19 August 2008

This is going way beyond. What British cyclists have done over the past few days here has become a lot more than winning gold medals. Their feats will not only change the way their sport is perceived, they will actually change society for the better.

Consider the evidence. Cycling is the most successful and best organised of all our Olympic disciplines and its stars are admirable role models. Bradley Wiggins, Ed Clancy, Paul Manning and Geraint Thomas were charmingly fluent in their moment of triumph yesterday and the success in qualifying of Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny and Victoria Pendleton only whetted the appetite to talk again.

Their velodrome game, once understood, is wonderfully diverting entertainment and, most crucially, cycling in its wider all-aged involvement ticks the health and green agenda boxes like no other sport as we count down to London where the mayor is a dedicated pedaller.

No sign of Boris Johnson among the lycra-clad figures circling like a slow bicycle race competition in the warm-up area or sitting in the British section of the partitioned stalls laid in front of us as we looked down on the central pit inside the swooping circular sweep of this 250-metre circuit. But politicians of any hue would have to reflect hard on both the success and the atmosphere.

Having arrived by the excellent new tube system to be greeted by the gleaming welcome of the finest of all Beijing’s new venues, there was a sense that this was the ultimate challenge to London. That this was the future, and it worked.

What seems at first incomprehensible, looking down on 21 riders whirling round 100 times in the women’s points race, quickly becomes understandable and exciting as the pursuit gold medallist Rebecca Romero attacks this new discipline gallantly but underprepared for the sprinting wiles of the Dutch star, Marianne Vos.

What then appears initially as a two-man – or two-woman – bluffing test on wheels ends thrillingly as Pendleton, Hoy and Kenny turn on awesome power to go through to the next round in their sprints.

And the men’s pursuit team don’t just strike gold but take almost two seconds off the world record they set only on Sunday. Time was when the challenge was to break four minutes for this 4,000 metres of circling intensity. Wiggins and company went through in 3min 53sec and almost lapped the straining crocodile from Denmark. There was no mistaking the deadliness as the four riders pressed ever onwards like some four-backed beast whose vertebrae suddenly change as the leader lifts off up the banking to take a breather and then relinks at the tail.

The scoreboard kept mounting in GB’s favour as the rivals flashed past the line on either side of the circuit until defeat became a rout. We could get to like this. Bet big money that by London 2012 millions will.

Afterwards the surreal destroyers in the Darth Vadar helmets are just sweating young men with gold medals dangling on their GB vests and studded feet which make them walk as oddly as swans on dry land. “That was four years’ work in four minutes,” Manning said. “We knew we could do it but it makes it so special when it all comes together.”

The satisfaction was shared later by performance director Dave Brailsford as he spoke of the challenge not just of the morrow but of 2012 and further. “It would be good to think,” he said, “that our success might let cycling inspire the nation and if I was to leave a little footprint in 20 years’ time, it wasn’t just winning medals but in how the sport was perceived, how it was played at grassroots level and how it developed both the health and the green agenda.”

Lance Armstrong’s autobiography was titled It’s not about the bike. This is.

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