Back on track but not exactly back to normal is how it looks for the golden couple of British cycling, Jason and Laura Kenny, who this week have the chance to press on further into the record books as the track cycling programme starts at the Izu velodrome on Monday. Both compete three times – Laura in the team pursuit, madison and omnium, Jason in the team sprint, match sprint and keirin – meaning they could end the Games way beyond their shared total of a dozen golds.
The expectations will be for the typical Team GB medal rush, propelled as usual by technology that has got the cycling world talking – the Tokyo superbike is more radical than anything since Chris Boardman’s Lotus in 1992 – but the reality is more nuanced, flavoured like much of current life by Covid-19. For Jason, one major issue is the lack of international competition due to the pandemic.
“It’s been a challenge,” he says. “We always follow the same routine and we’ve had to adapt to that. There hasn’t been much racing. The biggest difference is we have absolutely no idea what everyone else is going to bring because we haven’t seen them in such a long time. I think we’re going quite well but I don’t know how we compare. You don’t know until everyone goes to the same place and puts it on the line.
“But it’s the same for everyone else – everyone’s life has changed. It will suit someone, it won’t suit someone else. The thing you miss most is the background experience – being in a plane, being in a hotel, doing your warmups, things going wrong, forgetting something, all the things you take for granted. That’s what’s hardest to replicate in training. You can do practice racing all day long, you can’t replicate the disappointment of getting a race wrong, getting back up and having to turn it round.”
Both feel that the extra year due to the postponement of the Games has been to their benefit. “If it had been a year ago, I’d have been concerned I might not have got the preparation I wanted,” says Laura, who used the time to rehabilitate a shoulder broken in early 2020. Her other half feels the whole team is faster than they might have been 12 months ago.
Charlotte Dujardin recently became Britain’s most decorated female Olympian, with six medals in all, but Laura Kenny currently has yet to take a medal other than gold in Olympic competition – a record that she notes wryly is not shared by her husband. However, Jason is pushing Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins in the male record books – and Laura begins her push for a fifth gold on day one in the women’s team pursuit, where she is confident the world record will fall.
“It’s going to tumble, I’d expect it to be broken four times before us; there are rumours the Aussies broke it in training.” The record, 4min 10.236sec, was set in Rio by Kenny, Katie Archibald, Elinor Barker and the now retired Joanna Rowsell Shand; in Tokyo, Neah Evans and Josie Knight make their Olympic debuts.
There has been a sea change in Laura’s approach to Tokyo, prompted by the arrival of a new coach, Monica Greenwood, after Paul Manning’s departure eight months from the Games. Greenwood, says Laura, has provided a fresh, intense focus on the bunched races – the two-rider madison relay and the omnium – where the format has changed from Rio to four events in a single day.
“Monica understood the priority was the team pursuit – it’s a timed event, it’s the most predictable – but I don’t see why [we should] leave two medals behind, she didn’t see why we shouldn’t try to be the best in those events too. This has been the most I’ve ever done in terms of preparation for the bunch raced. We’ve done so much madison in the last six or eight months.”
Another change, according to Laura, is that Greenwood opted early for a fixed pairing in the madison, with Archibald. “Not a single pair has done enough madison together, prior to the last year we’ve chopped and changed all the time,” she said. “It’s difficult to learn about your partner when you’re not together enough. When Monica came in she selected Katie and me and we’ve learned the dos and don’ts between us: the things we like to do, where we want to be positioned. We’ve been doing some racing with the under-23 and junior lads; by the last one we barely had to speak to each other, we both knew exactly where the other one wanted to be in the race.”
It’s unclear whether either or both of Jason and Laura will push on to Paris 2024, although there are rumours that Laura at least is leaning that way. “It’s only a three-year cycle now,” Jason says. “After the last one I was adamant I didn’t want to do it any more and walked away, but it ended up refreshing me – since coming back I’ve been more relaxed and have enjoyed it more.”
As well as Laura and her teammates, the GB men’s team pursuit quartet are also in action on day one. They are perennial medallists and Olympic record holders, but now face stiff competition from Denmark – who took the world record below 3min 45sec in 2020 – New Zealand, Australia, France and Italy. There should be an emotional farewell for the endurance stalwart Ed Clancy, whose GB career goes back 16 years, while later in the week Katy Marchant will look to improve on her Rio silver in the women’s match sprint.