No longer considered the new boys on the block, the youthful sprint cyclists aim to get New Zealand’s campaign off on an emphatic note at the UCI World Track Championships in Melbourne on Wednesday.
With an average age of just 22 years, the burgeoning men’s sprint programme will be in action in the team sprint at the Hisense Arena in Olympic Park.
BikeNZ Sprint Coach Justin Grace has opted for the same combination that finished sixth at last year’s world championships for the team sprint in Ethan Mitchell (Auckland), Sam Webster (Auckland) and Eddie Dawkins (Invercargill).
The New Zealand team will take on the might of Great Britain, France and hosts Australia, who have riders in their prime on the other side of 30 years, but Grace believes they are far from overawed to tackle the likes of triple Beijing gold medallist Sir Chris Hoy.
“They definitely belong and they know it. The training times they have done; the racing they have done – they know they are standing there as equals among their peers.”
There has been a selection dilemma with national kilo time trial record holder Simon van Velthooven and Matt Archibald (Invercargill) both pushing hard for inclusion.
“We drew up a bunch of selection criteria and tests for the blokes to do and we ended up having to run their twice to be sure of what we are getting,” Grace said.
“At the moment we could run any combination of the five guys and ride times that would be within 0.3 of a second of one another.”
Mitchell, 21, has become world class in the role as starter, with 2009 triple world junior gold medallist Webster coming back into top form in recent weeks. Dawkins, who gave way to van Velthooven in the number three slot, has regained his best form to earn a recall.
They were fifth in their world championship debut in 2010 in 44.450 before lowering this to 44.118 in winning the World Cup in Cali later that year.
Last year they went 45.032 on the slower Copenhagen track to be sixth at the world championships before smashing their national record with a 44.074 in winning the Oceania title at Invercargill late last year.
Grace said the world championships form a key focus for the team, who are not daring to think further ahead at this stage.
“We are focussed on this ride. It is definitely a very, very important time for us. Traditionally the teams that do well at the world champs in a pre-Olympic year do well at the Olympics in any case. We have gone full gas for this event.”
He wants the sprint group to go home with a gong or two as reward for their development over the last three years.
“We came here to get some medals. We have the biggest team (of sprinters) that we have ever brought to a world championship. We have guys who are absolutely firing so I guess we would walk away a little disappointed if we don’t bring home a medal.”
Racing begins tomorrow (Wednesday) with New Zealand contesting the women’s sprint for the first time with Natasha Hansen and Katie Schofield chasing late qualification for the London Olympics, while men’s endurance coach Tim Carswell will today name his combination to take on qualifying in the 4000m team pursuit.