CHRIS Hoy is on course to become Scotland's greatest Olympian after day one of five in the Laoshan Velodrome in Beijing.
A gold medal in the team sprint, arguably the least likely source of success for the 32-year-old from Edinburgh, sets him up for today's keirin, in which he is world champion, and tomorrow's sprint, in which he is also world champion.
Hoy, with 35-year-old Jamie Staff and 20-year-old Jason Kenny, produced a series of three scintillating rides to hammer a French team that, for the past three seasons, has seemed invincible. At the world championships in Manchester in March the French beat the British trio – then including another Scot, Ross Edgar, instead of Kenny – by half-a-second, a margin that seemed impossible to recover.
Even Dave Brailsford, the British performance director, had his doubts. "The French were really, really sure that they were going to win this, and this will be a real kick in the goolies for them," said Brailsford. "I honestly thought we were coming here for silver; that gold would be a step too far. Credit to the guys for not backing down – and let's not forget Ross Edgar's contribution."
Last night the British trio didn't just bridge the gap, they leapfrogged their greatest rivals, coming out in the qualifying round to record 42.950 seconds – the first sub-43-second ride ever recorded, and almost three-tenths quicker than the previous best, set by the French in Manchester. Though they went marginally slower in the semi-final and final, they still registered an astonishing statistic: each ride was inside the previous world record.
There was a scare in the final, though, when Hoy, who anchors the British team, allowed a gap of several bike lengths to open between him and Kenny. While Staff's job, as lead-out man, is over after lap one, and Kenny's contribution ends after two laps, Hoy's task is to stay in their slipstream before taking over for the third and final lap. The clock stops as he crosses the line.
Going into the final lap, with Hoy appearing to struggle to hold on to the flying Kenny, he still had it all to do, with the French just four-tenths of a second behind. As he has done so often before, though, Hoy rose to the challenge, engaging an extra gear to power around the track and take another tenth of a second out of his old rival, Arnaud Tournant, to earn Britain its second cycling gold medal, after Nicole Cooke's victory in the women's road race on Sunday.
On the gap between him and Kenny, Hoy admitted that had not been part of the plan. "Yeah, I struggled," he said, "but the speed these guys go over the first two laps, you've got a choice: you can either give it everything to close the gap and use up your energy doing that, or you pace it, and try to close it down on the home straight so that you're finishing level with the second rider at the end of his lap. It's not the ideal way to do it, it's hard, but the important thing is not to panic. And I didn't." Indeed, even "struggling," he recorded a time for the final lap that was inside the old world best, and remarkably consistent with his first two rides.
"You've got to ride each round as if it's a final," he said of the team's strategy. "You don't know what the other teams are going to do, so you have to commit. Tonight we did three laps which were individually the quickest in the world, which is not easy to do, but we managed to do it. This is the one we've wanted for so long," he added, referring to the team sprint in Athens four years ago, where a below-par Craig MacLean struggled on his opening lap, leaving the British team with a difficult draw against Germany in the next round. Though the British – with Staff having come in for MacLean – recorded the second fastest time of the series, the Germans went even faster, knocking them out. To not finish on the Olympic podium in an event in which they've won medals in each of the last ten world championships – with Hoy an ever-present – was a bitter pill.
"After Athens, this experience is like night and day," said Hoy. "It was such a disappointment not to medal there, but in a way that's what drove us on. It's been something in the background, motivating us. In the French we've also got incredible opponents: the level they've been at has really pushed us on.
"You're always surprised when you do a world record," he added of the qualifying round. "It's a level up from anything we've ever done, but as you taper – resting more, and getting fresher – you get quicker.
" It's very rare that all three riders are in the form of their life on the same day, but that's what happened tonight.
"In the last month, in every training session, we've been threatening to do something like that. We knew (after Manchester] that we had more to give. What we didn't know is whether the French would improve.
"You can never expect your opponents to stay the same; you've got to expect them to improve as well. So we weren't thinking that we'd have to go as fast as the French went (in Manchester] to beat them; we were thinking we'd have to go quicker."
Quite apart from the team sprint success – the first and only medal of the opening session in the velodrome – the night couldn't have gone any better from a British point of view. Bradley Wiggins broke the Olympic record to qualify fastest in the men's pursuit, and Wendy Houvenhagel and Rebecca Romero were first and second in qualifying for the women's pursuit.
More British gold medals seem almost guaranteed, with Wiggins saying of his ride: "It was a formality really, and I throttled back a bit towards the end. I'm not surprised British cyclists are in a class of their own.
"Everyone was giving it large after the world championships saying, 'How do you do it again?' But this, the Olympics, is what it's all about. I've worked my nuts off for this."
Brailsford's analysis was more succinct. "It was a good day at the office," he reflected.
• CHRIS HOY
Born: 23 March, 1976 in Edinburgh
Won his first Olympic medal in Sydney with silver in the team sprint alongside Jason Queally and fellow Craig MacLean. An old boy of George Watson's in Edinburgh – also alma mater of the Hastings brothers – Hoy played rugby to a good standard and also competed in the British rowing championships before settling on cycling.
• JAMIE STAFF
Born: 30 April, 1973 in Ashford, Kent
Six years ago, he abandoned a highly-lucrative career BMX-racing in the United States to pursue his dream of winning an Olympic medal. Suffered disappointment in Athens when a dubious commissaire's decision saw him disqualified from the keirin. Has a distinctive cog and gear tattoo on his left leg.
• JASON KENNY
Born: March 23, 1988 in Bolton
The baby of the team – 15 years younger than Staff – Kenny is one of the rising stars of the British track team after he was spotted as a 12-year-old racing at the Manchester velodrome. He won all three sprint titles at the 2006 junior world championships in Belgium.
• TRACK CYCLING RESULTS
Men's Team Sprint First Round:
Heat 1: Australia bt Netherlands 44.090-44.212
Heat 2: Germany bt Japan 43.699-44.437
Heat 3: France bt Malaysia 43.656-44.822
Heat 4: Gr Britain bt USA 43.034-45.423
Men's Team Sprint Finals:
Heat 1: Gr Britain bt France 43.128-43.651
Heat 2: Germany bt Australia 44.014-44.022
Men's Individual Pursuit Qualifying:
1 Bradley Wiggins (Gbr) 4:15.031 (R1), 2 Hayden Roulston (Nzl) 4:18.990 (R1), 3 Alexei Markov (Rus) 4:21.498 (R1), 4 Volodymyr Dyudya (Ukr) 4:21.530 (R1), 5 Steven Burke (Gbr) 4:22.260 (R1), 6 Antonio Tauler (Spa) 4:22.462 (R1), 7 Taylor Phinney (USA) 4:22.860 (R1), 8 Alexander Serov (Rus) 4:23.732 (R1), 9 Bradley Mcgee (Aus) 4:26.084, 10 Sergi Escobar (Spa) 4:26.102.
Women's Individual Pursuit Qualifying:
1 Wendy Houvenaghel (Gbr) 3:28.443 (R1), 2 Rebecca Romero (Gbr) 3:28.641 (R1), 3 Lesya Kalitovska (Ukr) 3:31.942 (R1), 4 Alison Shanks (Nzl) 3:34.312 (R1), 5 Sarah Hammer (USA) 3:35.471 (R1), 6 Vilija Sereikaite (Lit) 3:36.063 (R1), 7 Katie Mactier (Aus) 3:38.178 (R1), 8 Lada Kozlikova (Cze) 3:39.561 (R1), 9 Karin Thurig (Swi) 3:40.862.