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Australia’s track cyclists are faster than ever, but Olympic expectations remain unclear Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

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It was a battlefield tweet. Four days after Australia left the UCI Track World Championships in Berlin in 2020 with just three medals (and not a single gold), Simon Jones – AusCycling’s Performance Director – sent a message to the world. “To all the key experts out there – fuck you,” he wrote. “We got a good team of riders, coaches, support and sponsors. Join the Tokyo team. ”

Tweet and Jones’ Twitter account was soon deleted. But the incident underscored the crowded politics in the shadow of elite cycling. If Jones’ riders succeed at the 2021 Olympics, the Englishman will be justified. If Australia fails to perform on the road and road, he may be out of a job. The legacy of his four-year reconstruction project hangs in the balance to be determined by millisecond margins in the Olympic velodrome.

“It was a minor discretion,” Jones said of his tweet, six weeks out from the Games. “But sport is about passion. At the end of the day, I love what I do. I think it’s good to show a little passion. ”

Jones, 51, has been at the helm of AusCycling’s high-performance program since early 2017 (at the time, it was Cycling Australia, responsible for track and road, which subsequently merged with Mountain Bike Australia and BMX Australia). Bristolian was hired from World Tour outfit Team Sky and he had previously spent time on British Cycling.

The appointment was in fact an admission of defeat. Australia’s cyclists had long been major contributors to Olympic medal success. The nation’s riders traveled to the 2016 Olympics with high expectations in hopes of turning a dip in performance at the previous Games in London. Still, they returned from Rio deflated with only two medals (neither gold). Australia’s arch-rival, Great Britain, topped the cycling medal standings with six golds and 12 medals in total. After failing to match the British, Australia tried to copy them – poaching Jones, who had been trained at British Cycling’s school with “marginal gains”.

A turnaround plan was quickly implemented. Riders, coaches and support staff were shown the door; Jones was nicknamed the “hurricane”. But his methods seemed to work. Australia has consistently won medals at world road championships in recent years, while the track team dominated at the Commonwealth Games 2018 and finished the joint top of the medal mood at the World Cup in 2019. “Change is tough, change is confrontational,” track sprinter Kaarle McCulloch told AFR Magazine last year. “But the definition of insanity repeats the same thing over and over again and expects different results. Simon was the change we needed. ”

Yet crystal disappointment in Berlin, just before the Olympics (before the Games were postponed), broader concerns over Jones’ time. Michael Drapac, an economic benefactor of the sport in Australia, told Ride Media that “the appointment of Simon Jones in 2017 will undoubtedly prove to be the biggest mistake that Cycling Australia has ever made”. A number of athletes have publicly criticized the administration. Track rider Caitlin Ward, in a post on Instagram last year, was defiant: “Cycling in Australia and their pranks mentally pushed me to the edge. And I came back. I get to say when it’s over. ”

Jones admits that Berlin was a shock. “It showed that the standard had risen,” he says. At that time and now more than a year later, he is defending the results as a matter of priorities. “We were focused on peaking in Tokyo,” he says. This is true – Guardian Australia was integrated with the team at the time, and drivers trained through the competition rather than tapered. Jones’ alma mater British Cycling has been known to perform during the World Championships before an Olympics and then excel at the Games. Still, the disappointment fueled critics. “Berlin was a great opportunity to see that the standard had risen and that we needed to lift,” he adds. But come Tokyo, will Jones and his riders sink or swim?

The track bike teams in their kimonos to Tokyo.
The track bike teams in their kimonos to Tokyo. Photo: Mark Brake / AAP

“It’s been a blur,” Jones said of the past year. The performance director and his team returned from Berlin in early March 2020 when Covid-19 was circulating; one employee tested positive at the return. The team initially thought they were entering the final stretch before the Tokyo Games, but within a few weeks, the Olympics had been postponed. “The hardest part was right at the beginning – the original ghost of the pandemic,” he says. “All presumption, information and misinformation.”

Jones speaks from Perth, just days before he travels to Brisbane – where Australia’s track cyclists gather at the Anna Meares Velodrome for the final preparations ahead of Tokyo. Most of Australia’s road riders are midway through the European calendar for their trade teams, while Australia’s freestyle BMX riders return home from the World Championships in France – where Queensland’s Logan Martin won the title and confirmed his status as a gold medal favorite.

