Posted by Editor on 08/26/08
Now that the Olympics are over, it is time for the inevitable post-Games analysis of how Canada did. The Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) has already made public its own brief report Here, with cycling getting a couple of mentions as highlights. However, we are more interested in looking just at cycling.
Overall, it would be easy to say that Canada did not do as well as the Athens Games, where our sport took two medals - Lori-Anne Muenzer's gold in the Sprint and Marie-Helene Premont's silver in the Cross-country. That is too simplistic; while medals are important, we need to look at how competitive Canada was across all sectors of our sport.
In many ways, Canada had a stronger Games performance in Beijing than in any previous Games since Atlanta (where cycling won five medals). We had top-10 performances in the Men's Road Race and Time Trial, in the Men's and Women's Points Races, in Women's Mountain Bike and Women's BMX.
Ironically, our 'poorest' results were in the disciplines where the expectations were the highest - Mountain Bike and Women's Road - thus proving once again that nothing is guaranteed at the Olympics.
Let's look at each discipline individually:
Men's Road - Grade: A
No question, Canada performed exceptionally well here, with Michael Barry's ninth in the Road Race, Svein Tuft's seventh in the Time Trial and Ryder Hesjedal's 16th in the Time Trial. All of these results are superb against what was, essentially, a European pro field, and all show that Canada does have the talent to ride at this level.
The question is whether we can build on this for the next Games, since Barry and Tuft may or may not still be around in four years (they will be 36 and 35 respectively). Hesjedal almost certainly will be, and younger riders such as Christian Meier and Cam Evans should be moving into their prime.
However, does this mean Canada should invest resources in Men's Road? This is a very hard question to answer. Men's Road can consume enormous resources. To be successful here requires getting riders racing in Europe on pro teams - the way Barry and Hesjedal do now and, hopefully, Meier will do next season.
Women's Road - Grade: B-
The women's results were disappointing, because all three of the Canadians on the squad (Alex Wrubleski, Leigh Hobson and Erinne Willock) have had top-5 finishes at the World Cup level this year. However, we should temper the disappointment - Wrubleski crashed hard in the Road Race, which certainly impacted her ability to perform in the Time Trial. Hobson finished with the chase group, less than 30 seconds behind the five leaders, and Willock was also less than a minute down. The Road Race is always a bit of a lottery - the favoured Germans did even worse than Canada.
Hobson has already retired, but both Wrubleski and Willock will go into this four year cycle with the experience of a Games under their belts, and we have a number of other young talents (such as Julie Beveridge) coming through the ranks. Canada will need to support them in regular European projects, to make sure that they get the level of competition needed.
Men's Track - Grade: B+
It is a bit of a misnomer to talk about a "program" here, what we really have are some talented riders who did it mostly on their own. Despite the lack of resources and track time, Zach Bell recorded a very strong seventh place in the Points Race, and coach Richard Wooles is correct in saying that a medal is possible for 2012.
The Madison team (Bell and Martin Gilbert) also had the best race of their career. Despite finishing 12th, they were part of the race and (albeit briefly) actually led for a time. It needs to be emphasized that this team had two days of practice after Bell's Points Race, and rarely get the chance to ride together outside of competition. Bell is correct when he says that Canada needs a Madison program and a pool of riders to draw on. If the resources were committed, a top-8 at the world level could follow within 18 months. If Svein Tuft is one of the riders who is in the program, then he, Bell and Gilbert could push each other to new heights.
Canada also has some talented sprinters - Travis Smith and Cam Mackinnon. Smith would almost certainly have qualified for the Games, except for the awful crash and injury he suffered at the 2007 World Championships. In 2012, Smith will be 32 and MacKinnon 28.
Women's Track - Grade: B
Again, Canada has no program, what it has is one rider (Gina Grain), still relatively new to track, and who has to work it in around her road team commitments. Despite that, she has made progress in this tactical event, to finish seventh. Canada has some other women in the wings - Monique Sullivan (Sprint) and Tara Whitton (Pursuit). However, Canada either needs to make a firm commitment to building a women's program or abandon it - sporadically supporting one or two athletes is a waste of resources.
