Cycling: Move over Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy - GB's next generation begin their route to Rio 2016 Olympics
Young track stars' four-year cycle to next Olympics starts tonight at National Championships
The wheel keeps on turning. Tonight in the Manchester velodrome, the breeding ground of Britain's Olympic elite, the next generation will take their latest track test on a road that, if successfully negotiated, leads to Rio de Janeiro four years from now.
That multi-garlanded elite – with the exception of London 2012 gold winner Philip Hindes, himself barely graduated from the junior ranks – will not be seen on the track over the next five days of the National Championships. Instead, it offers the opportunity for the likes of Lucy Garner, Elinor Barker and Jon Dibben to continue their progression through a well-oiled system that has proved to have few – if any – equals.
If 2012 is British sport's annus mirabilis then at its golden heart has been cycling, via Bradley Wiggins through Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy and on to Sarah Storey. Interest has never been greater – British Cycling has never had so many members. The cycle of success began long before London but the enormity of a home Games has left its mark.
"It has had a massive impact," said Matt Winston, coach of British Cycling's Olympic Development Programme. "It has really highlighted to the public where we are as a cycling nation – one of the best in the world."
It is Winston's job to ensure that status is maintained and this week will offer an indication as to how that is progressing, although it may only be noticeable to his well-trained eyes and the rest of the coaching staff in Manchester. The aim for the likes of Garner, who has a heavy programme racing in six events, is not necessarily to make the top of the podium – although try telling that to any ambitious athlete – rather to assess their progress. To the untrained eye, their development so far appears to be on track.
Last week, Garner and Barker won junior world titles in the Netherlands, for once upstaging the senior riders. It was Garner's second world title – at the age of 18. Add three European titles, and a senior British title in the madison, and she would appear unlikely to suffer from the feelings of inadequacy that assailed Pendleton when she first joined the programme and took in the wealth of Olympic medals and world titles decorating her new team-mates.
The road race success in Limburg last week – greeted with Cavendish-esque raised arms as she crossed the line and followed by tears on the podium – was Garner's final act as a junior. From the start of next year she becomes a senior, with the nationals an experimental amuse-bouche before the main menu.
"It's a good stepping stone to see where they are in terms of other junior riders in the world," said Winston of the success in the Netherlands. "It is just a small stepping stone on the way to becoming a pro bike rider. Being a junior world champion is no easy feat – it's a great achievement – but those two girls now step up into the senior ranks where they become little fish in a big pond. It's a good way to finish off their junior years.
"[The Nationals] are a development opportunity. It's time to experiment, things like riding on a bigger gear, looking to continue their development. They might not get great results but it is good for their development. It's the start of a push forward into senior ranks.
"There are a few really good girls and young lads in the junior ranks. They have seen Team Sky and Great Britain winning medals at the Olympics and that really inspires them to keep pushing forward. Success does breed success and they want to be a part of it."
For the last two world championships – she preceded Mark Cavendish into a rainbow jersey in Copenhagen – Garner has relished the opportunity to mix with the senior riders. The integration of senior, junior and Paralympic riders is a feature of the British system. "They are always open about the racing and they don't mind us asking questions," said Garner. "They are good to be around. Afterwards they came up and congratulated us so it did feel like we were all part of the one team."
"It is influential on the riders," Winston agreed. "Last week they were sharing a hotel with Mark Cavendish and with those guys. They get to live within a few metres of them for a week and that's going to inspire anybody. On the next table's the Tour de France winner…"
Garner only left school this summer but is already something of a veteran. Long identified as a talent, the 18-year-old has been involved with the British set-up for five years.
"When I started, it wasn't really popular in the UK," said Garner. "But growing up and seeing Lizzy [Armitstead] and Nicole [Cooke] and her world and Olympics, and now Brad [Wiggins] winning the Tour… it has progressed so much in the UK. It's great that so many people want to be involved now. It's a cool sport – it never was but now it is!"
Garner, whose first bike aged nine was a penny farthing thanks to her father's membership of a veteran riding club, spent a day in the Olympic Village during the Games as part of the British Olympic Association's programme to familiarise young athletes with what may lie ahead.
The village in Rio will be very different but at least she will have an idea of the scale of what awaits – should she find herself on that road. "2016 is certainly on the radar," suggested Winston.
Olympic ambition: Britain's new breed
The 18-year-old double road world champion is likely to focus on the road for Rio 2016.
The Cardiff youngster won the junior world time trial last week in the Netherlands. Set to focus on the track, and the team pursuit in particular, for Rio.
Fifth place in the road race at the worlds last week. Won omnium silver at track worlds in New Zealand.
Won two medals at junior world track championships. European team pursuit champion with Barker.
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