IN MY OPINION

Track cycling excitement taking hold of England

 

lrobertson@MiamiHerald.com

It’s been nicknamed The Pringle for its sloped roof. It’s known as the Pleasuredome because of Great Britain’s success. Or you could call it the Thunderdome for the crowd noise that makes the walls shudder.

The most captivating building in Olympic Park also looks like a spaceship and the athletes zipping round and round inside look like aliens, clad in their aerodynamic skinsuits and teardrop helmets and perched on their gearless, brakeless, practically weightless machines.

Everything about the Olympic velodrome is designed to achieve maximum speed, and that’s just what track cyclists are feeling. They are riding at speeds up to 46 mph on the banked oval built to be the fastest on the planet.

The velodrome proved magical again Friday for a nation gone mad for cycling. The men’s team won team pursuit in world-record time. Victoria Pendleton, known everywhere as Vicky just as David Beckham is known as Becks, won the Keirin race.

The striking blue-eyed, black-haired Pendleton, given to emotional outbursts, swore she wouldn’t cry, but shed tears as she sang along to “God Save the Queen” on the medal podium.

“I hadn’t allowed myself to think about standing on the podium and if I started to, I shot the idea out of my mind,” Pendleton said. “I told myself, ‘Focus, Vic, focus.’ I just cannot believe this is true.”

The night before, Sir Chris Hoy won his fifth Olympic gold medal — as many as rower Sir Steve Redgrave, revered as the country’s greatest Olympian.

Princess Anne and Seb Coe were in the stands Friday, following the appearances of Prime Minister David Cameron, Prince Harry, Prince Wills and Kate on Thursday.

And of course, Wiggo was there — that is, Bradley Wiggins, Britain’s first Tour de France winner who came off the three-week race through the Alps and Pyrenees to win the individual time trial on London’s outskirts and his seventh Olympic medal. The medal podium was set up as three thrones near Hampton Court Palace, and Wiggins sat on his and flashed the V sign to his loyal subjects.

British fans have taken to plastering fake red sideburns on their faces in tribute to Wiggo, who lost his father to alcoholism and has talked about his own, past drinking problems.

Hoy, a Scotsman, is also beloved, as is Mark Cavendish, the Isle of Man sprinter who has won two dozen Tour stages.

“Em, they cont get eny beddah than ‘is,” Cav said of his teammates.

Spectators in the 6,000 seats agreed — although they weren’t actually in their seats for much of the evening. Many waved Union Jack flags and their screams reverberated from ceiling to floor.

Pendleton has been embraced by fans and tabloid reporters since she revealed she was romantically involved with team sports scientist Scott Gardner, who was one of her coaches.

“We fell in love and at first everyone was so angry, we were a disgrace,” she said in a BBC interview.

Said Gardner, who had to leave the team: “I knew there were consequences.”

But they were eventually forgiven and admired for their loyalty to each other.

Pendleton won one of track cycling’s strangest, most challenging events. The eight-lap Keirin is a race of speed and tactics and used to be one of pushing and shoving. The racers follow a derney — a motorized bike driven by bloke in black who looks like he could be delivering a pizza. He paces the riders until he peels off into the infield and they are fight it out to the finish line, where places are determined by inches.

Pendleton’s arch rival, Anna Meares of Australia, roared to the front but she went too early. The canny Pendleton, whose petite size belies her strength, passed Meares with two laps to go, pushing her pedals with a burst of power and withstanding the pain in her quadriceps to hold off two other charging cyclists for first place.

Pendleton’s nervous mum, Pauline, took up her usual place in the loo during her daughter’s race, where she said she’s often met up with Hoy’s mother.

Pendleton has the sprint to come, but plans to retire after the Olympics.

“I didn’t sleep last night and I asked, ‘Why do I put myself through this?’ ” she said. “I’m going to be riding my bike to keep fit and that’s it. I won’t ever do a Steve Redgrave where he jumped back in the boat.”

Pendleton, 31, said she’ll be glad to stop agonizing.

“I’m going to give up crying after the Olympics,” she said. “I’ve decided I’m going to give it up forever.”

But first she will have her “amazing exit” in the breathtaking venue. The external sides are covered in western red cedar to coincide with the Siberian pine track. The double-curving roof features 10 miles of steel cable. It was designed to be the world’s fastest track and one of the Games’ most sustainable venues — lightweight and energy-efficient like a bicycle.

The last time the Olympic Games were held in London, in 1948, cycling was contested at Herne Hill, an outdoor track that survives as the only intact venue from the “Austerity Olympics.” It was used by Wiggins when he was a youngster, but has fallen into disrepair. He’s leading a fundraising drive to refurbish it.

Great Britain will soon have six velodromes in which to groom its promising cyclists. The country is undergoing a cycling boom — competitive, recreational and commuting. Sky TV hosts a series of Sky Rides which bar traffic from city centers and open them to cyclists. A Go Ride program in the schools encourages talent.

The likes of Sir Chris, Brilliant Brad and Queen Victoria should keep the wheels turning.

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