Elinor Barker: GB rolls out cycling's latest track star
She has shot into the national set-up at just 18 but is confident she can help Trott and King to pursuit success at World Championships
Tuesday 19 February 2013
It is the only question that flummoxes Elinor Barker, at 18 years old the latest bright young talent to roll off British cycling's production line. When were you last in school?
"Oh God, it was um... er..." she says, giggles and thinks about it for a moment. "Just after the Mexico World Cup, about two… or three weeks ago."
This week is half-term so at least no excuse is required for her to miss more lessons at Llanishen school in Cardiff. When she returns next week to resume her delayed A-level studies she may well have the material to write one of the better "what I did in my holidays" essays. "Last week I became a world champion…"
Barker is one of seven British riders who will make their World Track Championship debuts in distant Minsk this week, the first such gathering on the road to Rio and the 2016 Olympics. Dave Brailsford, Britain's performance director, calls it a "changing of the guard".
There will be no Chris Hoy, no Victoria Pendleton, no Pete Kennaugh, no Geraint Thomas, no Jo Rowsell, all of whom stood on top of the podium in the London velodrome last summer. The much decorated likes of Laura Trott, Dani King, Jason Kenny and Ed Clancy will be there to ensure Britain is typically well represented in the medal table over the next five days but it is the lesser known names fill ing the 16-strong team sheet that stand out for those responsible for plotting the route to Rio.
Britain won seven gold medals in London, a return that will be almost impossible to match three years from now. Almost impossible; they, be it riders or coaches, like a challenge at British Cycling.
"Given where we are for the next Olympic cycle we are in a very good position," suggests Chris Newton, the former Olympic medallist now coach of the men's endurance team. "I don't think we have always been in that position but this year we are, in terms of numbers.
"In an Olympic programme, three and a half years out, the numbers we are working with are very promising. I've got a really good group of athletes to work with. They are not at that level of Brad [Wiggins], Geraint, Pete, but they will soon get there and they will soon surpass that."
Given the past record of success and the sure succession that has kept Britain at the forefront of the sport for the last three Olympics, that careful optimism – and it is one accompanied with plenty of cautionary smallprint – is striking, especially in terms of numbers. Ten of the 16 now in Minsk are 21 or under, including Philip Hindes and Trott.
"We're looking good for the future," said Paul Manning, another former Olympian turned coach. "We are in a good position, particularly this far out."
Of the newcomers, it is Barker, a former junior World Champion riding with the all-conquering Trott and King, who has the best chance of coming home having earned the right to wear the distinctive rainbow jersey of a world champion. Rowsell's decision to focus on the road for the next couple of years – she intends to revert to the track in time for Rio – opened a place in the pursuit and Barker has taken it with an alacrity that might have given Rowsell pause for thought.
"She is a high achiever," says Manning, the team's coach. He describes how she is always looking to learn more; when training sessions finish, Barker remains, pestering Manning and the coaches for more information – how is she riding, how can she improve. If the effervescent Trott, says Manning, is always first in for training, Barker is last out.
"To step up from a junior straight into an Olympic team is massive and she's done it with no problem," says Trott. "It's great – it's nice to see that British cycling has got that constant flow of riders coming through."
King, who made up the trio that swept to gold in London having already won the world title, has been equally impressed. "She's got a great future ahead of her, she's a really strong rider," she says of her new team-mate.
This rare opportunity – to take a place alongside the world's two best riders in their class – has come at least a year earlier than Barker expected. It was an illness to Rowsell that opened the door. A matter of days before the World Cup in Glasgow in November, Barker was hurried into the team. The replacement was seamless and the trio won gold.
"Before then this felt out of reach – being part of the team for this Worlds," says Barker. "The next Worlds was my goal really but after Glasgow I thought 'yes, I can do this'."
The first World Championships post an Olympics is often low key, with countries shuffling personnel, trying out different pegs in different holes. Brailsford will not be there, but for those who are the opportunity is one that needs to be seized.
"It's pretty nerve racking," admits Barker. "The expectation when you race with GB is to win. It is the first World Championships in the cycle leading up to Rio so it is usual for there to be quite a young team. It's about experience but winning is a priority – these girls [Trott and King] don't want to lose their jersey. It's still really important to them, you can see in training they are totally motivated. They really do care – it is not just another title. It's a big deal."
Trott admits these championships are a "stepping stone" – she restated her long-term ambition of overtaking Hoy's medal haul – but is equally adamant that she and King want to keep their grip on the title, especially as this is the final time the women's pursuit will be a three-strong team racing over 3km. From post-Minsk it will be four riders over 4km, which only increases the likelihood of Barker becoming a constant member of the team even when Rowsell returns.
From the summer when Barker moves to Manchester – in the build-up to these World Championships she has been retiring to a hotel with her school books after training – she will be fully integrated into the academy programme, one for which these World Championships will offer an instructive health check.
Barker will move north the very day she completes her A-levels in biology and PE. It will mark the start of her full-time cycling career, one for which she already appears ready made.
"It's all been drilled into me," she says of her time in the development programme. "Making sure every part of your life is as professional as it can be. It's being a cyclist 24/7."
Next generation: New kids on the bikes
18-year-old former junior World Champion from Cardiff. Won gold in team pursuit on her World Cup debut in Glasgow last year.
21-year-old earmarked to fill Victoria Pendleton's shoes. Former junior World Champion who has been part of GB programme since she was 15.
Turned 19 this month. All-round talent who impressed on his World Cup debut in Glasgow late last year. Will ride the omnium in Minsk.
Another highly-thought of young Welsh rider – the 19-year-old is pushing for a team pursuit place. Has track and road ambitions.
The 20-year-old from Stoke, via an American mother and Iranian father, is set to be given first go at succeeding Chris Hoy in the team sprint.
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