Tour de France: World-class vision has British golden boys racing for yellow

A home winner in today's Tour prologue in London is a real possibility thanks to the amazing success of a cycling masterplan, writes Alasdair Fotheringham
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Somewhere in the depths of Manchester velodrome, halfway down one of the rabbit warren of dingy narrow corridors that stretch the length and breadth of the building, there is a door to a small windowless office.

Inside it's not very much to look at - the usual open plan set-up, except for the boss's glass-fronted little room within a room, a sink and coffee maker on one side and the typical mound of unwashed cups you find in work places the world over. Only the pictures, all photos of British cyclists on the podium at Olympics or World Championships or pounding the track boards, give away the fact this buried-away office is the headquarters of a sporting goldmine known as the World Class Performance Plan.

While much of the sport teeters on the verge of disaster under the weight of doping scandals, the WCPP is swimming against the tide, turning British cycling into a huge success story. This is so much the case that one of the office's latest visitors has been Rob Andrew, England's director of rugby, to try and see what lessons he could apply.

As a result of the project dreamed up in the late 1990s by Peter Keen - the one-time coach to the former world hour record holder Chris Boardman - cycling was Britain's third biggest medal winner at the Athens Olympics in 2004. This March, the British squad came home from the latest world track championships with seven gold medals. In Beijing 2008 it is expected that they will improve on the 2004 total.

But it's no coincidence that at the same time Britain is fielding its largest number of Tour de France riders - six - in two decades. Two, Geraint Thomas and Mark Cavendish, are direct products of the WCPP and a third, Bradley Wiggins, was a triple Olympic medallist in Athens as part of the same programme. It is by no means inconceivable, either, that the two Tour stages on British soil will have British winners - something unimaginable had the Tour come to England five years ago.

The WCPP take anything but a hands-off approach to their riders, regardless of the discipline. When Wiggins was riding to his greatest success on the road this June, the prologue stage of the Dauphiné Libéré, WCPP coach Matt Parker was in the co-pilot seat of the following car behind the Londoner, gathering yet more information on Wiggins for his assault on the equivalent stage of the Tour today in London.

"They started out by concentrating on the track because that's where they got results quickest, and also because the flow of Lottery money, which funds them, was dependent on their getting medals," said the former National Road manager John Herety, who now directs the UK's leading professional squad, recycling.co.uk.

"But now they're building up the road racing as well, and in events like the Tour we're reaping the benefits there, too. They began as a major talent-spotting program that dovetailed into a skills acquisition project as well. But it was no good just getting the right riders with the right engines, they had to be worked on to make sure they knew how to ride bikes properly. So they did."

The WCPP performance director Dave Brailsford made an inspired move three years ago by adding Steve Peters, a forensic psychiatrist known affectionately as the "head coach", to their management roster.

The track rider Victoria Pendleton, who took three of Britain's seven golds in Mallorca, describes Peters as "the single biggest factor in my success." Peters has been signed on a temporary deal with the British rugby union squad - and more than half the team have apparently asked for appointments. Pendleton apart, women's cycling has not been forgotten. Britain already had the immensely talented Nicole Cooke, ranked the world No 1 and the World Cup leader. Cooke's request for strong team support is finally being answered as the success of WCPP riders like Tanja Slater - a recent stage winner in the Women's Tour de France which was won overall by Cooke - clearly shows.

With the senior riders' success a virtual given, the WCPP programme is now extending to younger talent, with a £4.2m budget. There are also plans for a British road team in the ProTour by 2009. "There's a huge crop of top-flight juniors coming through," Herety said.

"The WCPP's looking at 12 to 16-year-olds to keep things going in the future. It's getting to the point where they've almost got too many successful riders. At the same time, they're bringing in new coaches who've come up through the ranks."

"The real difference between our programmes and a lot of others is that in ours, the rider wears the crown," Brailsford said. "They are the kings and queens and we, as minions, try and expertly advise them." Asked if there was a limit, Brailsford said, "There isn't. Our goal on the track is 'win everything'. People ask when we're going to get complacent. They're going to have a long wait." Not only that, but the WCPP's ferocious anti-doping policy is paying off when it comes to placing more and more riders in professional teams, such as Thomas riding for the Barloworld squad.

"Team managers will look at British riders in the amateur ranks and know - thanks to the anti-doping policies - that what they're seeing is what they're getting," Herety said.

Interest in cycling is spreading fast among the public. The 5,000 places on British Cycling's Etape du Tour, which followed the Tour route from London to Canterbury last Sunday, sold out in 48 hours. More people now ride a bike as a Sunday activity than play football in a Sunday league, and half a million spectators are expected for the Tour prologue today- as many as the London marathon. Bike riding is up 83 per cent in London alone.

The great difference, though, between now and 1994, the last time the Tour visited these shores, is that cycling has gone from being a low-level, low-key sport to one in which the UK, in some disciplines such as track racing, is already the undisputed world leader. And on the road, the UK is increasingly a worldwide reference point as well.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for www.cyclingweekly.co.uk

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