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On 11 August, Great Britain kick-started their track cycling campaign with their men’s sprint team racing to a third consecutive title. The British trio started out with an Olympic-record 42.562 seconds in the qualifiers before New Zealand lowered the bar further in the first round, clocking 42.535 seconds. With Team GB second fastest, the two countries went head to head for gold in the final.
After Phil Hindes and Jason Kenny had completed their legs, Callum Skinner – tasked with filling the anchor role vacated by cycling colossus Chris Hoy – nailed a superb final lap to beat world champions New Zealand by the slenderest of margins – 0.102 seconds. Despite missing out on gold, New Zealand’s starter Ethan Mitchell completed the quickest ever opening lap time in the team sprint. However, Sam Webster struggled against Kenny and Ed Dawkins was left with too much ground to make up.
With a time of 42.440 seconds in the final, the British riders improved upon the 42.600 set by the gold-winning team in London in 2012. Kenny, who had been a part of all three victories since Beijing, took his personal haul to four golds having also won the individual sprint in 2012. Though Hindes was also present four years earlier, 23-year-old Skinner was stepping up onto the Olympic podium for the first time. And the Scottish racer impressed throughout.
“In the final, we had nothing to lose,” Kenny explained afterwards. “My four gold medals are all special but the team ones are always the best, there’s no doubt about that. You win alongside your friends and share the victory. The team’s different this time but I’m not at all surprised by what Callum Skinner has done to be the best in the world.”
The bronze medal went to the French trio, who beat Australia by 0.155 seconds.
In the team pursuit on 12 August, British cycling legend Bradley Wiggins, 36, added yet another title to his impressive list of honours, becoming his country’s most decorated Olympian of all time with eight medals.
In a thrilling final, Great Britain won their second track cycling gold of the Games against a determined Australian quartet. Though the silver medallists bettered Team GB’s winning time at London 2012, Wiggins and his team went one step further. Having already set a new world record earlier in the competition, Great Britain repeated the feat in the final, lowering the mark to 3:50.265.
Joining Wiggins on top of the podium were Ed Clancy – the only man to be a part of all three winning teams since 2008 – London 2012 medal winner Steven Burke and newcomer Owain Doull.
Also on 12 August, Gong Jinjie and Zhong Tianshi claimed China's first ever Olympic cycling gold medal in the women's team sprint, beating Russian opponents in the final. Germany’s Miriam Welte and Kristina Vogel, who won gold in London, sealed bronze after beating Australian duo Anna Meares and Stephanie Morton by 0.022 seconds.
In the first round, the Chinese pairing beat their own world record with a time of 31.928 seconds. While their time in the final was 0.179 seconds slower, it was still enough to seal victory.
For Gong, who has won seven World Championship medals in the event, the Olympic triumph was particularly sweet. Four years earlier, she won the final alongside then-partner Guo Shuang but was disqualified for a premature relay.
On 13 August, Elis Ligtlee of the Netherlands saw off Great Britain’s Becky James and Australia’s six-time Olympic medallist Anna Meares to win keirin gold. A silver medal winner in the sprint at the 2015 World Championships in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, the 22-year-old’s victory came after sustaining a serious injury on the track in Rotterdam in January 2016.
“This was my first Olympic Games and I came to Rio dreaming of winning that gold,” explained Ligtlee. “At the start, I wasn’t sure if I’d have a chance but now I’m an Olympic champion! I saw Becky on the finish line and thought that I had the silver, but then I looked over at the big screen and saw my name at the top.”
Having taken the lead on the final lap, Ligtlee gave her all to seal victory: “The keirin is one of my strongest events. I got to the front but Anna Meares and Kristina Vogel were still there. It was a tough race but it certainly ended well!”
Ligtlee finished just 0.040 seconds ahead of 24-year-old James, who won her first Olympic medal with a flying finish. Following a cancer scare in 2014, the Briton had more recently suffered career-threatening shoulder and knee injuries before returning to action. And James narrowly edged out Australian flag-bearer Meares. With her medal-winning exploits dating back to the 2004 Games, 32-year-old Meares now has two golds, one silver and three bronzes to accompany her 11 world titles, including three keirin victories.
In the women’s team pursuit, Great Britain sealed another gold as well as smashing the world record. In a repeat of the London final four years earlier, Katie Archibald, Laura Trott, Elinor Barker and Joanna Rowsell-Shand beat the USA to secure gold. With an average speed of 57.547km/h, the British team’s time of 4:10.236 saw them shave almost two seconds off the world record they had set that morning. Canada won the bronze medal.
For Trott, still just 24, this was a third Olympic gold having won the omnium and team pursuit in London. While 27-year-old Rowsell-Shand was also part of the gold-winning pursuit trio of 2012, it was the first time Archibald, 22, and Barker, 21, had topped an Olympic podium, though both had won the team pursuit at the World Championships.
With the event taking on a new format in 2013 – prior to this, three competitors raced over 3km – the world record was broken four times in the competition, three times by the British team and once by the USA.
On 14 August, Jason Kenny retained his individual sprint title, sealing track cycling’s most prestigious gold in a one-sided final against compatriot Callum Skinner.
