Cycling: Britain's cyclists set out on road to Beijing with new philosophy

Paul Newman reports from Manchester on the first stage in a fresh four-year Olympic cycle as intense competition and pressure on Lottery cash keeps track stars of Athens pedalling for victory
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The Independent Online

East Manchester in January 2005 is a long way from Beijing in the summer of 2008, but as the British track cycling team began competition yesterday at the National Cycling Centre in the third round of the World Cup there was no doubting their long-term goals.

"We've already made our plans for Beijing," Dave Brailsford, Britain's performance director, said. "With every single rider in our senior team our coaches are working back from where they want to be in Beijing, which is on the podium. We need to know what each rider will be doing tomorrow, why they're doing it and how it will help them get on to the podium in 2008."

Thanks in large part to the meticulous professionalism of Brailsford and his team, track cycling has become one of Britain's most successful Olympic sports. Two of Britain's nine golds in Athens and four out of the final British tally of 30 medals were won in the velodrome. Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy took gold in the individual pursuit and the one kilometre time trial respectively, the men's pursuit team earned silver and Wiggins and Rob Hayles won bronze in the madison.

With the exception of Brian Steel, who has retired, all the Athens heroes are still riding and most have their eyes on more Olympic glory. This weekend's meeting, which features more than 200 riders from 35 nations, has brought together all of Britain's big names for the first time since last summer.

In the case of Wiggins, it will be the last chance to see him on the track for some time. Although he has set his sights on winning at least two more Olympic golds in the individual pursuit, the Londoner will focus almost entirely on road racing in the immediate future. He says this weekend will be his last appearance in an international track race "for a few years".

Wiggins had a frustrating season on the road last year with Crédit Agricole, his French team, particularly after suffering with illness in the spring. His road campaign this year begins in 10 days' time when he rides in Australia in the Tour Down Under. In Europe his goals include the Giro d'Italia, where the prologue time trial is his main target, and perhaps the Tour de France.

Wiggins has targeted the endurance events this weekend. He was riding in the 15km scratch race last night and in today's points race he is due to face Mikhael Ignatiev, Russia's Olympic gold medal winner. Tomorrow Wiggins teams up again with Hayles in the madison.

Hoy, who was competing in last night's one kilometre time trial, is intent on defending his world title in Los Angeles in March. His selection for last night's event was tough on Jason Queally, who had been hoping to consolidate his lead in the World Cup rankings in front of his local crowd. The 34-year-old Lancastrian was also denied the chance to defend his Olympic gold medal in Athens when he lost out on selection to Hoy.

Nicole Cooke, who at 21 is already arguably Britain's greatest woman cyclist of all time, made her track World Cup debut last night. She was competing in the points race before heading for her native Wales to race in the British Cyclo Cross Championships in Abergavenny.

After winning four junior world titles, a Commonwealth Games road racing gold, a road World Cup and last year's Giro d'Italia, Cooke went to Athens as one of the favourites for gold only to disappoint. Brailsford says she has learned much from her Olympic experience and revealed that Chris Boardman, the former British gold medallist, has been helping her.

"Chris is a master of planning and prioritising," Brailsford said. "He's been there, seen it and done it. In many ways the two of them are very similar and Nicole stands to benefit a lot from the relationship." Victoria Pendleton, another British rider of high promise, defends her lead in the keirin World Cup standings tomorrow, while Emma Davies, who has followed Cooke into continental cycling by signing a contract with the Belgian Vlaanderen-Interim team, rides in today's individual pursuit.

The World Cup ranks in importance behind only the Olympics and world championships and this weekend's competition - the penultimate round - offers a chance for Britain to improve on their current fourth place in the overall standings. The Manchester velodrome is reckoned to be the fastest indoor track in the world, but records are unlikely as the riders are approaching the end of what has effectively been an 18-month season following the move to make track cycling a winter sport.

"It would be good for us to perform well in front of a home crowd and share some of the success we've had," Brailsford said. "At the end of the day we operate with public money and to a large extent the public own our performances. The athletes are riding for Great Britain."

With increased pressure on funding due to a drop in popularity of the Lottery, UK Sport has been having to make some tough decisions on grants. However, there is no danger of Britain's most successful sports, such as cycling, sailing and rowing, suffering major cuts. Brailsford made a presentation to UK Sport recently and has already been told that most of his needs will be met. "I think UK Sport have confidence in our ability to help achieve their goal of winning medals," he said.

What was British cycling's World-Class Performance Programme has been renamed the Olympic Podium Programme.

"We're not going to be interested in getting people to finish between fifth and 10th," Brailsford said. "What we have to focus on is getting people on to the podium. The athletes in our senior programme have to be podium athletes or in the podium zone. We need to be ruthless and honest with ourselves. And the same is true of the coaches. We need podium athletes plus podium coaching. We'll judge our coaches by asking: 'Are you one of the best three coaches in the world? If you're not, that's where you need to be'."