SPORTS

Canadian women win bronze in Olympic team pursuit, defeating Australia

08/04/2012 06:45 EDT | Updated 10/04/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - Sir Paul McCartney, a wall of sound and a bronze medal. All in all, a day to remember for Canada's fledgling women's pursuit team at the Olympic Velodrome.

While track cycling heavyweight Britain rocked the house with its third world record in two days to win gold over the U.S., Edmonton's Tara Whitten, Victoria's Gillian Carleton and Jasmin Glaesser of Coquitlam, B.C., scored one for the little guy Saturday.

The three Canadians defeated Australia in a thrilling back-and-forth bronze medal race that literally had coach Tanya Dubnicoff dancing the Texas Two-Step.

The 6,000-seat Velodrome was so loud that Dubnicoff couldn't verbally communicate split times as the teams rocketed around different sides of the 250-metre track. So standing on the edge of the track, using the split time line as a marker — she walked forward or back to communicate if the Canadians were ahead or behind.

"We knew it would be a dogfight," Dubnicoff said of the bronze-medal race. "So it was like we pulled the jerseys over our head and we started fighting."

The British women, who dominated their opposition, took a victory lap to wild cheers and the sounds of David Bowie's "Heroes." Then, after the medal ceremony, there was an impromptu crowd singalong of "Hey Jude" with a smiling McCartney, who performed the song during the opening ceremonies, shown on the big screen in the stands waving a small Union Jack.

In the women's team pursuit, teams of three race over three kilometres and it's all about time.

The two rival teams start at opposite sides of the track with riders shifting from the front to the back to share the pacing. The clock doesn't stop until all three riders finish, so they try to hit the line at the same time to mimimize their time.

The Canadians also won bronze at the world championships in April, finishing behind Britain and runner-up Australia. The Brits also set a world record there.

The team pursuit, like the team sprint, omnium and keirin, is a new Olympic event for women. The omnium is also making its Olympic debut for men.

The 32-year-old Whitten, who has won gold and silver in the demanding two-day omnium at the world championships, is the established star of the Canadian team.

She left after the medal ceremony to recover and rest up for the omnium, which starts Monday.

"It really feels amazing," Whitten said after the race in an interview provided by the Canadian cycling media attache. "Yesterday we were a little disappointed with our ride, and especially being so close to second and third. We had to kind of regroup overnight, change the lap orders up a bit. And I'm really proud of how the team came together today. ... It's an amazing feeling to have done it."

The 20-year-old Glaesser, born in Germany, got her Canadian citizenship in September and took part in the Pan-American Games in October.

After qualifying to race for Canada, Glaesser said she was just happy to get to her first international competition.

"I really never thought it would lead here in this space of time," said Glaesser, who has lived in Canada for 10 years but had to wait until she was 18 to apply for citizenship.

The 22-year-old Carleton only took up track cycling last summer and made her World Cup debut last year. She broke her pelvis in three places in a crash during a points race in Kazakhstan in November and didn't return to action until the London test event in February.

"Just being here today was a total bonus," said Carleton, who was fortunate that she did not require surgery but still had to spend six weeks in bed.

"To get a medal today ... is a win for everyone that's been involved in this process," she added.

Having an ex-Beatle in the crowd was a bonus.

The Canadians were disappointed after posting the fourth-best time in qualifying Friday. But Dubnicoff, a three-time Olympian in track cycling herself, was confident the three could make the podium.

"I can tell you 100 per cent we knew the bronze medal was within our reach ... we accomplished what we set out to do," she said.

The sound at the Velodrome was deafening every time a British rider was on the track, something the Canadians decided to make work for them in their matchup.

"You could just take that (noise) and think 'They're cheering for me, they're cheering for me,'" said Carleton.

Britain, the U.S., Australia and Canada had the four fastest times in qualifying Friday. That set up Britain versus Canada and the U.S. versus Australia on Saturday with the winner contesting the gold and the losers racing for the bronze.

Britain — Dani King, Laura Trott and Joanna Rowsell — posted their first world record of the day (3:14.682) in beating Canada. That erased Friday's qualifying mark of 3:15.669.

