Cycle of success: How Britain's cyclists won the Lottery

Once famous for its plucky failures, cycling has undergone such a transformation in the UK that British riders are expected to excel both at the world championships which begin tomorrow and in this summer's Olympic Games. Mike Rowbottom charts a remarkable sporting revolution
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The Independent Online

Day five of the 1992 Olympics. On the wooden cycling track of Val d'Hebron, set amid scrubby hills above Barcelona, Britain's Chris Boardman passes the labouring German world champion, Jens Lehmann, namesake of the Arsenal goalkeeper, to win the 4,000 metres individual pursuit 250 metres short of the full distance. Since the installation at the 1964 Olympics of the event which sets pairs of riders against each other on opposite sides of the arena, no finalist has ever been overtaken.

Thus the 23-year-old former cabinetmaker from the Wirral has become the first Briton to win an Olympic cycling gold since the Antwerp Games of 1920. As he stands, grinning, on the rostrum it feels like something big is happening in British cycling. It isn't.

Four years later, at the Atlanta Games where Britain manage just one gold medal overall – thanks to messrs Redgrave and Pinsent – the cyclists garner just two bronzes, both of which come on the roads. On the track – zilch.

As a respected British observer puts it at the conclusion of a programme to which professionals such as five-times Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain have been admitted: "Cycling at the Olympics may have changed, but the British tradition of plucky failure is still there."

Day one of the 2000 Olympics. Sitting astride a stationary warm-down bike in the team turmoil at the centre of the Dunc Gray Velodrome, Jason Queally presents a dazed figure as he comes to terms with the fact that his performance in the one-kilometre time trial, in which he has knocked 1.4 seconds off his best to set an Olympic record, has forced the three more-fancied riders to strain for a level of excellence that is beyond them. It feels like something big is happening in British cycling. It is.

By the time the Sydney Games are over British cyclists have amassed a gold, two silvers and two bronzes – their best showing overall since Antwerp.

Four years later in Athens the Olympic yield is richer still. There are golds from Chris Hoy, who emulates Queally in the time trial, and Bradley Wiggins, who wins the individual pursuit. There is a silver and a bronze, and a lingering sense that not every seam has been mined as it might have been.

As Britain's cyclists prepare for the World Championships that get under way in the Manchester Velodrome tomorrow, they have an eye to setting up another profitable Olympics this summer and it is abundantly clear that they are operating at a level of efficiency not bettered by any domestic sport.

While Boardman's high point – backed up by some Sports Aid Foundation support, some expenses from his club, and the pioneering efforts of the bike designer Mike Burrows at his workshop in Norfolk – demonstrated the old sporting virtues of inspiration and improvisation, Queally's opening flourish in 2000 revealed the onset of a Britishcycling revolution.

The wheels started turning in earnest on that Sydney evening and they have not stopped since, so much so that the World Championships' hosts enter the competition as the most successful nation, having secured seven golds at last year's version inMajorca.

And as every dutiful British medallist has been happy to point out in the aftermath of their latest success, what has propelled the wheels with hitherto unknown power is National Lottery funding.

The 2000 Olympic team, guided and organised by the performance director Peter Keen, made maximum use of the £3m funding they received for grants, equipment and travel in the lead-up to the Games, getting their cyclists into optimal condition with six weeks of training on the Gold Coast.

The current performance director, Dave Brailsford, who was in place for the Athens Games, has seen the level of funding for elite riders rise to an annual level of just over £5m, a figure that rewards a sequence of tangible successes. However, as Brailsford is at pains to point out, investment in sport is like investing in business – "you have to give good value".

While cycling, and other Olympic sports such as rowing and sailing, have delivered handsomely within the last decade, others have not matched them despite similar levels of investment. Swimming, for example, has an annual investment of around £7m, although the sport managed only two bronzes at the Athens Games and looks unlikely to achieve significantly better results in Beijing.

Lottery investment is not magic, but Brailsford is in no doubt about its fundamental importance. "We couldn't have achieved what we have without it," he said. "A few years back we might have thought, 'God, we've got an ageing group of riders here – where is the next quick generation coming from?' Now we have massive pressure on the top places from youngsters coming through our Olympic Academy system."

That system now comprises 22 full-time riders, many of whom share apartments within easy cycling distance of the Manchester Velodrome, and a junior programme of 28 riders.

The Championships will feature youngsters such as Steven Burke, whose first senior ride at the World Cup in Copenhagen last month saw him record a time of 4min exactly for the individual pursuit which, in Brailsford's words, "left the other teams scratching their heads". The schoolgirl Jessica Furnish has also secured a place in the squad for the 500m time trial, while Jason Kenny, the former world junior champion, will be hoping to get a ride in the men's Team Sprint.

