It is perhaps fitting, from a British perspective at least, that this year’s Track World Championships should be taking place in Hong Kong. After 12 months during which the reputation of Team GB’s once golden sport has taken a fearful hammering, there is a definite end-of-empire feel to all things British cycling right now.
The absence from these championships of a host of Olympic stars – from Sir Bradley Wiggins to Ed Clancy to Phil Hindes to Joanna Rowsell-Shand to the golden couple themselves, Laura and Jason Kenny – might fuel the perception in some minds that this week is a bit of an irrelevance; a distraction from the unfolding drama back home.
But scratch beneath the surface and there is, as ever, plenty to interest.
The absence of big names from the worlds is certainly nothing new. The championships straight after an Olympic Games traditionally bring a changing of the guard as many of the biggest names choose to skip proceedings, either because they have retired or simply out of a desire to rest aching limbs pending a comeback later in the Olympic cycle.
In the case of someone such as three-time Olympic gold medallist Clancy, who has been flat out since before Beijing 2008, there is little to be gained from putting his body through the mill this early in the cycle. Jason Kenny likewise. Laura Kenny, meanwhile, is using the first part of this Olympic cycle to become a mother.
Their absence, in turn, gives fringe and up-and-coming riders the chance to show what they can do. Four years ago, in Belarus, the 21-year-old Becky James took full advantage of Victoria Pendleton’s retirement post-London 2012 to claim a brace of world sprint titles. Simon Yates, meanwhile, won points race gold in Minsk, offering up a glimpse of the talent which has enabled him to go on to become a Grand Tour contender on the road.
For James and Yates, read Ryan Owens and Mark Stewart, who will be going in the sprint and the points races respectively this week at the Hong Kong velodrome. Or Elinor Barker and Katie Archibald – Olympic champions both in the team pursuit – who have the chance to show what they can do in the individual events, with Laura Kenny’s absence in particular opening up slots in the women’s programme.
Barker will be riding the scratch, the points race and the Madison (which looks as if it will be making an Olympic return at Tokyo 2020), as well as potentially the later rounds of the team pursuit. Archibald, meanwhile, will be going for gold in the new-look omnium (which now consists of four events in one day rather than six events in two days) and the 500-metre time trial.
Both finished last year in stunning form and could leave selectors with a serious headache when Kenny returns. Not that they see it that way. “Well, obviously, we keep a ranking of how we see each other,” Archibald said, rolling her eyes a little, when asked whether she felt she might ‘usurp’ Kenny if she won omnium gold. “At the moment Laura is still holding on with just her fingertips. Have they got a sarcasm font yet?
“But yes, I think it’s not ridiculous to assume that everyone wants that omnium spot. We’ll all be going after it.”
What is clear is that British Cycling has adopted a markedly different approach this year, giving some of the more ‘established’ riders the opportunity to prioritise individual events.
That approach means someone such as Callum Skinner, who spent most of the four years building up to Rio trying to fill Sir Chris Hoy’s shoes at man three in the team sprint, can focus on the individual sprint in Hong Kong this week, the discipline in which he won a surprise silver at the Olympics.
The men’s team sprint, which takes place on the opening day at the Hong Kong velodrome on Wednesday, will instead be contested by a trio of young riders: Jack Carlin, Ryan Owens and Joe Truman. Owens, in particular, has been tipped as a rising star capable of filling Kenny’s cleats long-term.
The pursuit teams, meanwhile, will be staffed by a combination of young riders who have progressed through the academy system, and old hands such as Steven Burke and Andy Tennant.
All of which is good news, according to Skinner.
“I think BC kind of neglected the strength in depth of the squad for quite a while and that’s something it’s been trying to turn around for the last four or five years,” he said. “And that’s just starting to show now basically. We could put forward two competitive teams at a major championship now."
Skinner added that he was feeling under pressure to perform given his exploits in Rio, and given the fact that British Cycling’s new performance director – Stephen ‘Sparky’ Park, who has joined from British Sailing – will be watching from up in the stands this week ahead of his official first day in Manchester on April 24.
“Previously, when I competed, people didn’t expect much,” Skinner said. “If I got a result it was a bonus. Whereas now that I have got a result, people expect that to continue. So yeah it’s going to be different. It’s gone from filling that man-three spot to trying to being able to hold on to that and continue from there.
"But the numbers aren’t too far away [from Rio] which is quite encouraging. There will be some exciting performances out there, I’m sure.”