Cyclists Tara Whitten and Zach Bell follow twisting paths to compete at London Olympics

The Eh Game

Cyclist Tara Whitten admits she can over think things sometimes. But then what  would you expect from someone who is a neuroscience student?

"I'd say sometimes thinking too much is actually a hindrance,'' Whitten told Paul Hunter of the Toronto Star. "You can't really rely on thinking things through during a race because by the time you've thought about it, it's to late. You've  missed the move.''

Whitten has put her PhD studies on pause to compete at the London Olympic Games where she will race in the omnium. Both Whitten and fellow Canadian Zach Bell are considered medal contenders in the two-day, six-discipline event  which is making its Olympic debut.

The men's omnium begins Saturday and the women's event Monday.

The omnium combines races that require both brute strength and a keen mind for strategy. Some disciplines pit riders against the clock while in others competitors battle each other.

[Related: Canadians expected to challenge in omnium]

Whitten, 32, of Edmonton, dominated the omnium for two years having won the  world championship in 2010 and 2011. She finished fourth at this year's world championships in April, but thinks that might be an advantage at the Olympics.

"I think in the long run it's actually going to be a good thing, to have a little dose of perspective and a kick in the butt,'' said Whitten.

"I can't take things for granted. I really have to look at how to improve a couple  of my weaknesses. I think coming fourth was hard. It was frustrating, but I think it will make me motivated.''

Whitten's strength is the time trial. She is more challenged in the points and scratch races.

"Those are the two events that are really based on tactics, and just being new to cycling, sometimes the tactical side is a little bit my weakness," she said.

[Related: Clara Hughes ends her Olympic career with a smile]

Bell, a two-time world championship silver medallist, knows reaching the podium won't be easy.

"I'm in a position where if I can get it right I can win the gold medal, but . . . there's 10 guys right now that can totally justify saying the same thing," said the 29-year-old. "I just want people in the country to know that I'm going to do my absolute best to step on the top step and they can count on that."

Whitten and Bell both experienced twists and turns on their road to the Olympics.

Whitten, who is studying rhythmic electrical activity in a part of the brain known as the hippocampus, has taken a two-year break from her work at the University of Alberta. She has three years in the lab already behind her and two more years of post-grad work remaining.

She first dreamed of reaching the 2006 Winter Olympics as a cross-country skier. Whitten was good enough to win a silver medal at the under-23 world championships in 2003 but didn't qualify for the Canadian team at the Turin Games.

[Related: Canada's badminton pair cashes in]

For a while Whitten worked to qualify for the 2010 Vancouver Games but began questioning herself.

"I didn't have the motivation to do it," she said. "I always kind of wondered if I'd know when it was over, when it was time to move on. I didn't know if I'd be able to feel that moment but it was really obvious when it happened. I couldn't continue without the motivation."

In the summer of 2007 she began cycling to stay active. Old friend Roger Tetrault, both a skier and cyclist, had tried to convince her for years she would be a natural biker.

At the 2008 Canadian nationals Whitten won four medals including two gold.

"That was a kind of turning point where I thought maybe I should actually give this a serious shot," she said.  "It was kind of eye-opening for me."

Being a little older, Whitten brought a different perspective to cycling.

"I knew that there was life outside of sport," she said. "I sort of lived it. I knew life goes on after retiring from sport.

"I know cycling isn't everything and that allows me to be more successful. A lot of times athletes feel their life depends on how they perform at the next event. It  becomes almost paralyzing."

Bell, who know lives in North Vancouver, grew up in Watson Lake, Yukon, a part of the country not usually associated with cycling. His father was a high school gym teacher and wrestling coach.

Bell attended the University of Calgary on a wrestling scholarship with dreams of going to the Olympics but soon realized his skill didn't match his ambitions.

"I came to the realization that, for one reason or another,  I just didn't have it at that highest level,'' he said. "Once I got to the cream of the crop I wasn't making the grade.''

Bell had done some cycling to train for wrestling. Dr. David Smith, a kinesiology professor at the University of Calgary, assessed Bell and determined he had a future in bike racing.

It wasn't an easy transition. During Bell's early days of road racing he was either losing badly or being disqualified.

"It was six months before I saw some things happening on the bike,'' he told Postmedia. "It was a very tough shift.''

Over time Bell adapted to the sport and moved up the ranks. He known as Mr. Consistency in all the omnium's disciplines.

''No one can peg me down now and say, 'He's more of a sprinter,' or 'He's more of an endurance guy,'" he said.

At the world championships Whitten was beaten by cyclists 12 years younger than her. In London she will face Britain's Laura Trott, a 20-year-old who is the reigning world champion. Other contenders are Australia's Annette Edmondson, 20, who took silver at the world championships and 28-year-old American Sarah Hammer, a four-time world champion in individual pursuit.

In the men's race Bell will be challenged by world champion Glenn O'Shea of Australia, Britain's Ed Clancy, Shane Archbold of New Zealand and Juan Arango of Colombia.

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