Commonwealth Games: Archibald battles onto podium

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WITH HER hair dyed platinum blonde and blue, Katie Archibald might have stood out in the women’s points race whatever the result.

But she caught the attention and the imagination – while of course earning the support – of a packed Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome with an aggressive performance in the women’s points race, one that was rewarded, right at the painful end, with a bronze medal.

It was one of the final events of the track cycling programme, and finally an exhibition of British domination after three days of generally disappointing and lacklustre performances. Here, finally, the home nations filled the podium, with England’s Laura Trott winning and Elinor Barker of Wales second.

Trott, the double Olympic chamion, almost matched Archibald as a crowd-pleaser, despite pre-games comments that suggested her enthusiasm for Glasgow 2014 might be lacking.

Her remarks jarred partly because Trott is such a fierce competitor, and a thrilling bike racer, that it was difficult to imagine her not trying to take the race by the scruff of the neck – and of course she did, with her sharp accelerations and superb positioning sending waves of approval crashing around the velodrome.

But Archibald, the newcomer and relative novice, also made her mark. The 20-year-old from Milngavie, who only became a member of the British squad this year and now trains with Trott every day, can count the number of international points races she has competed in on one hand. And as Shane Sutton, the British coach who is in charge of the England team here, said later, this was a world class field in which the three British girls excelled.

They made quite a contrasting pair, the diminutive Trott and tall, rangy Archibald. Trott has the speed, Archibald the strength, but it was the youngest of the three, the 19-year-old Barker, who was in the gold medal position before the final of ten sprints. Annette Edmondson of Australia was quickest out of the traps, winning the first and fourth sprints to become the early leader, while Trott and Archibald bided their time and Barker emerged with the lead thanks to winning sprints two, six and nine.

Finally Archibald’s strength told as she led the diminished bunch across the line with Trott second and Barker third, though Trott didn’t believe she had done enough to leapfrog the Welshwoman. “I rode alongside Elinor,” said Trott afterwards, “and said, ‘Well done, Commonwealth champion.’”

Trott was beaming afterwards, her disparaging words forgotten as she hailed her Commonwealth gold medal as being “right up there with winning the Olympics after the week I’ve had.” Although she rode the pursuit and scratch race, she has been suffering with a kidney infection and “living off porridge” until Sunday morning, when her appetite returned. “That’s when I thought, this is going to be a good day. I am so over the moon.” She looked it, too. As Sutton said: “The difference between Laura winning and losing is whether she’s smiling or not. She was smiling this morning.”

Archibald was also beaming, because bronze felt like gold. “It’s that glorious moment when you cross the finish line, you’ve got about ten minutes of just euphoria when you can’t feel anything, and that felt fantastic,” she said, then promptly excused herself when the effort caught up with her, inducing pangs of nausea. Understandably, she didn’t want to be sick in the middle of the velodrome.

When she returned, Archibald tried to explain the “unbelievable pain” involved in riding a points race, over 100 laps, with ten intermediate sprints, each requring a flat-out effort. There is barely time to recover before it is time to go again. “I remember my first national points race and I basically fell off my bike at the end,” said Archibald. “I had this kind of awakening moment where I remember this is what it feels like to empty yourself and it’s only very special occasions; that was one of them.”

With most of her family in the arena, she continued: “It’s an odd life and there’s been quite a few bets and promises about getting on that podium and I’m really glad I can kind of screw myself over and follow it through. In points racing you’re always thinking of the next sprint, so you roll over the line. But for the last one it’s everything and beyond.”

Her medal hopes hinged on that final sprint. And she said that the crowd support made a tangible difference: “It’s just knowing that, even if you think you’re clear, you go [sprinting] right past that finish line and that’s what the crowd allows really.

“I’m really happy,” she added. “It’s almost as if there should have been a Great Britain flag over us at the end. It was the three home nations going for it – basically the hardest training day we’ve ever had. I’m not disappointed to lose to Laura Trott and Elinor Barker because they’re really classy riders.”

Archibald’s games are not over, with the time trial and road race still to come. She is an outsider for a medal in both. “I want to try and challenge,” she said. “We’ll get a feel for the course between now and then and hopefully get the legs ready. I’ve been concentrating on the track so it hasn’t been a huge focus of my training but I’ll give it my all.”