Any olympic campaign has troughs and peaks, but cycling's have been deeper and higher than most. At Sydney's Dunc Gray Velodrome last week, French star Arnaud Tournant wept after missing out on gold in the time trial, the Germans cracked the hallowed 4-min. mark in the 4-km team pursuit, and an empty spectator bus skidded out of control and into the front yard of a nearby house.
Until Thursday night, it seemed the much-vaunted Australian team would also crash. Disappointed supporters criticized retiring head coach Charlie Walsh after stars Shane Kelly and Michelle Ferris failed to produce their best form, and competitor Gary Neiwand called for ""a fresh approach."" Then, in the second-last event, Brett Aitken and Scott McGrory broke Australia's 16-year drought of Olympic track gold, winning the madison, a 60-km relay being held at the Games for the first time.
Aitken, 29, and McGrory, 30, almost didn't make it to Sydney. At last year's world championships in Berlin, Aitken was knocked unconscious after being clipped by a French rider, forcing McGrory to ride out the last 10 km alone. The team finished 13th, only just managing to qualify for the Games. In a 240-lap race punctuated by point-scoring sprints and interchanging ""handslings,"" avoiding accidents is key. On Thursday night, the pair dodged a pile-up with British, Spanish and Austrian riders, and fought back a late surge by the Swiss. McGrory's road-racing endurance and Aitken's bursts of speed did the rest, taking Australia to a four-point victory over Belgium.
The win was powered as much by emotion as by impeccable technique. ""We were spurred on by our families,"" Aitken said. This year, his two-year-old daughter Ashli was diagnosed with a neurological disorder; in June, McGrory's baby son Alexander died of a heart ailment. ""I had the happiest day of my life this year when my fiancèe Donna gave birth to our son,"" said McGrory. ""Then, only three months later, we had the worst day of our lives.""
Rallying from disaster has become a hallmark for the Australian cycling team. Despite having broken his collarbone only three weeks before, Brad McGee won bronze in the individual pursuit, cheered on by a home crowd he said he ""rode like a wave."" Then there was Neiwand's spirited comeback after 18 months away from the circuit: he missed out on gold in the keirin by just a few spokes. But for sheer guts, little could top the efforts of Aitken and McGrory. Under great pressure, the Australian pair showed winning grace.