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A Note From Columbia

by Sarah Storey
Sarah Storey
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on Dec 03 in Race Blog
After a brief visit to London, the Team Pursuit girls headed to the airport to fly via Madrid to Cali, Columbia for Round 2 of this Olympic season’s World Cup Classics. Our flight had riders from France, USA and Ireland on it but the majority of the passengers were Columbian and you could have been mistaken for thinking that everyone on the plane knew each other! There was a great deal of singing going on at various times and then a huge round of applause as the pilot landed the plane on their home turf.

A night time arrival, into an airport where the Columbian passengers had their entire families waiting to greet them, meant we were ushered straight to the hotel for food and sleep which was very much welcome after our 3.50am alarm call at Heathrow airport!

Our first day was just an easy start, a chance to chill out and get settled for the week ahead. After a spot of lunch we headed out to the track and for me the first chance to see the city of Cali, which everyone had said was quite something! Having competed in Argentina and Brazil as a swimmer, I had some idea about the chaos of the roads in a South American country and here in Cali the driving was no different. Taxi’s seemed to make up the majority of the traffic and people are not afraid to use their horns, or their accelerator! The track here is situated with a view to the mountains from turns 3 and 4 and it certainly provided a spectacular setting for a thunderstorm the day after we arrived.

Long straights, tight bankings with a large dip in the wood between turns 3 and 4 and open sides around the concourse at spectator level. It is definitely like no other track I have ridden, but then thinking about it I am still a relative novice when it comes to new tracks, Cali is only the 11th different timber 250m track I have ridden and only my 3rd outside of Europe. As a team pursuiter it was a different recce to a track than I would do by myself as the line has to not just be the quickest but also the smoothest for the riders in the line behind rider 1. The start was also going to look a bit different as the banking did look quite a long way away after doing so many starts in Manchester. Ultimately though the aim was the same, start quick, get settled in the line and ride fast turns, holding pace and maximising recovery with good technique on changes.

All of our sessions were shared with other nations, so it made for some interesting warm ups and even more interesting efforts trying to avoid riders circling the blue line or deciding to get up for their own efforts when ours was still going on. I think in the 3 training sessions we had before competition I only had 2 or 3 changes that weren’t affected by trying to avoid the other bodies on the track! We likened it to a game of space invaders, except you scored points for not hitting someone!

Although only arriving four days before the start of competition it did feel as though we had been in the country a lot longer and we were all glad to get up for the qualification, although knew there would be another long wait as the final was not for another 27 hours or so!

Qualification was a hard fought affair, the wind had really picked up towards the end of the qualification for the women and it meant the final 5 or 6 heats were contending with a strong headwind in the back straight and then a strong tail wind in the home straight which meant pace judgement was doubly hard. So many teams before us were going out on world record pace and then crawling home. In the end we were the first team to break the 3 minute 25 second mark and only New Zealand went quicker in the final heat, so we were going to be riding for the Gold Medal on the first full competition day.

Arriving for the finals couldn’t have come quick enough as far as I was concerned, it seemed like we had been away from home for months by that point! The Columbian crowd was also immense and with a Columbian World Champion riding the men’s points race, there was plenty of partisan cheering going on every time he hit the front or went on the attack. In the end his bronze medal was received like another world title and the crowd went wild again. The stands were full to bursting as we stepped on to the track and after a faulty start with a New Zealand rider getting stuck on the start line, we lined up again and got away at the second attempt. The plan was to control the start a bit more and give ourselves a stronger back end, but in the end we actually went out faster, although that could have largely been down to the fact the conditions were a lot less windy than they had been in qualification!

The crowd here in Cali are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a close bike race and with the two teams being so close in our final right up until the final kilometre there was plenty of noise in the venue to spur us on to beat our opponents. The bell was suddenly ringing but was only just audible inside our aerohats with the crowd going wild! I was man 3 in the line at this point and just waited for the door to open as we exited the final banking and sprinted for all I was worth to get level at the finish. The time is taken on third wheel and it’s the last big push with gritted teeth as every 10th of a second counts at that point!

The scoreboard hadn’t worked! It was just typical and although the final times show we had won convincingly and I thought we could see our opponents in that final couple of laps, it’s always better to have the confirmation on the scoreboard!

Winning the race was such a relief and heading up to collect the medal I realised it was a re-run of the podium I’d been involved with at the Manchester World Cup in February this year. Gold for GB, Silver for New Zealand and Bronze for the USA, who had actually recorded the second fastest time in the finals. We’d barely stepped off the podium and the Columbian media descended on us and I must have spent 30 minutes or so chatting to TV, radio and newspapers. The interviews were all translated as we went so I got to listen to the Spanish version of my answers straightaway!

Since finishing racing I have been cheering on my team mates who are still racing and have been able to get into the stands and experience the excitement with the Columbian people. When the men’s omnium gold medal was decided and won by a Columbian rider, the roof was quite literally raised and he rode about 20 laps of honour with the crowd doing a Mexican wave and cheering “Columbia, Columbia!” louder and louder. I stayed in the crowd for his medal ceremony and never has there been a more tuneful rendition of a national anthem by a home crowd! I’m sorry Australia, but even that swimming pool of 17,500 people in Sydney didn’t sound as good as the Columbians here in Cali!

The other great thing about sitting in the crowd was realising how passionate the crowd was in supporting their neighbours Venezuela, who are here with a strong team and have been winning medals in men’s team sprint and keirin. It made me wonder whether we would be quite as generous in the UK about our neighbours in Europe…!

There is no doubt about the warmth of the people and the honour they feel in meeting the cyclists and having their pictures taken with us all. When you read the travel advice from the Foreign Office and Commonwealth website, it paints such a drastic picture, which is sadly the harsh reality of this deeply disturbed country. However, coming here in this sporting role, while it doesn’t make us in any way immune to the dangers, it does allow us a privileged access to view Columbia in a way all the ordinary people of the country hope we will remember.

Our time here has been spent in a completely different way to our time in most other places I have competed as a cyclist, but then having experienced both Rio de Janeiro and Buenas Aires, it is really no different to the precautions you would take in these countries either. Armed guards have accompanied our taxi and bus journeys, we haven’t left the hotel or track apart from to travel between the two places and there has certainly been no riding in and out of the track as we often take for granted in other places. Although well looked after and protected with extra security, the bus and taxi journeys have been quite dramatic due to the nature of the roads. The quickest route back to our hotel is over a steep hill, literally straight up, a few lumps and bumps over the top and straight down round a sharp right hand hair pin! It’s an unusual route above the city and one that causes the buses some issue due to the weight when fully loaded and some driver’s inability to get a run up to the steep part when the traffic is heavy. Our first journey back from the track almost resulted in passengers being asked to walk up the steepest part as the driver had to roll the bus back to the bottom when he got stuck half way up! Equally, descending on the other side has had its moments, especially when there are smaller vehicles and motorbikes whizzing through gaps that really aren’t there! If you don’t like roller coasters you should probably risk the bike ride!

With just a few more bits to pack and one final afternoon of cheering to do now, I am certainly glad to have experienced Columbia’s World Cup.

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