Five current world champions will spearhead the New Zealand cycling team to next month’s Rio Olympic Games, announced today by the New Zealand Olympic Committee.
The world champion men’s team sprint trio of Eddie Dawkins, Ethan Mitchell and Sam Webster – named last month along with female sprinter Natasha Hansen – will be joined in Rio by current time trial world champion Linda Villumsen. The other world champion is mountain biker Sam Gaze, also confirmed last month, who recently took out the under-23 cross-country crown.
New Zealand Olympic Committee CEO Kereyn Smith passed on her congratulations to all of the cyclists and commended the strong team heading to the Olympic Games. “The athletes confirmed are a very strong group, considering both results in recent years and current form. To welcome these riders into the Olympic Team is a great value add for New Zealand just 27 days out from Rio,” said Smith. “We wish these riders confirmed for Rio all the very best in the final run up to the Games and know they can take confidence from several world championship titles and exceptional form across the board in recent years.”
Most competition for places in the track team, limited by cycling’s ruling body to eight men and seven women, centred on the endurance squads to compete in the team pursuit and six-discipline omnium at the Olympics. The squads of seven riders, who have been preparing in USA and Europe, have been trimmed to a final five for Rio.
The men’s team pursuit combination is Piet Bulling (Invercargill), Regan Gough (Waipukurau) and Dylan Kennett (Waimate), all part of the winning team pursuit at the 2015 worlds, along with London medallist Aaron Gate (Auckland) and double Beijing medallist Hayden Roulston (Ashburton).
“The competition within this squad has been exceptional as they have pushed each other every day in training,” said Cycling New Zealand head coach, Dayle Cheatley. “Both of the guys to miss out would have done us proud and still have big futures in the sport.”
“I can’t say enough about the efforts of Hayden Roulston, who gave up a career on the road to realise his dream of completing his career back on the track. After eight years away, the sport had moved on and he has worked tirelessly on the bike and been an invaluable leader off it.”
The women’s endurance group has settled on the five riders who were third fastest in qualifying at the 2016 world championships in the Waikato trio of Rushlee Buchanan, Jaime Nielsen and Racquel Sheath, Mid-Canterbury’s Lauren Ellis and Auckland’s Georgia Williams. “This group has continued to improve over the last 12 months especially, although we have had two younger riders really push them which helped to raise the bar,” Cheatley said. Buchanan, the current national road and time trial champion, Nielsen and Ellis competed at London while Sheath and Williams will be attending their first Olympic Games.
New Zealand qualified one spot for the women’s road events which predictably went to current time trial world champion Villumsen, who was fourth by two seconds in this event in London. The Christchurch rider has been on the podium five times in the time trial at the world championships before her breakthrough victory in USA last year. She will also compete in the road race as a key preparation ride two days before the time trial.
“Linda has been preparing well for her United Healthcare team under the direction of her personal coach Marco Pinotti, and has produced some encouraging performances,” said Cycling New Zealand Director of High performance, Mark Elliott. “The course in Rio is certainly more suited to her skills than was the case in London and we are leaving no stone unturned in her preparations.”
Nelson rider George Bennett will make his Olympic debut as the only New Zealand rider in the men’s road race. The LottoNL-Jumbo World Tour rider, currently competing in his first Tour de France, is a noted climber which will be a key asset on a course in Rio that is reported so tough that the likes of world champion Peter Sagan has decided not to race.
New Zealand has qualified two spots for the men’s road, but selectors ultimately have to select a team that has the strongest ability to win medals, which has meant that Commonwealth Games medallist Jack Bauer has not been nominated. “Jack is an outstanding rider and served us so well at London and Glasgow, but due to a number of significant injuries and crashes over the last 18 months we were unable to put his name forward to the NZOC,” said Elliott.
There are two other riders who will join the track sprint group. Canterbury teenager Olivia Podmore, a junior world championship medallist, has been added to form a team sprint combination with Hansen. “Olivia only joined the high performance squad late last year and has taken time to settle in. But she has really impressed in training in Europe to warrant her nomination.”
Young Auckland rider Zac Williams has also been added as a reserve for the men’s sprint team after an impressive trial in Europe last week. He has the ability to ride at all three positions in the team sprint. “With only one road spot allotted, we were able to utilise the other spot for the track. We have invested significantly in the men’s team sprint and felt it prudent to ensure we have cover given we have the opportunity. Zac has continued to make significant gains this year, which has been great to see,” said Cheatley. This has meant that London medallist Simon van Velthooven and Southland’s 2015 world championship medallist Matt Archibald have not earned selection.
“That’s a testament to the quality of this team and certainly no reflection on the capabilities of these two riders who have been outstanding contributors to the programme.”
Cheatley said an exciting element is the number of young riders who have earned selection for Rio, and will be also major prospects for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. The team will continue with preparations around Europe before the whole track squad converges on Bordeaux for the final staging preparations next week.
New Zealand has only won seven cycling medals at the Olympics with a bronze to Gary Anderson (individual pursuit) at Barcelona in 1992; the sole gold medal by Sarah Ulmer (Individual pursuit) at Athens in 2004; the team pursuit bronze and silver to Hayden Roulston (individual pursuit) at Beijing in 2008; and the bronze medals to the men’s team pursuit and the keirin by Simon van Velthooven along with the silver to Sarah Walker in BMX at London 2012.