As for Queally, at 30 and with a back problem that restricts his training, he has not been able to earn a place in the squad. "I don't think we've seen the last of Jason," Brailsford added. "But for this team to be going into the worlds without a rider of his calibre, who is still going as well as he is, says it all. It's a real barometer of where we are at – there is unbelievable competition for places now."

Those sentiments have been echoed on the eve of the championships by Olympic gold medallist Wiggins. He said: "No one has accepted they have an automatic place in the team this time round. There are potentially six guys who could ride just as fast as each other in the team pursuit. It has got to a stage where no one is really irreplaceable."

But if depth of talent has been a key factor in maintaining success, Brailsford believes another benefit of the UK Sport's programme of funding lies in the support system it has allowed to be put in place.

He said: "If I had to pick one area where Lottery funding has helped us to reach the standards we are looking for, I would say it is in allowing us to pay top dollar for coaches and specialists whom we have identified as being the best in the world in their area."

Those experts include specialist sprint coaches and a forensic psychologist, Dr Steve Peters, who has been able to work on the minds of the competitors.

Wiggins has had to face particularly challenging circumstances recently following the unexpected death of his father at new year, and Brailsford paid tribute to the 30-year-old Olympic champion's ability to remain on course.

"When you take a multiple champion like Bradley, the danger is that people think all he has to do to win is to turn up. They don't see the huge volume of work that has been put down in training and the hardship that is involved. To sustain world class performances over a period of a decade as Bradley has takes a special animal.

"It is very difficult to deal with a sudden death such as his father's, but Brad has managed to do that. We have tried to support him in whatever way we can, but the subject is not something we have dwelt on within the team environment. He seems to have moved onwards and he has really been going well in training recently."

Knee and back problems have also made preparations trying for Victoria Pendleton, who will defend the three world titles she won last year, although Brailsford says she is also "going well" in training.

"We will be competitive in all the events in which we are riding," he said, "although this year's world championships will be different from last, because they are not the big event at the end of the track season but a stepping stone to the Olympics. A lot of riders and teams will be looking to earn their Olympic qualification with their performances here, so many races will feature races within races.

"Having the championships on home ground will be a great experience for us, with great benefits in terms of the crowd. But it also offers some challenges we have to deal with in terms of high expectations and in not regarding it as the day job, because this is our territory.

"Usually the world championships involve us jumping on a plane, travelling around the world and getting together in a hotel which is totally and utterly free of distraction.

"At last year's championships we showed that we were the best track cycling team in the world but, as the old saying goes in sport, 'You are only as good as your last performance'."

It's time for British cycling to spin the wheels of fortune once again.

Case study: Britain's muscleman of the track who is clinically obese

Jamie Staff does well to operate as one of British track cycling's main sprinters, given that he is clinically obese.

The 34-year-old's muscular bulk is such that, according to the body mass index applied by his local GP, he has a problem. "I am classed as obese," he said with a chuckle. "I sometimes imagine myself phoning up for life insurance and having to swear to them that it's 'all muscle' and hearing them say, 'Yes, of course, Mr Staff'."

Having earned a world title in BMX racing and three subsequent world golds on the track, for the team sprint in 2002 and 2005, and individually in the Keirin event in 2004, Staff can look back on a cycling career that would be the envy of many. But his Olympic ambitions remain unrealised and his paramount aim, as he moves towards the end of his career, is to earn medals for the team sprint at the world championships that start in Manchester tomorrow and at the Beijing Games this summer.

To further his Olympic chances, however, Staff had to make a tough call this season not to go for the individual sprint. "It had to be done because of the strength we have in the squad," he said. "I decided to put all my eggs in one basket, so to speak."

It's not hard to spot Staff in the blur of activity on the track. While some of his colleagues in the British team have contented themselves with discreet tattoos of the Olympic rings, Staff has been a little more ambitious in terms of the design which now adorns virtually the whole of his lower left leg.

"It's as if you could see the biomechanical workings of the leg," he said. "There are things like wires coming out of the muscles and there's a BMX crank in there. I've thought about adding to it since, but it was so bloody painful I don't think I could."

As a competitor who is involved in the top three in the world in their event, Staff gets the maximum individual funding within the Lottery's world-class performance programme, which is £25,000 a year.

"If you are single it's quite a lot of money, although it has to stretch a bit further with a family," said Staff, who has two-and-a-half-year-old twins, Theodore and Grace, with his American wife, Malia. "We have got top end support in every area you could think of – nutrition, technical advice, psychological back-up. Every little avenue is covered. That's probably why we are getting results. If that money wasn't there, British sport wouldn't be what it is."