that.
“So we’ll look to that, we’ll look to our pathway program, and we hope that the switch from two to three riders in the team sprint might entice Steph or Kaarle to stay.”
For now, such succession planning is at the back of Flyger’s mind. His attention is firmly focused on the Olympics.
“Sure we didn’t win here, but I know there is a lot more in the tank,” says the coach.
In Tokyo, they will be emptying that tank in pursuit of gold.