LONDON — It came down to one race, one point, and less than one second. But Sarah Hammer could not hold off young Laura Trott, the reigning omnium world champion from Great Britain.
After six races over two days in the “decathlon” of track cycling, Hammer earned her second silver medal in these 2012 Olympic Games.
“Last race, last heat, going for the gold medal ride,” said Hammer, who seemed both happy and resigned after she lost a two-point lead to the 20-year-old British cyclist in the sixth and final race of the women’s omnium.
“Everything that I had been dreaming of, wanting for the last two years, I’ve dedicated myself to this omnium event,” she added with a smile. “I now am the proud owner of two of these silver medals.”
The omnium debuted at the 2012 Olympics. But for 28-year-old Hammer, it came at the expense of her “pet event,” the individual pursuit in which she’s a four-time world champion. In late 2009, after the IOC dropped individual pursuit from the Olympic program and added omnium, Hammer was initially shocked, then quickly shifted focus and training.
“Once it was over and done with, it was over and done with and I moved on,” said Hammer, of the IOC’s decision. “And I’d say I moved on pretty well.”
While the individual pursuit is an endurance race, where cyclists start on either side of the track and “pursue” each other for 3,000 meters (though the real opponent is the clock), omnium includes both endurance and sprint events to determine the best all-around track cyclist. In each race, points are awarded for where a cyclist places. After all six events, the rider with the lowest cumulative point total wins.
Lucky for Hammer, track sprinting was not a new discipline for her. Growing up in southern California, she first tried track cycling at age 13 — after her father, a masters cyclist, took her to the San Diego Velodrome to watch a race.
She quickly proved to be a versatile rider, winning multiple junior and senior national titles in both sprint and endurance races. Her focus turned to pursuit after she won her first world title in 2006. But when the IOC announced that omnium would be on the 2012 Olympic program and not individual pursuit, she added sprinting back to her training plan.
Hammer was quickly a medal threat, taking silver at the 2011 world championships and a bronze this year. Coming to London, she knew Trott, who won the event at 2012 Worlds, would be her biggest challenge.
Trott seized control from the first race around the Olympic Velodrome’s 250-meter oval of Siberian pine by winning the flying lap. From then on, it was a battle between the British and American riders.
Hammer took the lead after a strategic points race, where she often rode in the back of the 18-rider group, “a little unseen.”
“People start forgetting about you,” she said of her strategy. “When you get to the front, suddenly it becomes more in the forefront of their minds, especially in that scratch race. It was so close for gold and for bronze. It was a great race. Everyone was taking shots.”
After Hammer flew off the front and lapped the field, she took enough points to win the race and move into the overall omnium lead.
In the third and final event of the day Monday, Hammer finished second to Trott in the elimination race, and the Brit was back in the lead.
But not for long. Next up on Tuesday morning was Hammer’s specialty, the 3,000-meter pursuit. She finished in 3:29.554, almost a full second ahead of Trott.
Hammer was still in control during the 40-lap scratch race, a “traditional” race where first rider across the line wins. Again, she rode strategically from the back, marking Trott, then flying by her with two laps to go. The two crossed the line in second and third, with Hammer just edging Trott. The American now held a two-point lead with one event remaining, the 500-meter time trial. In this race, riders start from a standstill and sprint all out for two laps.
The 500 is Laura Trott’s best event. She won the event at the 2012 world championships in 35.173. The 500 is Hammer’s most difficult event. She has never ridden it in under 36 seconds.
“I’m not as naturally explosive from that low-end torque,” she said of the start. “Once I get rolling, I’m good. But to get off the line and ready to go … “
Ben Sharp, USA Cycling’s director of endurance programs, was concerned that Hammer’s two-point lead would not be enough against Trott in the 500.
“Laura’s a phenomenal 500 rider,” said Sharp. “Obviously home track, home crowd, she’s got a slight advantage here. But we were content that Sarah had maximized every opportunity until that point.”
Though Hammer finally rode a sub-36-second 500 (35.900), it was only good enough for fourth place in the event. The final omnium points total put Trott one point ahead for the gold.
“There’s always things that you coulda woulda hoped for,” said Hammer. “But that is the nature of the omnium. So I’m really thrilled that again, through all six events, I gave it my best shot on every single one.
“That’s why I get to have this around my neck right now,” she said, holding up the silver medal.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.