After flying through the qualifiers on 12 August and easing his way through the opening rounds, Kenny met his match in the semi-final a day later as Russia’s Denis Dmitriev pushed him all the way. In a close-fought encounter, the Briton sealed victory by completing his final 200m in 10.070 seconds. On the other side of the draw, Skinner put on a real show. Recording the second-fastest time in the qualifying round and winning all subsequent matchups in two heats, he beat Australia’s Matthew Glaetzer in the semis to set up an all-British battle for gold.
In the final, however, 28-year-old Kenny won both heats with something to spare. Making his experience count, the reigning champion was always in control and Skinner never really challenged.
“People keep saying that I’ve won five golds but I don’t feel any different from the other day when I only had three,” Kenny said. “I knew I was in for a tough battle against Callum in the final. He’s on a great run of form. I just had to focus on the race and try to perform.”
A finalist in Beijing in 2008 when he lost against compatriot Chris Hoy and a winner in London in 2012, Kenny is the first rider since Germany’s Jens Fiedler to win the sprint two times in a row. Russia’s Dmitriev beat Glaetzer in two heats to win bronze.
In what is the track cyclist’s ultimate test, Elia Viviani won the multi-race omnium on 15 August to become Italy’s first Olympic cycling champion of the 21st century. Great Britain’s Mark Cavendish finished second to secure his first ever Olympic medal while Lasse Hansen of Denmark took bronze.
A stage winner at the Giro d’Italia in 2015, the Team Sky rider had seen his medal hopes vanish in the final event of the London 2012 omnium. This time around, after finishing seventh in the scratch race, Viviani was in the top three in each subsequent round. In the sixth and final event, the points race, Viviani’s chances looked to be over once again as he came off his bike but he still managed ten sprints in the 160-lap event and scored 29 points to seal victory.
“I saw the screen and saw I was in the lead,” Viviani explained afterwards, wrapped in an Italian flag. “I tried to keep going and keep picking up the points needed to win. With two sprints to the finish, my coach said to me: ‘You need to score one point to be Olympic champion.’ Then I did the penultimate sprint and after that I really enjoyed the last ten laps, I just tried to keep going and finish the race as fast as possible.”
For Cavendish, meanwhile, a 32-point finish was not enough to make up for a relatively poor showing in the elimination race, which Viviani had won. Defending champion Hansen had looked impressive, winning the scratch race and the individual pursuit for maximum points after two events but dropping out first in the elimination race killed off his chances.
Great Britain’s golden couple of Jason Kenny and Laura Trott added another gold medal for their mantelpiece on 16 August when Trott successfully defended her omnium crown to seal a fourth Olympic title.
Just as in London, Sarah Hammer of the USA was relegated to second place as Trott dominated from start to finish, ending up 24 points clear of the chasing pack. Belgium’s Jolien D’Hoore took the bronze to claim her nation’s first track cycling medal since 2000.
“I still can’t believe it, I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved,” Trott said. “After my two golds in London, I asked myself: ‘How am I going to top that?’ We believed in ourselves, in our team. And it snowballed from there. I worked hard with the other girls to win the team pursuit. To come back and win the omnium is just incredible.”
In the women’s individual sprint final, Germany’s Kristina Vogel beat Great Britain’s Becky James to take the gold. Despite her saddle falling off before she crossed the finish line, 25-year-old Vogel still managed to provide Germany’s one and only title inside the Barra de Tijuca velodrome. The bronze medal went to Great Britain’s Katy Marchant.
Vogel, who won individual sprint world titles in 2014 and 2015, only clocked the sixth-fastest time in the qualifying round. In the final, however, she raced to victory in both heats. In a close second heat, the German finished just 0.004 seconds ahead.
“Winning the Olympic title itself is incredible,” said Vogel. “I managed to win the second heat without a saddle, I was just trying not to fall off. I knew I could beat James as I’d already beaten her in the past, but I also knew it would be tough.”
Four years ago, Vogel missed out on a podium place in the sprint, finishing fourth, but did manage to win gold in the team sprint alongside Miriam Welte. For Great Britain, meanwhile, Vogel’s victory meant another silver in the event after Victoria Pendleton had been beaten to gold by Anna Meares four years earlier.
Just as Sir Chris Hoy had done in Beijing in 2008, Jason Kenny completed his Rio 2016 medal haul by taking a third gold in the keirin. Making it six wins from ten events for Great Britain, Kenny saw off Matthijs Buchli of the Netherlands and Malaysia’s Azizulhasni Awang. In doing so, he also equalled Hoy’s British record for gold medals, taking his total tally to six.
With tensions mounting inside the venue, the race twice had to be restarted because of technical infringements. But Kenny managed to keep his nerve. Biding his time behind Poland’s Damian Zielinski and Germany’s Joachim Eilers, who were leading at the start of the final lap, the 28-year-old had too much pace down the final stretch. He eventually finished 0.045 seconds clear of Buchli, a bronze medallist at the World Championships in 2013 and 2014. Awang took bronze to match his third-place finishes in the two most recent World Championships.
“I knew it would be close, that’s what I expected,” Kenny explained afterwards. “I was in Beijing when Chris Hoy became a star by winning his three medals. That moment was just fantastic and for me to achieve the same thing eight years later is incredible.”