Sunday 24 November 2013

Dutch Treat: the 2013 European Elite Track Racing Championships

Apeldoorn in the Netherlands is a not terribly distinguished place although it does boast the nearby country residence of the Dutch royal family but in the cycling-mad Netherlands it does offer something special: the Omnisport sports facility. I was there in October for the European track championships and following the one-track minds of some of the world's top racers.

Driving into Apeldoorn (population 157,057 and twinned with Burlington, Ontario) it looks pretty much like anywhere else in the province of Gelderland until you pass the gigantic bicycle on the main road and then another on entering Omnisport. The inhabitants of the Netherlands are the tallest in the world, but still...

Omnisport Apeldoorn, opened in 2008, is an impressive facility with a hall seating 2000 for volleyball and a 250 m velodrome seating 5000, the latter being the venue for the 2011 UCI World Track Racing Championships as well as the European Championships that year. It also offers an ice-skating rink for winter plus the usual concessions. 

The European Elite Track Championships are a surprisingly recent event, first held in 2010. Previously the European competition was only for junior and U-23 but the change was made after a review of Olympic qualification brought about a wholesale structural reorganization. Regulated by the European Cycling Union the program includes all the 2012 Olympic track events as well points races for men and women as the big finale: a men's madison because, well, people like it.

Great Britain leads the cumulative medal standings since 2010 with 24, including 13 gold, while Germany is close behind with 23 (10 gold) and tied with Russia, which also has won 23 but only seven gold. At the races in Apeldoorn this year 24 nations were represented and covering most of the world powers in track racing: Britain, Germany, Russia, France, Ukraine and of course the Netherlands. At the other end of the spectrum, Slovakia sent a single rider while the Hungarians numbered two. Gold medallists from the 2013 Worlds in Minsk were plentiful and in many respects the European Championships are almost another Worlds but without the United States, China, Australia and some individual non-European standout riders.

After a training day the Championships opened on October 18 with the Men's and Women's Team Pursuit and Team Sprint races, along with the Points Race. The British men (Doull, Burke, Clancy Tennant) took gold in the pursuit ahead of Russia and the Netherlands, while the women's race saw Britain (Trott, King, Barker, Archibald) also win, with Poland and Russia next. In the Team Sprints, the German men (Enders, Förstemann, Levy) came first ahead of France and Russia while the World Champion German women were not able to hold off the Russian pair (Brejniva, Stretsova) but did come ahead of the British. Points winners were Elia Viviani of Italy on the men's side and Kirsten Wild of the Netherlands for the women. Already on the first day the home nation had improved its medal standing with a gold and a bronze compared to Minsk, where the Dutch finished with a single disappointing bronze.

Day 2 of competition saw lots of Sprint qualifying events as well as the start of the Omnium, with flying laps, points race and elimination race. There was a lot of very exciting racing although the stands were fairly empty for most of this Saturday afternoon and evening. At the end of the day medals were presented for the Men's and Women's Sprints. The Germans had made a very strong showing but on the men's side some tactical mistakes were made and relegations came near the end, with World Champion Stefan Bötticher finishing out of the medals and Robert Förstemann, with the most impressive thighs in cycling, also being relegated so that he took the silver medal after Russia's Denis Dmitriev, who had finished second in Minsk.

Kristina Vogel prepares to overtake a Russian competitor in the sprint
Stefan Bötticher trackstands with a Spanish rival

Robert Förstemann warming up
On the women's side there was no doubt at all who was the fastest rider as Germany's Kristina Vogel, who won silver in Minsk in this discipline, easily outrode her rivals to win gold but a brave effort was made by Elis Ligtlee as she earned the third medal of the competition for the Dutch with silver (and having a wildly enthusiastic crowd behind her) and Jessica Varnish took the bronze for the UK.

Kristina Vogel leading Elis Ligtlee in the sprint final

Kristina Vogel, the newly-jerseyed European Sprint Queen
 On the final day of the Championships the stands filled up with spectators and there was a special exhibition organized by classic bicycle enthusiast Harrie Hofstede of vintage track racing bicycles. After he spread the word collectors brought in nearly 30 old steel bikes, including a very early (1903) stayer bike, a gorgeous 1934 Ernie Russ, a shaft drive bicycle and a wonderful Raleigh. The crowds that gathered around were very enthusiastic and peppered owners with questions and, in some cases, reminiscences of their own track days.

My Bauer Super Sport was not out of place

The glorious shaft drive
The racing on the track continued with more Omnium events (individual pursuit, scratch and individual time trials) and qualification and finals for the keirin and madison. Final results in the Men's Omnium saw Viktor Manakov take gold for Russia, followed by Tim Veldt for the home nation and Ireland's Martyn Irvine (World Champion in the Scratch Race) came in third. Laura Trott (silver medallist in Minsk) of Britain was the best woman, followed by Kirsten Wild of the Netherlands and Jolien D'Hoore of Belgium on the podium. There was also Dutch success in the keirin as the Women's Sprint results were reversed with Elis Ligtlee getting gold ahead of Kristina Vogel, followed by Virginie Cueff riding for France. Germany's medal count continued as Maximilian Levy won gold in the keirin with a powerful performance ahead of the UK's Jason Kenny (reversing their standings at the World's in Minsk) and France's François Pervis.

Swiss rider setting off on his time trial during the Omnium

British rider after completing his Omnium pursuit ride and barely able to stay upright from fatigue
Starting the women's keirin
Women's keirin racers setting off with the derny pacemaker
The last event was the extraordinary madison race, a veritable circus of colour and speed with 32 riders, paired in 16 teams, slung each other around the track 200 times in a 50 km event. In the centre of the velodrome on a raised platform was a man with evening wear, including a top hat, who job was to point at the leading cyclist since it was easy to get confused as the racers attempted to lap the field and get sprint points. In the end the Spanish duo of Juane and Barcelo were relegated for unsportsmanlike conduct in the 7th sprint (the madison is not a race for the faint-hearted) and Italy took gold ahead of them with Viviani and Bertazzo triumphant. Belgium's De Ketele and Van Hoecke won bronze. Interestingly, in this non-Olympic discipline the other track powers (UK, Germany, Netherlands) were pretty much at the bottom of the standings.

At the end of the competition Germany took three gold and three silver medals, while Great Britain (the dominant force in track racing for the last several years) also had an excellent time with three gold, two silver and three bronze. Russia was third with six but the home town crowd must have been delighted the Dutch haul of two gold, three silver and one bronze. Clearly it pays to ride those big bicycles...

Maximilian Levy (centre) of Germany celebrates his keirin victory
In November many of the same racers assembled in Manchester for the UCI Track Cycling World Cup and there were many repeat winners, including Kristina Vogel (gold in keirin, sprint and team sprint), Laura Trott (Omnium), the British men's pursuit team and the German men's sprint team. The art and science of track racing at the elite level is not everywhere to be seen but don't pass up the chance to see it if you can. The racing is exciting and even a bit dizzying at time but it is all out in front of you. The bikes with no brakes and single gears are stripped down and the competition is just as direct.

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