‘Back yourselves’: How Australia prepare for the Track World Championships | Kieran Pender

By on February 25, 2020


Every competition in international track cycling is important. Unlike their road counterparts, who race almost weekly during the long World Tour season, track cyclists compete barely half a dozen times each year. On the rare occasions these riders don national colours and fly around velodromes, months of preparation are tested in the cauldron of a race environment.

The most significant of these gatherings is the UCI Track World Championships, with the latest edition beginning on Wednesday in Berlin. In Olympic years, the World Championships gain a peculiar hue. For some teams, qualification for Tokyo depends on a strong placing here. For others, a medal could give them the mental edge to succeed again at the Olympics in five months’ time.

But unlike the other three years of this quadrennial cycle, in 2020 these World Championships are not the primary goal for most riders. The pain of failure can be quickly salved by Olympic glory, while rainbow stripes in Germany will be little consolation for those who leave Tokyo empty-handed.

After finishing the 2019 World Championships atop the medal tally (equal with the Netherlands), expectations are high for Australia. Strong performances would provide a significant boost on the path to Tokyo, as the Australians seek redemption following a disappointing 2016 Olympic campaign. With the nation’s track cyclists counting down the days until racing begins, Guardian Australia was allowed into the team camp.

‘You’d be kicking yourself forever’

11am, Saturday: Hotel lobby

In the corner of a trendy Berlin hotel, directly opposite the velodrome, four Australian staff have claimed the most comfortable couches in the lobby. A day and a half after arriving, performance director Simon Jones, endurance coach Tim Decker, psychologist Ruth Anderson and team manager Rik Fulcher are still acclimatising. As riders come and go past them – the women’s team pursuit squad are particularly pleased to have found an Australian coffee shop nearby – the quartet ponder plans for the day. Jones ticks off final details, before reminding his colleagues: “This is a rehearsal for the Olympics.”

They have earned a moment’s respite: getting 17 athletes, 21 staff and 1.9 tonnes of equipment from the Cycling Australia high performance centre in Adelaide to Germany is quite the feat. Fulcher, a two-decade CA veteran, plays Tetris with the team’s baggage allowance to minimise excess fees. “We always try to wing it with 100kg or so above what we pre-purchase,” he says with a grin. “Sometimes we get lucky, sometimes we don’t.” The team typically flies economy, although on this occasion two sprinters – Steph Morton and Kaarle McCulloch – were upgraded to business to help them manage lingering injuries. “That was a nice treat,” says Morton.



Sprinters Steph Morton and Kaarle McCulloch chat during a training session in Berlin. Photograph: Kieran Pender/The Guardian

The Australians are always among the first to arrive at international competitions; only New Zealand landed in Berlin before them. “After long flights we get a lot of stiffness, so any pre-existing conditions can be irritated,” says team physiotherapist Patrick Custance. “The first day or two we want to get them active and moving, plus doing lots of stretching and soft-tissue work.” Following a quiet Friday, nervous energy is building in the squad as they await their first track session.

With the World Championships bringing together riders from across the globe, the coronavirus has some teams on edge. The Australian delegation has been equipped with bottles of hand sanitiser; handshakes are banned. Upon seeing this correspondent, Morton offers an elbow bump instead. Australia are sharing their hotel with Japan, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada, the Netherlands, Malaysia and Mexico, and more than one nation has armed riders with face masks.

Although Jones is not overly concerned about the virus, he believes a renewed emphasis on hygiene is timely. “Health is one of our biggest risks at competitions,” he says. “We are sharing food halls and training areas with athletes from everywhere.” The team recently ran a special session on hygiene, emphasising the correct way to wash hands with the aid of special dyes. “You do all this hard work and then you could fall over at the last hurdle with a cold. You’d be kicking yourself forever.”

After a relaxing morning, the team gather for lunch in the hotel dining room. Carbohydrates and salads are in abundant supply. The Australians sometimes travel with their own chef, but on this occasion nutritionist Jill Leckey has consulted with the local kitchen staff. Back in Adelaide the Irishwoman worked with each rider to tailor individual nutritional plans, and is keeping a surreptitious eye over their plates at meal-time. “By competition time the hard work has been done,” Leckey says. “Our main task now is getting them properly fuelled for race day.”

‘My goal is to smile every day’

3pm, Saturday: Hotel lobby

With only a handful of training sessions and team meetings scheduled between arrival and competition, the wait can drag and nerves occasionally fray. “Sometimes I wish it was already race day,” says Decker. In the final moments before a big event, track cycling can become as much a mental challenge as a physical endeavour.

“Distractions are critical in these last few days,” says sprinter McCulloch. “I used to really struggle – there is so much time to fill, but now I really enjoy this period of time. I don’t have to worry about anything.” McCulloch does yoga and watches Netflix, while other athletes play boardgames or read. The hotel has a fussball table, which proved popular with the men’s pursuit team. “My goal for this World Championships is to smile every day,” McCulloch says. “So far my smiles haven’t been forced!”

