Reigning world champion, Australian Anna Meares and Great Britain's Olympic champion Victorian Pendleton staged an epic duel in the women's sprint competition but neither walked away with gold on day three of the final round of the UCI Track World Cup Series on London's Olympic Velodrome.
That honour went to China's Shuang Gui while Meares claimed silver and Pendleton finished fourth behind Hong Kong surprise packet Wai Sze Lee.
Meares and Pendleton are cycling royalty who between them have won dozens of world and Olympic medals and their encounter in tonight's sprint semi-finals will go down as one of the most hard fought contest.
"I don't think I've seen in the history of women's sprinting three matches go 11.3, 11.1, 11.2 (seconds for the final 200 metres) so we really pushed each other to the limits but unfortunately we paid for it in the medal rounds," said Meares after being beaten in two straight heats by Guo, the 2008 Olympic Games sprint bronze medallist.
But the story began earlier in the day when Meares clocked an Australian record time of 10.939 seconds for the flying 200 metres to be top seed and the only rider to break 11 seconds in the sprint qualifying round. Pendleton meantime qualified fourth fastest in 11.111 putting the pair on a collision course for a semi-final battle.
Both comfortably dispensed with their rivals in the early rounds to set up what would prove to be the feature bout of the evening session of racing.
"I felt a bit nervous, I felt very excited, I felt prepared, I was prepared for anything. I haven't raced Victoria since the world championships almost a year ago," said Meares who in 2011 beat Pendleton in three before going on to win the sprint world title in two straight heats over Simona Krupeckaite of Lithuania.
"I was expecting her, off the back of the fantastic team sprint she and Jess Varnish rode yesterday, to have some fantastic form and I wasn't let down."
In their first encounter Meares led out and kept Pendleton high on the track smoothly increasing her pace to propel herself into the bell lap with too much speed for Pendleton who couldn't get around her. In the second heat Pendleton led out and on the first lap stalled in the back straight in a bid to force Meares to the front but the Australian held her nerve until she was ready to pounce. However Pendleton was ready this time and latched onto Meares' rear wheel before powering past her on the line to even the score.
The two warriors then retreated to separate corners of the track for a 15 minute respite like prize fighters who had gone nine rounds in the ring and were still even on points.
In the third and deciding race Meares shadowed Pendleton's every move until the bell lap when she spotted a gap and went for it diving down the track and underneath Pendleton whose reaction time was too slow to counter the move which sealed the win for Meares.
"I saw an opportunity and when you see an opportunity you have to take it," said Meares. "I'm not sure whether she saw me or not or saw me late but I just had to commit, I was on an angle that was quite precarious but I did have right of way in the sprint lane and (I'm) very proud that I didn't hesitate on that one and made the move.
"You couldn't hear it but I was down the back straight going 'Aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh', she said screaming and motioning as if throwing the handlebars from side to side. "I was just trying to get everything I could out of it (because) I knew she was coming.
"But that's what you have to do at these sort of competitions you've got to find another level and you have to challenge yourself and I believe I did that tonight."
However the energy expended in the semi-finals left her little in the tank for the gold medal final which for her came just six minutes later.
"That's nasty, that's nasty in anyone's books," said Meares of the compressed world cup sprint program. "It's just a challenge and I had to go out and deal with it as best I could and unfortunately Guo dealt with it much better than I but I think I'll be better for it.
"That's the name of the game and it could happen at Olympic Games (that I) draw the toughest girl in the field in the semis but still have to back up for the final," said Meares. "Guo had two races in her semis but that's just the way the cookie crumbles.
"When you're physically fatigued it then becomes difficult to mentally make the decisions required on the flip of a coin. You have to think so quickly when you're legs are burning and your head's going, 'No, go go go, you're fighting with yourself'," said the Beijing silver medallist. "I've taken a lot from it and I'm very proud of how I held myself physically, emotional and mentally to get through."
Meares believes the events so far, which also saw her and team mate Kaarle McCulloch go up against Pendleton and Jessica Varnish in the team sprint final won by the home team, have provided invaluable experience ahead of the Olympic Games.
"In the pits you're hearing the 'gong, gong, gong' of Big Ben over the speakers and it sounds a little like The Undertaker coming from the WWE," said Meares applying a wrestling rather than boxing comparison to the contest. "But that's what I wanted, that's what I needed to experience if I'm going to come back for the Olympic Games and be as prepared as I possibly can be. I couldn't have asked for anything better."
Pendleton, Meares and Guo were on the podium in Beijing and Meares says she's not surprised they are on track to be the riders to watch in London.
