The Joy and Pain of the Team Pursuit

Of all the track cycling events the team pursuit is the most special for me. Nothing else has the speed and satisfaction that comes from four individuals working in perfect synchronisation. Matching kit helps. That team element is a novel aspect for track racing, most of the time we are solo, out for personal glory, and the camaraderie and shared endeavour heighten the thrill and the challenge.

Our 2015 Worlds team in action
In action at the UCI Masters Track Cycling World Championships 2015 on our way tot he silver medal. I'm third man.

Getting ready for a team pursuit has its own unique set of worries, which are made worse by the fact that team pursuits are usually only held on big occasions like World Championships. I ride a big gear which means I am a slow starter, usually man three or four to compensate. So the main fear is about failing to get on the wheel in the opening lap, but there is so much more to worry about: Will I clip a wheel? Will I leave too big a gap? Will I stuff up a change? Will I blow up? What if we are already down to 3 riders?

As the start procedure kicks in it is just time to empty the mind and get ready to lean back on one second to go, ready to explode into action, giving those opening few pedal strokes maximum force. Trying to stay high into the turn, only coming down when I'm confident I can use the height to get on that wheel. Out of turn two the initial acceleration finishes, like jettisoning the solid rocket boosters. Not relaxing just yet, getting ready for the main engines to ignite and drive the team into turn three. Finally settling into the aerobars as the opening lap is completed and I can feel the tractor beam engage, sucking me onto the wheel, pulling me along at 55kph, a protected bubble of speed with all concentration focused on the wheel in front, trying to keep the gap to mere inches.

It isn't long before the shelter allows me to recover from that big opening effort. The other guys are much bigger than me and I get a lot of protection from the wind. As each rider swings up the workload increases almost imperceptibly but it is still only tempo power. I'm itching to get to the front. Trying not to kick on as the last man swings out of the way into the bend. At the start of the turn it is all about maintaining pace. You want to keep the speed as constant as possible, accelerations at this speed take so much out of everyone, worst for the man trying to get back on. You need to trust in your teammates, to know their rhythms and habits, to avoid anyone kicking back in panic. It is hard to judge pace as the wind hits full force. Concentrating on holding the black line through the turns and then drifting up to the red on the straights to smooth out the bends. I'm usually doing a long turn, two laps or so, and after the enthusiasm of the first lap the lungs and legs start to burn. Listening for the lap split, precious feedback on my pace judgement, doing quick calculations in my head as to how much I can take it up. Trying to hold enough in reserve to get back on the wheel. As my turn ends I try to accelerate into the change to deliver speed to the next rider. Driving up just before the apex of the bend, suddenly pointing straight up at the barrier atop the banking, up above the blue line and then immediately swinging back down, aiming for the wheel of the last man. If you come down too early you end up alongside, exposed to the wind, needing to back off a little to get back in the line, which then neccesitates an another acceleration. Leave it to long and you are faced with closing the gap to the last man, a flood of panic. Must not get dropped!

This is the rhythm of the team pursuit, a synchronised interval session, a constant calculation of effort and recovery, each rider trying to stretch themselves to the maximum to go as fast as possible. It always seems to be over so quickly, before you know it you are driving into the final bend, man one moving up the track to allow men two and three to drive through to finish in a perfect line, a final act of coordination.