Psychologist Anderson works intensively with each athlete ahead of races. “We create competition plans, so athletes know how to self-regulate anxiety and other factors relevant to their performance in the lead up to and during competition,” she says. “We are trying to develop their understanding that psychological functioning is as important to high performance as the things they do from a physical and technical perspective”

Having a positive team culture certainly helps, and the Australians are well-known among other nations for making the most noise at mealtime. “We are fortunate,” says endurance rider Sam Welsford. “We have a good tradition – we know when to switch on and when to switch off. That’s important, otherwise you can get caught up in it all.”

Riders cool down



Riders cool down at the velodrome. Photograph: Kieran Pender/The Guardian

‘It’s too late’

6pm, Saturday: Velodrome

Above the team pits in Berlin’s cavernous velodrome, dozens of national flags hang down from the roof. As the Australian riders walk into the arena for the first time, more than one stops to gaze up at the blue and white standard they are here to represent.

Governing body UCI staggers team training times, and in the evening slot only New Zealand are using the track alongside Australia – representatives of the neighbouring nations chat amiably. As the riders brace themselves for their first ride of the trip, mechanics buzz about preparing bikes and soigneurs set up a refuelling station. Both endurance and sprint teams are taking to the track, although a fairly relaxed session is planned. One coach’s notebook has just two objectives listed: “learn the track” and “decide on team line”.

“There are no final touches,” says sprint coach Nick Flyger. “It is all planned, it is all rehearsed. At this point we are trying not to change things – it’s too late.” Flyger arrived earlier in the day and is battling jetlag; he became a parent with partner Anna Meares just two weeks ago, and the lack of sleep is evident.

Flyger’s male sprinters face the most pressure in Berlin: they are the only section of the Australian team with Tokyo qualification still up in the air. A late injury to Matthew Glaetzer compounded the pressure, with the star sprinter missing the competition. “We need to finish top eight in the team sprint,” says Flyger. “It is not an ideal situation, but we have the talent to get the job done.”

Maeve Plouffe



Maeve Plouffe reviews footage from the training session. Photograph: Kieran Pender/The Guardian

The riders train in a staccato manner, hopping on and off the track at regular intervals. Coaches offer advice, with tablets in-hand to display footage – video recordings are available from the track within seconds. Given the team’s focus on Tokyo, the sprinters have not fully tapered: they are still doing strength training during the build-up to competition. But even the slight dip in intensity over the past week means the first session back on the track hurts. “It is a weird feeling,” says Morton, “a bit like getting sick on holiday. But I have done enough of these now to know it is normal.”

After post-training debriefs, aided by timing splits and graphs on the tablets, riders rug up before they confront the icy Berlin weather. Jones, an Englishman headhunted from Team Sky to lead Australia following the Rio disappointment, has a final word with staff before departing on the tail of his riders. Was he happy with the first training session? “Never completely,” he says. “There are always a few niggly bits here and there. We have to be constantly changing and evolving. If we didn’t have a problem, I would probably create one.”

‘This will be a real dog fight’

6.15pm, Sunday: Hotel room

With a rest-day scheduled for Monday, the Australians have just one velodrome session remaining on Tuesday before the World Championships begin. Squeezed into a modest hotel room as rain pours outside, the female team pursuit squad are gathering for video analysis. Five riders and three coaches make themselves comfortable in the small space, as sports scientist Sian Barris loads footage from a session earlier that afternoon.

The team discuss the nuances of the Berlin velodrome – every track is different, and this one contrasts with their Adelaide home track. “You need to go later than you want, and just trust you’ll get the boost on the drop,” says Annette Edmondson as they analyse each other’s swing (when a rider exits from the front and re-joins at the back). Despite the pressure of an imminent meet, the mood is jovial – laughter erupts as a mishap by Ashlee Ankudinoff is shown. “We don’t have to keep replaying it,” she says.

A mechanic prepares bikes



A mechanic prepares bikes for a training session. Photograph: Kieran Pender/The Guardian

Following 30 minutes glued to the television, the women depart for dinner and their male counterparts enter. The riders sprawl across the floor and queen bed, before coach Decker calls them to attention. “We don’t win the world title because of Tuesday’s pre-race hit-out,” he says. “But it does set us up for the next two days.” If the team is to defend their World Championship rainbows, they will have to qualify on Wednesday afternoon, win a first-round race that evening and then contest the final on Thursday.

Discussion is lively as riders and coaches offer their two cents, with team veteran Leigh Howard especially vocal. Decker reserves particular encouragement for fresh-faced 19-year-old Luke Plapp, who was called into the squad after Kelland O’Brien crashed during the Tour Down Under. While only four riders contest the team pursuit, the squad of five is often mixed throughout the three possible rides. “We need to get the best out of all five of you,” Decker insists. “You all need to step up.”

Like their female colleagues, this team carries the weight of expectations lightly. There is plenty of laughter as they dissect track technique and debate the exact line they should follow. Alex Porter suggests that the velodrome might be more forgiving than Adelaide, but Barris is having none of it: “The track may forgive you, Alex, but I won’t.”

Before the men depart for dinner, Welsford – usually the team joker – adopts a serious expression. “This will be a real dog fight of a Worlds,” he says. “We won’t be comfortable at any point.” True, admits Decker, “but someone has to get across the line first.” As the coach sends them into the night with instructions to rest, his final words ring in their ears. “Don’t panic,” Decker says. “Back yourselves.”



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