Jessica Varnish has warned there will be no “face” of British cycling emerging from the Commonwealth Games, with the overall standard too high for one or two superstars to dominate.
The Games in Glasgow mark the first major multi-sport event for track cycling since London 2012, when Great Britain’s most successful male and female Olympians – Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton – made their swansongs. Six-times Olympic champion Hoy was briefly tempted to compete in the velodrome that bears his name, while Pendleton gladly stepped aside after an emotionally draining time in London.
Both riders gained a level of celebrity and public recognition that transcended the traditional parameters of their sport, but Varnish – Pendleton’s former team sprint partner – believes the range of talent on show will prevent others making the same leap.
“I think track cycling has changed in the last few years and I think there’s so much more depth now,” she said.
“Obviously we had Vicky and Chris in the past and for so long they were the faces of cycling. They probably always will be, and I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t, given what they’ve achieved, but British cycling has grown massively and it’s not just about one or two people now. There’s so many more people involved at a high level.”
Varnish will go up against Pendleton’s great Australian nemesis Anna Meares – who won their last-ever duel in the individual sprint in London – but is not focused on taking over that rivalry.
“I’m not just thinking about one person because the track has grown quite a lot since then - it’s not just two girls going head-to-head all the time,” said Varnish. “They were racing each other for a very long time so they developed that rivalry. Now there’s so many other girls.”
Although Varnish does not expect anyone to inherit the mantles of Hoy and Pendleton, there is no shortage of star power on show in Glasgow.
Hoy’s fellow knight, Sir Bradley Wiggins, is in action today as he returns to team pursuit duty with Team England colleagues Ed Clancy, Steven Burke and Andy Tennant.
The 2012 Tour de France winner, controversially overlooked by Team Sky this year, will be a huge draw as he makes his return to the track and will be hoping he can help improve on the team’s disappointing performance at the world championships, where they failed to qualify for the final.
In the men’s sprint division, triple- Olympic champion Jason Kenny and London team gold medallist Philip Hindes lead the English challenge, with Scotland’s Callum Skinner and Wales’ Lewis Oliva also going up against the likes of New Zealand’s world champions Ethan Mitchell and Sam Webster.
For Kenny, it represents a chance to complete a hat-trick of major titles, having already succeeded on the world and Olympic stage.
His partner Laura Trott, one of the breakout stars of London 2012, is looking to achieve the same hat-trick and will be fighting on three fronts as she tackles the individual pursuit, scratch and points races.
The individual pursuit pits her against London 2012 team-mates Dani King and Joanna Rowsell, with Scotland’s Katie Archibald and Wales’ Elinor Barker also in play from within the ranks of British Cycling.
The Commonwealth programme also offers the chance for para-athletes to share the stage in the form of four tandem events – two each for men and women.
Sophie Thornhill, a visually impaired 18-year-old who will ride with pilot Helen Scott, is enthused about the prospect of showcasing her skills on the big stage. “As tandem riders we are the sole representatives of para-cycling at these Games and it’s a massive thing to get the word out and show how exciting our sport is,” she said. “Hopefully, it will be a success and help us get into more able-bodied programmes.”
With a total of 17 medal events in four days, there promises to be no let-up in the drama, with Northern Ireland flag-bearer Martyn Irvine one of his country’s biggest prospects, Australia looking to hang on to the dominance they exerted four years ago in Delhi and New Zealand aiming to end a 12-year gold drought.
Whatever unfolds, the action should inspire a new generation of fans, with Kenny admitting the 2002 Games in Manchester were the key to his involvement in competitive cycling.
“I wouldn’t be here today without the Commonwealth Games,” he said. “I’m only here because of the velodrome in Manchester and that was only built as part of their bid. I wouldn’t be cycling right now without that building.”