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April 2013

Paralympic cycling
29th April 2013

“Make some noise”. The big screen instruction at the London Velodrome is as superfluous as the notion that British sports fans are shy and retiring. The London Velodrome is all about noise.

The venue that rocked to the exploits of Sir Chris Hoy, Laura Holt and Jason Kenny  less than a month ago has lost few of its decibels and none of its exuberance. A couch  potsato during the Olympics , I had thrilled to the exploits of team GB  cyclists at the Velodrome and I thought I knew what to expect. But from the moment a smiling volunteer ushered me through the lift doors in the direction of the press tribune, I came up against what  is invariably described as a “wall of noise”.

 Status Quo and the Rolling Stones thumped out whenever there was the slightest lull. while the on-site race commentators and stadium announcer Hugh Ferris felt obliged to crank up the volume at every opportunity. ‘C’mon Aussies, come on “ screamed the former in the middle  of a  fairly mundane qualifying race for the men’s individual B  pursuit. “We can’t hear you” claimed Ferris at a similar moment in the women’s race – entirely erroneously. 

The cyclists only needed silence at the start of the race in order hear the five low  squawks that preceded the race-starting screech. They didn’t always get it, even when a bewildering montage of famous faces put fingers to their lips and Helen Mirren  barked “button it” in best Prime Suspect fashion.  For the rest of the day they surfed a  crowd which needed only a little reminding that Team GB had, since  ruling the roost  with 17 medals at the last Paralympics in Beijing, had picked up another twenty gongs at this year’s world championships.

Not that the fans were getting restive – we were far too well-behaved for that - but, after our morning paper headline had wondered aloud whether British cyclists had taken ownership of the track in London, we had obviously started to wonder when we would get what we felt was our due. 

Thumping jungle beats heralded the arrival of Darren Kenny, the man deemed most likely to get the medal train rolling. A spirited ride seemed good enough and an approving  buzz greeted his appearance on the leaderboard.  Five riders to follow Kenny, three of them British. The signs were good. Respectful silence greeted the appearance of  next rider, Li Zhang Yu. Horrified silence hailed his return after an astonishing world record ride had sent Kenny back into fourth place. At that point, the Rolling Stones anthem “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” seemed the closest we’d get to an eardrum- bursting, roof-raising moment.

 Mark Calbourne’s silver medal renewed the licence to be loud. The applause for Tobias Graf, the man who denied Kenny a bronze by a few hundredths of a second was respectful enough. The applause for Li Zhang Yu was generous.  The roar that greeted the 43-year-old Welshman as he took his place on the podium was tumultuous. Normal Velodrome volume had been resumed. And Sarah Storey was still to come.

After winning her qualifying heat by  some fifteen seconds or so the seven-time Paralympic gold medallist was as close to a sure thing as we could wish for. Just to underline the obvious , Ferris demanded to ‘hear it from fans of team GB’.We obliged- dutifully rather than wholeheartedly. In a  bid to  create an air of uncertainty, Storey mounted her bike to music that sounded suspiciously like the sound effects used on Strictly Come Dancing. We weren’t fooled She  raced away  on  a tsunami of  deep-throated approbation. This was a British girl delivering British success  in a fashion that bordered on the disdainful and we were not the least shameful in milking it for all it was worth.

We roared her every inch of the way round her victory lap(s), we performed a balletic version of the Mexican wave as well as a more frenetic one, and with her we belted out the national anthem. This was what the Velodrome  was all about – pulsating, proud , passionate and above all British. This was what we’d come for and at last, we could go home  in the same state as Velodrome crowds before us. Dazed, deafened and delighted to be British.

Just one little fly in the ointment of our content. As the volunteers folded seats, swept , floors and tidied away rubbish, and we all sloped off into the evening,there sounded one discordant note.

“Ozzy, ozzy, ozzy , oi, oi, oi.” Gold clad supporters had hijacked the beloved  West Country chant to replace a  g with a z. Beijing medal table-toppers China might have come away with the day’s major medals but our oldest of enemies from Australia had scooped most of the rest. The obituaries for Aussie cycling have proved premature. We Poms shouldn’t crow too loudly just yet.