Despite the fact that the Olympics are barely a month away, the uncertainty surrounding the Games is. “We are still not sure if we have approval to use our own accommodation,” says Jones (AusCycling has booked a hotel close to the Izu Velodrome, which is two hours from the athletic village of Tokyo). “It’s a big challenge – you need a place to sleep.” Last-minute logistical headaches caused by Covid have elevated the fine-tuned approach favored by high-performing sports organizations. “Normally, our focus will be on maximizing and optimizing performance,” says Jones. “Now we spend a lot of time showing up.”

But Jones remains optimistic. In the coming weeks, his riders and staff will focus on getting the little things right. “Under pressure, most people will return to their training mindset,” he says. “You are only as good as your training and preparation. We just keep preparing, rehearsing, rehearsing. “The final stretch will include a focus on acclimatization to a pandemic environment – something that Australian athletes who were kept safe in the bubble from the country’s borders have not experienced. “Just little practical things like wearing a mask all the time – it’s not something we’re used to,” he says. “We want to practice the small details. You can not simulate it completely, but you are just raising people’s awareness of change. ”

Along the way, Australia has several prospects for medals: two-time world champion Rohan Dennis is a favorite in the time trial despite the recent emergence of Italian challenger Filippo Ganna. Amanda Spratt, a two-time World Championship medalist, is fit for the punishing Mount Fuji racetrack, while Richie Porte is in shape won the Critérium du Dauphiné last week. BMXer Martin will carry the Australian flag in freestyle, while mountain biker Rebecca McConnell has podium potential.

But on the track, after Berlin’s disappointment and after a racing – free calendar for the last 15 months, it’s unclear where Australia stands. “I do not know how to go from a medal perspective,” Jones said. “We can not control that bit – but all I know is that we are going faster than ever. Significantly faster than ever. We need to do that and a little more when it matters. This may sound cheesy, but it’s real: all you can do is do what you can. If we can exceed what we do during training, we are right in the medals. ”

Australia’s track and field athletes have not left Australia since the pandemic. While there have been no major international competitions over the past year, Australia’s primary rivals in Europe and North America have continued to run, regardless of Covid-19. “By and large, they have continued – they have traveled and driven very freely,” says Jones.

This means that in “racing” events such as omnium, madison and keirin it is almost impossible to predict how Australia will fare. “We are definitely in the dark,” Jones said. “We go into these events as underdogs, but I’m happy to be an underdog.” In “timed” events – such as team pursuit, longing for a discipline in which Australia has excelled and team sprinting – Jones is quietly confident. “We know where we are,” he says. “We have medal chances in many events – it’s just whether we can convert them.”

Australia’s prospects have been dashed by two retirements following the postponement in 2020 – experienced sustainability member Amy Cure and world champion sprinter Steph Morton both decided against another year. “Our medal chances are probably a little lower than a year ago,” says Jones. “In the women’s team sprint, we will probably not get a medal chance, while we used to be looking for gold. It’s unfortunate, but it makes no sense to pretend it’s anything other than what it is. “However, the retirements provide opportunities for younger drivers. “When one door closes, another door opens,” he says.

Australia's Matthew Glaetzer falls during the keirin final in Rio five years ago.
Australia’s Matthew Glaetzer falls during the keirin final in Rio five years ago. Photo: Greg Baker / AFP / Getty Images

When Jones was hired, some speculated that the move was a springboard for the Englishman – with a senior position at British Cycling the ultimate goal. Jones’ contract with AusCycling ends later this year; he says he “just focuses on Tokyo at the moment”. Although he reflexively adds that “my job is to get plans in place for the future – so we have made a lot of planning around Paris [the 2024 Olympics], we have our Commonwealth Games planning [in Birmingham next year] in place “.

Jones says that no matter what happens in Tokyo, and whether he is offered a contract extension or not, he and his family are happy in Australia. “We will stay there,” he says. “Maybe not forever, but definitely for the next 10 years. We are actually just selling our house back in the UK. We miss our family a lot, but luckily technology helps. ”

Asked if the infamous tweet Jones criticizes the critics and whether medals in Tokyo will justify his reign. “We are just athletes doing our best and challenging ourselves,” he says. “I do not think there is any justification. I think we’ve had some great performances over the last three or four years. Some you win, others you lose. There will always be another bike race. ”

It can be like that. But Jones knows that athletes and administrators are ultimately judged on results. “It will be interesting to see, on the other side of it, how we stack up,” he says. “But the medal vote will be the medal vote. There will be no apologies. ”

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