Cycling: Keen answers cavalry call

Andrew Longmore meets the man on a mission to instigate a revolution in cycling
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The Independent Online
IN THE next few days, the first significant communication from the brave new world of British cycling will emerge from the bunkers of the sport's headquarters in the Manchester velodrome. The tablet of stone, outlining the performance and selection criteria for national teams, will be awaited with interest by riders, coaches and administrators, who have not always viewed its author, Peter Keen, as a likely architect of Britain's cycling future.

If anything positive has emerged from years of political infighting at the British Cycling Federation, it is the feeling that, in the glib lingo of New Labour, things can only get better. Turmoil was not a bad starting point for revolution and Keen, whose unorthodox coaching methods have pushed Chris Boardman towards Olympic gold, has an admirable reputation as a trend-bucker and all-round inquisitor. Boardman's success has been built on questioning established methods; Keen, as the first performance director of the BCF, has a unique chance to establish his own establishment. He has a blank piece of paper, a few quid in his pocket and a mandate to win some cycling medals at the Sydney Olympics. In Atlanta, we won two, Boardman's bronze in the time trial and a bronze for the Derby-born Italian-based Max Sciandri in road race. The French, a nation of equal resource but greater cycling culture, won 14. Cycling has called in the cavalry in the nick of time.

"British sport is at an absolute crossroads," Keen says. "Anyone who wants to see progress has to make their case now. I expect at the end of this process [of developing performance programmes in a bid for Lottery funding], in two, four, six years' time, that you will probably see 10 sports which have a significant future in Olympic disciplines and world championships. Countries are being forced into specialising. Natural selection is being forced on us by the way these changes [in funding] are being instigated. I think it's the right thing. If we believe in sport and its principles, we are not only going to have to accept the values of fair play but accept it is about winners and losers. We cannot all win the Lottery race to be significant British sports funded at a high level and competing successfully on a world stage. We are not big enough and we do not have the resources."

If Keen's theory is right, the culture of British sport is changing before our eyes, driven towards a gold medal rush by the need to fulfil the simplistic ambitions of the armchair critics who fund the Lottery each week. It is their money and, if they cannot put yachts, neo-Georgian porticos and fancy sports cars to their dreams, they can at least watch a cyclist, swimmer or rower dressed in the Union Flag beating the rest of the world every four years. Keen's daunting task, along with other elite directors, is to push forward a programme which will harvest these elusive medals. And if that means dismantling the odd Victorian edifice, exploding a few myths about glorious amateurism and bypassing a few committees along the way, then Keen is prepared to force the issue on the grounds that the Sports Council is sponsoring the demolition.

"When you reach the highest levels of sport what you need is not the pseudo-democracy which operates in sport but benevolent dictatorship, people who understand what they're doing and will make fairly ruthless decisions and be judged by them. It's no use hiding behind committees or allowing decisions to be toned down by endless discussion and analysis. We don't have the time."

At the age of 33, Keen has the confidence and naivete to push cycling to the forefront of British elite sports. With Boardman as guinea pig, Keen has pioneered new systems of training, based on emotion as much as physiology, on a balance between the "feelgood factor" and a meticulous recording of data which reached fulfilment in a near perfect assault on the world hour record in September 1996. There are those who believe that Boardman's record of 56.375km, set in the now banned "superman" riding position, will stand long into the millennium.

Keen recalls his first meeting with Boardman 12 years ago when a skinny kid from Hoylake reputed to be a red-hot junior produced a series of disappointing tests in his laboratory in Chichester. Three months later, Boardman drove a battered Renault 11 350 miles back to Chichester having adopted the programme outlined by Keen. "He had no money and no job, but he never complained. A sport like cycling does not reward pure talent alone," Keen says. "Psychology is more important than physiology, butharder to measure and identify." In the long-term, Keen's job is to quarry a few more Boardmans from the millions of recreational cyclists; in the short term, he has to turn a sow's ear into something resembling a silk purse, in time for Sydney. "Survival," he adds. "That's the name of the game at present."