BMX - Grade: C
This was the first time BMX was in the Olympics, so no one could really predict what would happen. Athletes crossed over from mountain bike, and the Supercross-style track was different from what many pros were used to. Canada's Scott Erwood did well to qualify Canada a spot for the men, but was gone after the first round. On the women's side, Sam Cools was considered a medal prospect by the COC, but our feeling was that she would be lucky to get into the Final, given the talent pool from Europe.
Cools did make the Final - but that was because some other riders crashed out in the last semifinal run of her heat, opening the door. Based on her first two runs and time trial, Cools would not have made it. In the Final, Cools was seventh, after a crash in the first jump.
Cools will be 26 in 2012, still potentially at her prime. However, the real question is whether BMX athletes are prepared to commit to an Olympic preparation program? This is a legitimate concern - most of the North American BMX pros make their living competing on the ABA circuit, which is very different from what is required to do well in Olympic-style competition.
Men's Mountain Bike - Grade: C
One of the bigger disappointments for the Canadian team, and the athletes involved, who were looking for top-10 performances. Both Geoff Kabush and Seamus McGrath have had top-10 World Cup results this season, with Kabush on the podium for multiple World Cups. Both suffered mechanical problems, and Kabush admitted to feeling sub-par. Was this just an unlucky day?
Looking forward, Kabush will be 35 and McGrath 36 in 2012. While it is by no means impossible that they will both be still competing at a high level in four years, the odds are against it - there is a better than average chance that both will have moved on after many years of living out of suitcases as an athlete.
Canada does have some strong young contenders, including Max Plaxton, Raphael Gagne, Neal Kindree and Derek Zandstra, but they need to race the World Cup circuit if we want them to be competitive at the highest level - American NMBS and Canada Cups, plus at once a year trip to the Worlds, just doesn't cut it.
Women's Mountain Bike - Grade: B
This is a hard one. On the one hand, Marie-Helene Premont was considered to be our closest thing to a guaranteed medal in cycling - but she DNF'd on lap 2, something that is almost unheard of for this athlete. On the other, Catharine Pendrel continued her breakout season by moving into the bronze medal position on lap two, a position she would hold until the last kilometre of the race when a misshift allowed Russia's Irina Kalentieva to scoot by for the final podium spot. If Canada hadn't been convinced a medal was in the bag, Pendrel's fourth would have been cause for celebration (it still is, in my book).
Looking to 2012, Premont will be 34 and Pendrel 31. Both will still be in their prime (Spitz just won at 36). Premont, however, has made it clear that she is unlikely to continue racing after next season (if, indeed, she even continues next year). Pendrel, given her current development, should be one of the top riders in the world over the next few years.
But, we have just experienced the fatal flaw of depending on just one athlete - they are human. So, what do we have for backups to Pendrel? Well, we are in pretty good shape, actually. Emily Batty is moving up through the ranks steadily, and 2012 would be a good learning experience for her, with her peak likely to be 2016. Amanda Sin has also begun to make progress, as has Mical Dyck and Marie-Claude Surprenant (although she is more likely a 2016 candidate).
However, all of these riders need to start being exposed to international (read: European) competition on a regular basis, and this is not going to happen with the current trade team system we have.
Conclusions - Grade: B
If it hadn't been for the extremely high expectations of at least one medal, I would have pegged this a B+ Olympics. Looking at the results, this was the best across the boards results for Canadian cycling since the five medal bonanza of 1996. However, the reality is that cycling was expected to produce a medal, and so the Canadian Cycling Association (CCA) will now be under the gun from bureaucrats at Sport Canada to justify funding.
The CCA is going to have to take a very targeted and somewhat ruthless approach to planning for the next Olympic cycle (which started yesterday, make no mistake). As the new Chief Technical Officer Jacques Landry said when we spoke last week "some people are not going to be happy with the decisions I will be making".
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