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Cyclist Whitten hears London calling

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Winning the Commonwealth Games time trial on the roads of Delhi, as well as three track bronze medals at the event, further enhanced her reputation around the globe.

Whitten could well afford a broad smile as the maple leaf fluttered above her. Her ascent to the top of her sport is incredible, considering she only took up cycling three years ago.

""One of my teammates told me the other day that I can't get away with calling myself a newcomer that much longer,"" Whitten, 30, said with a laugh. ""At the same time, I still can see so many areas for improvement and that's really exciting. I have a lot of confidence I can keep improving over the next two years.""

Improve she must. Her performances on the World Cup circuit and all those medals mean she is no longer the underdog, but a target for others. And, thanks to all the media attention, there will be enormous expectations from the Canadian public as she progresses towards her ultimate objective — the London Olympics in 2012.

Battled exhaustion
A somewhat shy individual who is only now becoming comfortable conducting interviews, Whitten is coming to grips with the sudden recognition.

""Yeah, I think it did take a while to adjust to it, especially because I spent so many years in cross-country skiing not really feeling that I might ever get to that world-class level,"" she said. ""So it has been really exciting to come to the realization that's where I am in cycling, and I am one of the best in the world and a contender for a medal in any event.""

Part of the excitement has been hearing from old friends who have followed her progress through the media and have contacted her on Facebook. Many, she said, who thought she was ""crazy"" in high school because she was so involved with cross-country skiing have sent congratulatory messages.

Along with other members of the Canadian national track cycling team, Whitten is based in Los Angeles for the winter and has put her University of Alberta doctoral studies temporarily on hold while she prepares for the 2012 Olympics.

For the first couple of weeks in Southern California, she battled exhaustion and rode her bike sparingly. After racing at the UCI world road championships in Melbourne — she finished seventh in the time trial and 15th in the road race — she flew to Delhi for the Commonwealth Games and the travel obviously took its toll.

""I knew my preparation for the Commonwealth Games was not ideal with the road worlds basically four days before,"" she said. ""And so I wasn't sure how my body would respond. I couldn't put too many expectations on myself I just had to go there and race.

""I was satisfied with the points race bronze. I know I am the world champion in that event, but for the points race you need two things: you need endurance and you need really top-end speed. And I knew I hadn't been working on my speed as much.""

Road to London goes through L.A.
A week of high-altitude training in Big Bear, Calif., about two hours north of L.A., launched her 2011 track training program before she headed to Melbourne, Australia for the UCI World Cup event there in early December. She earned the silver medal in the omnium event two days after contributing to Canada's fourth-place finish in the women's team pursuit. She followed that up with another omnium silver at the World Cup race in Cali, Colombia on Dec. 17.

For the next two years, her focus will be on the omnium and team pursuit races, hence her settling in L.A. She thinks the velodrome there offers the best environment.

""There are quite a few velodromes in Canada, but most of them are outdoors, which is a bit of a problem in the winter,"" she said. ""The two indoor velodromes in Canada are shorter than regulation distance, which means they are steeper and they are not really fast tracks. So we want to train down here where it's faster and it's the same surface we will be racing on.""

Under the tutelage of national team coach Richard Wooles, who is based in Victoria but will join her and the rest of the Canadian team for training camps, Whitten will spend 2011 chasing Olympic qualification at the designated World Cup Classic races in Melbourne, Cali, Beijing and Manchester. If she can amass the necessary UCI points, she can benefit from an easier buildup during the Olympics rather than have to chase results.

Like most athletes, she has dreamed of competing at the Olympic Games. Although she won two gold medals at the 2008 Canadian championships, it wasn't enough to qualify for Beijing.

""Yes I have thought about it a lot,"" she said of London 2012. ""I am trying to think of all the ways I can prepare for London and be the best I can be at that moment. I have looked at plans for the Olympic velodrome, the drawings they have, and the construction they have done. The velodrome is very close to the athletes' village. We have looked at all of that and tried to visualize all that to prepare.""

The omnium makes its Olympic debut in London. Though she is too humble to say it, Whitten would love to carry the Canadian flag once again — this time with an Olympic gold medal around her neck.

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Posted on 2011-08-01