Cycling: from bit-part players to leaders of pack in 12 years

Mark Cavendish's gold has crowned a remarkable decade for Britain's cyclists – but just how has this revolution come about? Alasdair Fotheringham reports

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The Independent Online

When Mark Cavendish's gold medal crowned his country's greatest ever World Road-Race Championships on Sunday, it (and the five medals that preceded it) left little doubt that Great Britain is at the forefront of the cycling pack.

The evidence is undeniable: Cavendish apart, never before had a GB team had the numbers, the know-how and the motivation to dominate cycling's most emblematic one-day race. And that was far from GB's only two-wheeled achievement this year.

In 2011, British riders have garnered a total of eight stage wins in the Tours of Italy, Spain and France, won the supremely difficult Critérium du Dauphiné, formed part of a British Tour de France team (Sky) that claimed two scintillating stage victories, and captured the green points jersey in the Tour.

As if that were not enough, Britain also placed their second and third riders ever on the podium of a Grand Tour in Spain – Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins – and came agonisingly close, just 13 seconds, from taking the country's first ever major Tour victory.

While glass ceilings were shattering everywhere, it is worth remembering that Wiggins, the country's best hope for a top Tour finish, was forced to abandon with a broken collarbone. A staggering amount has been achieved, and yet there could have been even more.

As little as 12 years ago, Britain were no more than bit players in road-racing, fielding just one rider in the 1999 Tour de France, a soon-to-retire Chris Boardman and only three others – David Millar, Jeremy Hunt and Roger Hammond – in top-division teams.

This raises the question exactly how the UK is now, as Cavendish said on Sunday, "dominating world cycling" after circumstances looked so unremittingly bleak just over a decade ago.

The simplest answer is that whilst the country's federation, British Cycling, has had a radical change of direction, fostering a wave of talented young track and road-racers, it has been coupled with a major, favourable sea change in the nature of the sport itself.

Back in 1999, the most obvious reason for British failure was a gaping lack of infrastructure to support riders on continental Europe: Hammond, like so many before him, had gone it alone in his bid for a pro team, crossing the Channel with £200 in his back pocket and driving his grandmother's Mini.

But there was another reason: the rampant nature of doping in the sport abroad.

Women's cycling is so small-scale, the pay is so bad and the rewards are so scant – as it was for men's racing in the UK in the 1990s – that what little illegal drugs use there is has never held back a radical anti-doper such as Nicole Cooke, the double junior world champion in road-racing and time-trialling who captured Olympic and world gold in 2008. In men's cycling, however, it was a very different story, and when in 1997 sports scientist Peter Keen was given £2.5m through lottery funding to start what effectively became phase one of the British cycling revolution, Keen's proposals were to concentrate on the relatively drug-free track scene.

In Richard Moore's book, Sky's The Limit, Keen recounts that "my view was that men's professional road cycling was almost completely dominated by a drugs culture... and having a drugs system, or even a tolerance [of it]... was not an option."

Keen went instead for track-only targets, using a system, coupled with a rigorous anti-doping policy, which has become the kernel of consistent British success in velodromes world-wide: the so-called "marginal gains".

This is essentially the accretion of minimal advantages due to obsessive attention to detail – right down to minimising the weight of screws in a bike frame – which all added up to a bigger overall gain than any drug could give.

Equally crucial in producing what Brailsford calls a "conveyor belt of talented young riders" was the Olympic Under-23 Talent Academy, formed in 2005 under BC auspices by Rod Ellingworth – Cavendish's mentor, close friend and the man who, as British road coach, drove the car on Sunday's road-race triumph.

There were some notorious cases of round pegs in square holes, the most famous being Cavendish, who failed to "hit the numbers" in the physiological testing system, and who did not cause a good first impression by any means.

"The first time I met [Cavendish] properly," Ellingworth said in Sky's The Limit, "I was stood outside Manchester velodrome and I heard this car hurtling towards me.

"It was a gold Corsa, it had a 007 number plate and Goldfinger across the top of the windscreen, and bald tyres. I thought 'oh my God'..."

However, Ellingworth could not have been more wrong: Cavendish, and Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard – all present on Sunday – ended up thriving under Ellingworth's boot-camp-style 24-hour diet of disciplined training, on road and track, living away from home and learning the tricks of the trade.

Meanwhile, the track was going from success to success: for all that Keen had been replaced by Dave Brailsford as British Cycling's performance director in 2007, the eight golds, six silvers and two bronzes British riders took in Beijing (following a gold for Queally in Sydney in 2000 and golds for Wiggins and Sir Chris Hoy in Athens in 2004) made it GB's most successful Olympic sport.

Results on such a high level also provided the perfect launchpad for the announcement of Britain's first ever fully-fledged, top-end professional road team racing in Europe: Sky.

It would be a huge error to say that Sky are the sole driving force behind British road success: Wiggins' fourth place in the Tour in 2009, another breakthrough, came with Garmin-Cervelo – home to Millar and Hammond and a pioneer in internal anti-doping measures – and Cavendish has racked up all his 75 pro wins while a member of HTC-Highroad.

But if British Cycling's enormous switch of direction and focus since the 1990s is one big reason for the UK's domination – and Cavendish would be the first to acknowledge that – then Sky is another.

Brailsford's continuing top role in BC and as team principal of Sky, is just one element that allows for a huge amount of cross-fertilisation in terms of team structure, the "marginal gains" philosophy and, as ever, a radical anti-doping policy. When Cavendish talked about a three-year plan for the World Championships, it was a leaf torn straight out of BC's book.

Equally, whilst nobody is claiming that doping has been eradicated, it is no coincidence that British road success has come alongside a drastic reduction in its importance in the sport.

Results like a Tour de France win this year for Cadel Evans, a rider with a strong reputation for being "clean", reinforced the hopes that the likes of Wiggins could one day follow in Evans' wheel tracks and on to the Paris podium.

So the Tour overall remains as the big challenge, but "the differences between winning and losing are much smaller now", Brailsford tells The Independent.

"We have no reason not to go into the Tour feeling confident and that we will be in the mix.

"More and more we are demonstrating that we can deliver, and do that clean," – and as Cavendish showed on Sunday, that is the case far beyond the Tour de France.

The wheel deal: from gold in Sydney to glory for Cavendish

2000 Jason Queally wins Olympic gold in the men's kilometre in Sydney

2004 Bradley Wiggins and Sir Chris Hoy taste gold on the Olympic track

2007 GB enjoy breakthrough success in the world track championships – seven golds, two silvers, two bronze

2008 Cavendish claims the first of four Tour de France stages – he is now up to a staggering 20

2008 Nicole Cooke starts the GB Olympic gold rush in Beijing

2009 Wiggins takes fourth place in the Tour de France

2009 Cavendish wins Milan-San Remo, one of cycling's top one-day races

2010 The British Sky team is launched

2011 Wiggins claims the Critérium du Dauphiné, Britain's biggest stage race victory in 20 years

2011 Cavendish wins the green jersey on the Tour de France

2011 Cavendish claims Britain's second ever gold medal in the world road race

'Cav wants to join Sky'

Mark Cavendish's World Championship win looks to have brought his move to Team Sky nearer, according to Great Britain team-mate Geraint Thomas.

Thomas was a key part of the eight-strong unit which shepherded Cavendish to victory in Copenhagen and which was made up mainly of Team Sky riders.

"He's obviously been talking to them," Thomas said after partying with the new world champion until 5.30am yesterday morning. "He wants to come, I think – I'm pretty sure of it. Most of us there yesterday are in Sky and good mates of Cav. To be leading out the world champion next year would be really special."