To show you how good Britain is, Canada lost to the host nation by three seconds and still put up a Canadian record time of 3:17.454.

"Absolutely fantastic riders," Carleton said of the British women.

The U.S. beat Australia, setting up the battle for bronze.

The Canadians started fast but Australia came on. There was one lead change after another before the Canadians clawed back the lead for good to win in 3:17.915 while Australia was timed in 3:18.096.

Then Britain put on a show, lowering the world record to 3.14.051, snaking around the track at an average speed of 56.655 kilometres per hour. The outmatched Americans finished in 3:19.727.

The strategy was for the Canadians to ride their own race for the first six laps, then race the Australians for the next six.

In a sound, technical ride, the Canadians did not give away any time to the Aussies.

"We knew that the Australians were going to be a hard team to beat and we knew we were going to be quite evenly matched," said Carleton, who had essentially given up cycling after winning the road race at the 2009 Canada Summer Games to focus on her studies. "So we definitely had to focus on the little things that were going to make the difference.

"But the last three laps I was seeing stars. I probably had my eyes closed half of the time."

Carleton credited Whitten for leading the way, taking most of the load at the head of the trio and keeping the pace as even as possible.

"She did such a fantastic ride. She just dragged the team around yesterday and today in both the rides. She's a phenomenal rider."

Canadian Zach Bell, a silver medallist at the world championships earlier this year, had a rough start to the men's omnium.

The omnium covers six events over two days: flying lap, points race, elimination race, individual pursuit, scratch race and time trial. The winner in each one gets one point, the runner-up two points and so on, with the overall winner being the rider with the least total points.

Bell was seventh in the 250-metre flying lap, 13th in the points race and 10th in the elimination race to stand ninth overall after the first day of competition.

"Not a good start for me, obviously ... I'm not really sure why," said Bell, who had been happy with his training performances.

Bell said he got caught in a bad position in the elimination race. "But the other two were a bit shocking," he added.

At the world championships in April, he was fifth in the flying lap, third in the points race and eighth in the elimination race.

He had 28 points after six events there. He has 30 points after three events here.

Bell, a 29-year-old from North Vancouver who grew up in Watson Lake some 400 kilometres east of Whitehorse , is a former World Cup champion in the omnium. He placed seventh in the points race at the 2008 Games in Beijing.

Dubnicoff saw the team pursuit medal as a victory for a small-budget track program that often has to leave the country to train.

"We really need a facility in Canada that we can target other athletes from other sports," she said.

In a bid to widen its training, the track team joined forces with the national road cycling team in May at the Exergy Tour — a five-day stage race in Idaho. Dubnicoff hopes to do more collaborations to show off the track side of the program.

"We just need more depth," she said. "It's coming."

The coach planned to celebrate the medal with a Cuban cigar, courtesy of the president of the Pan American Cycling Federation, who is a friend.

Dubnicoff credited the team's small but elite cadre of support staff and funding from Own The Podium, which recently allowed them to research equipment and hire a nutritionist for a pre-Games camp.

Spectators probably sweated a few pounds off at the raucous Velodrome, where the temperature is kept at 28 degrees Celsius for optimum racing conditions. A series of overlapping doors at the exits also helps prevent any gusts of air hitting the track.

No one seemed to care in the intimate, low-slung building where every seat has a great view.

The saddle-shaped track is laid with some 56 kilometres of timber from Siberian pine, fixed in place with more than 300,000 nails.

At one end of the infield, there was a hive of activity as teams prepared in orange-coloured office-like cubicles often decorated with flags. The other end featured the medal ceremony podium and room for the riders to do a quick circle or two before heading out to the track.

With half an hour left before the afternoon session started, legs were pumping furiously on stationary bikes

A pair of fans were visible in the Canadian zone. Temperatures were even higher at track level.

The day started with men's sprint qualifying, where riders take two and a half laps to build speed and then rocket around the bottom of the track for their final 200-metre run.

Britain's Jason Kenny broke Sir Chris Hoy's Olympic record (9.815) when he was timed in 9.713. Kenny's average speed over 200 metres was an eye-popping 74.127 km/h, enough for a speeding ticket on some nearby roads. The world record is 9.572 seconds.

The men's sprint runs through Monday.

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