Team Pursuit gold crashes out of reach for Australia after opening night

It was an opening night on the track at the Tokyo Olympics that the Australian endurance squad will want to swiftly put behind them, as first the women’s team pursuit squad qualified seventh fastest, and then the men’s team saw a bizarre equipment failure bring down Alex Porter mid-run.

It’s always high pressure whenever a big event rolls around, but the agony and ecstasy of an Olympics is like no other. Years or work, effort untold in the search for one magical ride against the best in the world in Tokyo.

The qualifying stage of the team pursuit is essentially a fight to get in the top four, miss it and you can’t ride for silver or gold, but still a possibility exists to make the bronze medal ride. Both the women’s and men’s teams are now in the position where they’ll need to post one of the fastest two times outside the winners of the semi finals between the top four qualifying squads to make the ride-off.

The women’s team were the fifth to start in the women’s team qualifying runs, having just seen the German squad break the world record, lowering the mark to 4:07.307, nearly three seconds faster than the previous world record of 4:10.236 set by Great Britain at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Annette Edmondson, Georgia Baker, Alex Manly and Ashlee Ankudinoff lined up for the Australians, with Maeve Plouffe as the reserve.

The Australian women got off to a sharp start, within two tenths of a second of the fastest opening 1000 metres, that pace would have seen them finish fourth of all teams, but they slipped away from the top-pace setters from there, eventually posting a time of 4:13.571. Their time was a respectable one – not far off the Australian record of 4:12.460 – but the other countries have really improved in recent years, with three teams beating the world record during qualifying.

The men’s pursuit was a different matter entirely, with a lot of interest directed towards the Australians to see how they would fare against the world champion Danish team after over a year’s absence from international competition.

It was the Danes who led the way in qualifying, their 3:45.014 just shy of their world record from the 2020 world championships, but it was a new Olympic record and stood as the mark to beat.

The squad of Sam Welsford, Alex Porter, Leigh Howard and Kelland O’Brien with Lucas Plapp in reserve was one of the pre-game favourites and got away to a solid start, but over a second off the time of Denmark through the kilometre mark when disaster struck.

Porter has rejoined the back of the paceline and seemed to be riding smoothly when all of sudden he pitched forward as his handlebars gave way, crashing to the boards. Porter looked in disgust after the crash as the rest of the team pulled up, coach Tim Decker swiftly signalling for a restart, one that was granted by commissaires with the bizarre nature of the crash.

Still, with the effort of the start already expended, the Australians came in at a significant disadvantage for their restart just half an hour later. Porter was given a medical check with what appeared to be a concussion protocol and then was given the all clear to start.

The start was significantly slower this time around, just over a second slower by the same point as the previous run’s crash, with the crash also prompting a reordering of the team, with Porter not asked to follow the famously strong Welsford, instead slotting behind Howard.

Porter was the first to swing off, the remaining three pushed all the way to the finish, but the time after four kilometres was just under a second behind the fourth-placed Great Britain squad. The time of 3:48.448 was less than half a second off the Australian record of 3:48.012 that the same team set at the 2019 world championships. They appeared well on target to break that mark with their pre-crash ride, and likely qualify in the top four before the problem with Porter’s handlebars occured.

There has been no statement from the Australian Cycling Team at present on Porter’s condition or the cause of the problem with his bike.

The team pursuit for the men and women continues tomorrow in the early evening, with the women’s first round set for 1630 AEST, the women’s finals then later in the evening at 1805 AEST. The men’s team pursuit first round will begin at 1722 AEST, with the men’s finals on Day 3 of competition. Click here for the full track cycling schedule.

By Jamie Finch-Penninger