The last time Australia did not win a single rainbow jersey at the Track World Championships, the year was 2008.
Five months after the Manchester Worlds, the Australian cycling team travelled to Beijing for the Olympics. They returned with a lone silver medal: Anna Meares losing to arch-rival Victoria Pendelton in the sprint. Meares had not competed in Manchester.
To find a time Australia returned with such a small overall medal tally, we have to go back to 2001 (also in Manchester). Ryan Bayley won the keirin, while the team sprint squad and Katherine Bates both earned silver medals.
All of which highlights one fact: this was not a good Worlds for the Australians. Two team sprint medals – silver for the women, bronze for the men – and bronze in the keirin was a disappointing haul.
Perhaps most alarmingly, for the first time in history (excluding occasions they did not compete), neither the female nor male endurance squad placed on the podium in the team pursuit.
Australia’s lengthy era of dominance in the discipline is under threat. Other nations have stepped up; the Australians have not.
The mood in camp was subdued but not alarmed.
“It is disappointing, but it is not the end of the world,” says Cycling Australia’s performance tsar Simon Jones.”
“Australia has had a pretty glittering history of winning world titles – in 2017 we won more than you can poke a stick at. But that’s not our aim: we want to win in Tokyo. I would trade every medal here for medals in Tokyo.”
There are numerous explanations for Australia’s shortcomings in the German capital.
Two star riders were missing from the Worlds, at least two members of the travelling squad competed despite lingering health issues, and several other riders have had their preparations disrupted by injury. Off the track, things have not been exactly smooth, either.
“It has been tough for everyone – and they have kept their heads high,” Jones continues. “So I want to say thank you.”
All eyes now turn to Tokyo, where the Australian track cyclists can redeem themselves – both for the failures of Rio 2016, and the disappointment in Berlin.
“We will debrief on Monday, come up with a plan, leave out some things we are doing now and start doing some things that we weren’t doing,” says Jones. “It is about prioritising – working on the things that will make the biggest difference.”
Jones brushed away speculation that the Olympics could be cancelled due to coronavirus.
“I’d rather have a corona beer than talk about the coronavirus,” he laughs. “Yes it is a really, really bad flu, but just everyone wash your hands.”
Australia’s riders will now head home and enjoy a short rest before returning to training.
Their coaches have little time to relax: they must name their squad for Tokyo by 18 March.
While there are unlikely to be many surprises- the bulk of the Berlin team plus Matthew Glaetzer and Kelland O’Brien are expected to be selected – at least a couple of riders will miss out due to delegation size limits.
Jones and his colleagues must also decide whether to field riders in all track disciplines.
The performance director has previously indicated that the team may elect not to contest races where they have slim medal prospects. Despite their bronze in Berlin, the men’s team sprint squad are not guaranteed to compete in Tokyo.
One rider almost certain to selected is sprinter Kaarle McCulloch. On Saturday, McCulloch summed up the mood among her colleagues.
“I feel really confident that we have a clear strategy, a clear plan, I trust my team, I am backing my coaches,” she declared.
“I know that I am not the athlete I was twelve months ago in Poland [when McCulloch and Morton won gold], and I am not the athlete I want to be now in Berlin.
“But that is because I am working hard to make sure I am the athlete I need to be in Tokyo.”
History does not bode well for the Australian national team. A repeat of 2008 would be disastrous for Cycling Australia, and likely end the reign of Jones.
But the past does not always repeat. McCulloch and co are hoping they can write their own history in Tokyo.