"This is a sport that is very responsive to age and to time. It's not something where you can click your fingers and have strength and speed and power and experience and ability to be able to apply it on the track, it takes time and if you stick around the sport long enough you're going to be able to see those improvements consistently roll throughout your career," she said. "Vicki, Guo and myself have been around a long while and we're always trying to raise that bar higher and push ourselves."
Some key contenders were missing tonight including Krupeckaite and Olga Panarina who have both performed well at earlier World Cup rounds this season.
McCulloch clocked the tenth fastest qualifying time of 11.318 and won through in her first round match up but was outgunned by an in form Lee in the quarter finals and ended the sprint competition in eighth place.
In the women's 3km individual pursuit competition Tasmanian Amy Cure, 19, who had qualified fourth best, was hungry for a medal and went after it with gusto in her race for bronze against Lithuanian Vilija Sereikaite. Cure started at a steady pace while her rival was quick out of the gate but Cure had matched her pace by the one kilometre mark. Sereikaite then clawed back the lead by the end of two kilometres before she faded as Cure came home strongly to complete the 12 laps in a time of 3.36.707 which was .430 up on the Lithuanian.
It was the second bronze medal for Cure who was a member of the team pursuit trio that finished third on Friday.
"That (teams pursuit) definitely gave me a lot of confidence for today and going in there after qualifying fourth this morning I just really wanted that bronze medal," said Cure. "So to come out here and win that bronze medal really means a lot to me."
Although still a teenager Cure has four junior world titles to her name and is the current world record holder in both the under 19 individual and team pursuit events and despite being five years younger than her opponent said she was confident she could match her pace.
"You look at the times from the qualifying and she's a very fast starter in the first kilometre but tends to drop it off in the last kilometre but I tend to be a slower starter but bring it home in the the second and third kilometres," she explained. "But I knew at the start and I wasn't stressing if I was down a little bit but more-so towards the end I needed to pick it up and give my best and finish it off strong."
Also in action today was another member of the team pursuit lineup being 20-year-old Annette Edmondson today turned her attention to the six race omnium event.
She placed fourth in the flying lap that opened the competition before placing eighth in the points race and fourth in the elimination. That has put her at the top of the rankings on 16 points, one ahead of American Sarah Hammer while three other contenders sit equal on 20 points apiece.
On Sunday the women will race in the individual pursuit and scratch races before the omnium concludes with each women contesting a 500 metre time trial. Edmondson is strong in all three of the remaining events coming in as the reigning Australian pursuit champion and in the wake of a junior career as a sprinter and 500 metre specialist.
Australia could only field one starter in the men's keirin so world champion Shane Perkins made way for Matthew Glaetzer, 19, to gain some valuable experience. The young South Australian was swamped in his opening heat but in the repechage rode strongly before being pipped on the line halting his progress through to the second round.
The final day of racing will see Perkins, 25, back on he track when he and Scott Sunderland, 23, line up for Australian in the men's sprint. Meares and McCulloch will race the women's keirin and the much anticipated team pursuit show down between Great Britain and Australia is also on the program.
Reigning world champions Jack Bobridge, Michael Hepburn and Rohan Dennis along with as 2011 junior world champion Alex Edmondson (Annette's younger brother) posted a time of 3.57.885 to qualify half a second quicker than Great Britain (Steven Burke, Edward Clancy, Peter Kennaugh and Geraint Thomas) who rode 3.58.446 for the 4000 metres and were the only other team to go under the magic four minute barrier.
That gave the Australians a target to aim for as to guarantee a start in the gold medal ride and with Russia scheduled to ride after them, they had to better the British mark They started slower than the British but built momentum quickly to be the fastest team through the one kilometre mark. It was a lead they maintained to the end where they stopped the clock in
340 riders from 48 nations and 18 trade teams are contesting the four-day competition that is the official test event for the 2012 Olympic Games. It is the last round of the four round series that kicked off in Astana last November before heading to Colombia in December and China last month. After the World Cup Series the world's best cyclists will head to Melbourne to contest the 2012 UCI Track World Championships from 4 to 8 April. The Australian Cyclones for the world championships will be named on 14 March.
The team for the London UCI World Cup round and results summary is listed below:
- Melissa Hoskins - scratch race
- Anna Meares and Kaarle McCulloch - team sprint (new Australian record of 32.828)
- Anna Meares - women's sprint (flying 200m Australian record in qualifying of 10.939)
- Josie Tomic, Amy Cure & Annette Edmondson - team pursuit (new Australian record of 3:19.164)
- Amy Cure - individual pursuit