Australian cycling eyes redemption on Gold Coast after Olympic calamity | Kieran Pender

Rebranded and refocused team hoping Commonwealth Games are happier hunting ground

Change is in the air at Cycling Australia’s High Performance Unit, nestled in a leafy suburb near the Adelaide hills. Australia’s track cyclists went to Rio de Janeiro in 2016 with the Australian Olympic Committee expecting at least three gold medals. They return with none – one silver and one bronze were all the team had to show for four years of effort and millions of dollars in funding.

The response was swift. A major staffing overhaul, a revised training regimen and even a branding refresh – the unit is now officially known as the Australian Cycling Team – have been overseen by new performance director Simon Jones.

Jones moved to Adelaide in early 2017 from Team Sky, where he was head of performance support and innovation. He had previously been a coach with British Cycling. According to several sources within the Australian set-up, the sweeping changes wrought by Jones have earned him the nickname “Hurricane”.

Others are more complimentary – one rider describes him as “strict but reasonable and knows how to win”, while another says “everyone is very positive about the change”. Ultimately, Jones and his colleagues will be judged for Australia’s performance on the velodrome, and the team faces their first major test this week at the Commonwealth Games.

The preliminary signs are positive. Australia topped the medal tally at the 2017 UCI Track World Championships in Hong Kong, with Jones just months into the job. Despite sending only four riders to the 2018 edition in Holland, with Cycling Australia controversially electing to minimise pre-Gold Coast distractions, the quintet returned with six medals, including two golds.

Sprinters Matthew Glaetzer and Stephanie Morton were in superb form at the World Championships, while Cameron Meyer – a nine-time world champion – remains dominant in the points race. Australia’s male and female team pursuit squads are also both gold medal chances on the Gold Coast, notwithstanding fierce competition from New Zealand, Canada and England.

Stephanie Morton
Stephanie Morton will be carrying hopes of a medal at the Commonwealth Games. Photograph: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

While several senior riders retired post-Rio, including legendary rider Anna Meares OAM, the healthy contingent of young athletes in Australia’s track squad suggests a bright future for the national team. The male endurance squad is particularly youthful, with Kelland O’Brien, Alex Porter, Samuel Welsford and Nicholas Yallouris keeping the average age close to 20.

Australia will also be looking for medals on the road. While the timing of the Games midway through the European Classics season means that many of the country’s best cyclists are unavailable, both the male and females squads contain medal contenders.

Queenslander Katrin Garfoot is an obvious favourite in the time trial, having won the national time trial title for three consecutive years and placed third at the world championships in 2017. Current national champion Shannon Malseed and star sprinter Chloe Hosking provide exciting options in the road race, while Mitchelton-Scott contingent Sarah Roy and Gracie Elvin could also find themselves in contention.

The men’s squad, meanwhile, brings a mix of youth and experience to the Gold Coast. Twenty-four-year-old Alexander Edmondson, surprise winner of the national road race crown in January and a Commonwealth Games champion on the track, will be hoping to add to his burgeoning medal collection. Among his team-mates will be veteran road captain Mathew Hayman, Callum Scotson – a strong prospect in the time trial – and Meyer, who will back up from his track efforts to ride the road race. Steele von Hoff adds a feel-good element – the affable sprinter broke his neck mere hours after being selected in February, but an expedited recovery has seen him retain his place.

Rounding out the cycling disciplines, mountain biking couple Rebecca and Daniel McConnell will be hoping to improve on their respective bronze medals at Glasgow 2014.

Australian cycling has an impressive history at the Commonwealth Games. Not since Auckland 1990 has the Australian team failed to top the combined track and road medal tally. This is partly because the British cycling juggernaut is divided into its constituent parts at these events – England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the Isle of Man compete under their own flag – but it is nevertheless a record that Jones and his charges will be keen to maintain.

Almost two years on from the calamity in Rio de Janeiro, Australia’s cyclist are hoping that the Gold Coast provides a happier hunting ground for medals. As the results-obsessed machinery of Australian sport looks towards Tokyo 2020, the next two weeks will be instructive as to whether the much-hyped reform of the nation’s high performance cycling program is more than skin deep.


Kieran Pender

The GuardianTramp

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