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By Neal Rogers
With the overwhelming support of a partisan home crowd, all signs seemed stacked in favor of American junior national sprint champion Michael Blatchford securing a rainbow jersey at the junior track world championships Saturday, held at the ADT Event Center velodrome near Los Angeles, California.
Blatchford, who hails from the nearby city of Cypress, was first in the 200-meter qualifying sprints Friday, laying down a 10.696 ahead of Australia’s Shane Perkins, winner of Thursday night’s keirin, who rode a 10.701. And when both Blatchford and Perkins required just two rides in the best-of-three semifinal heats to dispose of their opponents, the stage was set for an evenly matched final.
The American had taken a gamble in the first heat of the semifinals, allowing France’s Kévin Sireau to open a sizable lead before dropping down from the top of the track, coming around the Frenchman in the final straight and holding it to the line to win by half a bike length. It was a performance that perhaps showed a lack of experience, leaving the American team staff on the edge of their seat.
“You don’t give somebody that kind of gap in the semifinals,” said Pat McDonough, USA Cycling’s director of track programs. “They weren’t even in the same ZIP code there for a minute.”
But, as Blatchford had advanced to the finals, it appeared all was under control. And the crowd of 1000 spectators was overjoyed as Blatchford took a close opening heat against Perkins, pumped his fists and, for a moment, appeared ready to give Perkins a conciliatory handshake.
However, the tide began to shift when Perkins won round two in another tight heat. This time Blatchford attempted to sit on Perkins and come around him closer to the line, but the American lacked the closing punch as Perkins put down a smoking 10.882. Suddenly both riders were one heat away from the rainbow stripes.
Before the final heat, Perkins’s teammate and best friend Michael Ford – junior world-record holder in the individual pursuit and two-time gold medalist at this championships after riding in Australia’s dominant team-pursuit victory over Germany an hour earlier – pedaled the infield circle alongside his mate.
“I just told him to believe in himself,” Ford said. “I told him we all knew he could do it. Just to bring home the gold, basically.”
And that was just what happened. Again Blatchford gave Perkins the front in an attempt to draft, and again Perkins was ready, opening up a pace the American couldn’t surpass to take the world title in yet another nail-biting race. It was a bittersweet finish for the Americans: Blatchford’s silver, the team’s finest thus far at the event, was agonizingly close to a world championship in a discipline at which the United States has struggled for years.
Afterwards, Blatchford was philosophical about the disappointment of losing such a tight race in front of friends and family.
“I have never raced anywhere in my life where I’ve received this kind of support,” he said. “It was fantastic, but I was definitely feeling the pressure, too. It was really all about who was at the front, and he was at the front on both of the last two races.
“Still, I’ve got a lot to feel good about. I’ve come so far. I’ve put on 20 pounds of muscle mass in the past six months. I’ve put in the training, but I just lack the experience. [Perkins] has been riding against better riders, at better velodromes.”
Perkins, an outgoing Aussie and one of a half-dozen on the squad to sport a bleached-blond ‘do – said he used the crowd’s support for Blatchford in his favor. “I’m sure it got him pumped up, but it got me pumped up too,” Perkins said. “I just used it to my advantage.”
In the men’s team pursuit, Australia’s Cyclones squad pulverized the competition, knocking out the American squad of Michael Chauner, Daniel Holloway, Chris Ruhl and Michael Schnabel in the first round on the way to facing Germany in the finals in a mirror-image of the two country’s repeated face-offs at elite-level World Cups and world championships.
In the final round, the well-oiled Australian squad of Ford, Simon Clarke, Matthew Gloss and points-race silver medalist Miles Olman went up 1.5 seconds with 10 laps to go in the 16-lap event and closed in each lap to finish with a 4:10.439. A gaffe by Germany’s third rider – who mistakenly thought he still had a rider behind him before realizing he was the last man in an event that scores the third team rider across – caused the team to finish 10 seconds down, but it was of little consequence; the Australian squad was in a league of its own.
Afterwards, team director Gary Sutton said the toughest part of his job had been excluding Mitch Docker, the fifth man on the squad. Docker had ridden well throughout the qualifying rounds, as Olman had been odd man out, but in the end Sutton went with the 2003 world points-race champion.
“It was a very tough day for me today,” Sutton said. “I went through the split times, and in the end I had to decide between two talented riders.”
Germany settled for silver with a 4:20.001 while Russia took third with a 4:18.301 over France. The U.S. squad finished seventh overall.
In the evening’s other medal competition, Italy’s Annalisa Cucinotta won the women’s 7.5km scratch race with an impressive final sprint ahead of Jarmila Machacova (Czech Republic) and Bianca Rogers (Australia).
Kimberly Geist, America’s bronze medalist in the 2km pursuit, had been part of a two-woman breakaway early on with New Zealand’s Paddy Walker, opening a lead that looked as though it might stick, but with six laps remaining, Korea’s Rel Choe Sun Ae bridged the gap, bringing the field behind her.
Once back together, Cucinotta attacked the group to finish alone. It was a redeeming ride for the Italian, who was disqualified from the previous evening’s keirin for passing the pace vehicle. It was a controversial ruling, as many felt Cucinotta was forced to overlap wheels with the pace vehicle due to another rider’s errant bike handling.
Australia leads the country competition with 10 medals, five of them gold. Sunday’s medal events include the men’s Madison, the men’s team sprint and the women’s sprint.
1 Shane Perkins (Australia)
2 Michael Blatchford (USA)
3 Maximilian Levy (Germany)
4 Kévin Sireau (France)
5 Matthew Crampton (Great Britain)
6 Ben Barczewski (USA)
7 Denis Dmitriev (Russia)
9 Benjamin Wittmann (Germany)
10 Robert Förstemann (Germany)
Men’s team pursuit
1 Australia, 4:10.439 (57.499 kph)
2 Germany, 4:20.001 (55.384 kph)
3 Russia, 4:18.301 (55.749 kph)
4 France, 4:21.449 (55.078 kph)
Women’s scratch 7.5 km
1 Annalisa Cucinotta (Italy), 10:04.623
2 Jarmila Machacova (Czech Republic)
3 Bianca Rogers (Australia)
4 Stephanie Pohl (Germany)
5 Pascale Jeuland (France)
6 Roxane Knetemann (Netherlands)
7 Karen Verbeek (Belgium)
8 Andrea Wolfer (Switzerland)
9 Paddy Walker (New Zealand)
10 Berenice Castro (Mexico)
11 Mylene Laliberte (Canada)
12 Natalia Prokurorova (Russia)
13 Paola Munoz (Chile)
14 Kimberly Geist (USA)
15 Rel Choe Sun Ae (Korea)