If young cyclist Anna Blythe gets among the medals when the Olympic Games land in London six years hence, she will have ridden along a remarkable pathway from playground to podium. For until the Leeds schoolgirl was invited to try her pedal power during a talent-spotting exercise con-ducted by British Cycling, the only time she had been on a bike was doing her paper round.
That was three years ago. Now she is a world junior silver and bronze medallist, and the British record-holder in the 200m time trial.
Her coach, Iain Dyer, explains: "Anna was spotted as part of British Cycling's nationwide World Class Start programme, called the Talent Team. These take place in school playgrounds and Anna, who was one of these playground finds, was immediately marked out as a potential competitive rider. Once you get to that stage, it is just a question of selling the sport and getting the youngsters involved. But her rise was certainly rapid."
It is this catch-'em-young policy which has helped British cycling to become one of the nation's most successful sports, with medals clinking merrily into the bucket at the last Commonwealth and Olympic Games. Blythe says she volunteered for the test at Benton Park School in Leeds on a mountain bike, "although I was a bit reluctant". Apart from a ride around a school field, it also included tests on a turbo trainer to measure power output.
This resulted in an invitation to a weekend course in mountain biking and BMX training. Sessions on the track at the Manchester Velodrome followed and led to her entering the junior national track championships, where she won a bronze medal. "I just went from there, really," she says.
Britain's blazing saddlers have certainly been an inspiration. At the Velodrome she regularly encounters several of her Olympic heroes and world champion Vicky Pendleton, who has become a friend and mentor. "They are all wonderful role models. Vicky and I get on really well. She's really nice and is always ready to help me."
Blythe had played other sports at school, including netball and hockey, at which she represented her county, and for a couple of years she tried to juggle these interests. But now cycling occupies nearly all her spare time, though she has just recovered from a knee injury after playing football in a park kickabout.
Blythe, who will be 18 in May, is doing A-levels and eventually hopes to take a sports science degree. The daughter of a BT engineer, she says her parents have been "really supportive", giving up their weekends to drive her to training and competitions.
Lottery funding has been a "real boon" and the British cycling set-up, she says, "just keeps getting better". Funding pays for her equipment and travelling costs and helps with dietary supplements.
Says Dyer: "I first came into contact with Anna just over a year ago when I began coaching her, basically plucking her out of the Talent Team and developing the programme to bridge the gap between the talented younger riders and the senior programme. Potentially Anna can go all the way, though of course there are many things which can obstruct the path of a budding talent. If everything remains equal, I am confident she will make it to the top and will make a very good job of it.
"What she has got to do is try and rise above everybody else," he adds. "She is a 200m match sprint and kieran [a sprint event initially paced by a motorcycle] rider. They say sprinters are born and not made, but I don't think that's strictly true, especially within the women's sport. anyone with the right sort of potential can develop as a sprinter given adequate time and encour-agement, but riders tend to lean one way or the other depending on how they are built and their power.
"In Anna's case it was a fairly simple process. In many ways she was made for the sport. Undoubtedly the success the sport has had in recent years has aided her own aspirations. What any young, aspiring rider can see now is a phenomenal pathway ahead of them through the Talent Team and Olympic dev-elopment programmes and the emerging academy programme, which never existed before.
"If you look at our podium athletes like Chris Hoy and Jason Queally, both Olympic champions, these guys have had to do it the hard way, achieving success relatively late on in their careers. They never had the opportunities these youngsters have now.
"So more than anything else, Anna can see that the route is a very methodical, well supported one. It doesn't ensure success but it makes it that much more possible. There could not be a better time for her to be forging her career in the sport."
Inevitably there are comparisons with Pendleton, Britain's track queen, but Dyer argues: "They are very different athletes. Vicky doesn't fit the bill as a sprinter. She is not an enormous, muscular sort of athlete. She is relatively light but much more powerful than she'd have you believe. Obviously you don't get to be a world champion without possessing these qualities.
"I think Anna is a more naturally powerful athlete and she brings some of those key physiological qualities to the table that Vicky has had to work very hard for over the last five years."
In Blythe's immediate sights are the European Track Championships and the World Junior Championships in July and August this year. Exams will preclude her from being in contention for the Commonwealth Games in March, and she may not make it in time for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 either, because Britain can only take one female sprinter. But 2012, when Pendleton will be 32, is definitely within Blythe's sights, as are the World Championships on her home Manchester track, five months before the Beijing Games.
"At the moment everything she has taken on board is still new to her, but it is good to see someone develop so rapidly," says Dyer. "She is a very sharp cookie, takes everything in and is quite analytical about it, challenging me with her feedback, keeping me on my toes."
Blythe fits her training around school work. "But I just want to go with the flow and see what happens," she says. "At the end of the day I would love to make it as a professional cyclist."
As for any Olympic aspirations, "to be honest, I've not given them too much thought. The Games seem so far away and so much can happen. Obviously they are always going to be a main goal, but I have other goals too. But it would be wonderful to compete in the London Olympics. I'd be made up."
THE ICON: A MESSAGE FROM CHRIS BOARDMAN
Anna Blythe has the potential to be a medal contender in 2012, and the best piece of advice I can offer is to take on each 12-month cycle as it comes. She needs to have that long-term goal, but a lot can happen in six years.
Mentally, Anna will need to deal with the processes of failure and having to refocus, and this can be done by taking small steps at a time.
She will inevitably come up against hurdles, but if she can analyse why things go wrong and look to combat the problems, she can shape herself to compete at the top. Always looking to improve is crucial for any aspiring Olympic champion.
Anna is keen to learn and very determined, traits which are needed at the highest level, but we shouldn't put too much pressure on her six years out - take one step at a time.
British cycling has come a long way since 1992. Instead of looking to just one or two riders for success, we now have a team who can compete for titles in almost every event at a World Championships or Olympics.
The biggest reason for this is that National Lottery funding has enabled the sport to have a professional structure in place so that you can make a living wage and pursue the sport with no distractions.
In Athens in 2004, Britain finished as the second strongest cycling nation behind Australia, and the aim now is for Britain to top the medal table at the 2012 London Olympics.
Chris Boardman was the first British cyclist for 72 years to gain an Olympic gold medal when he won the 4km individual pursuit in 1992 in Barcelona. He is currently working in UK Sport's élite coach structure, helping to develop the next generation of riders.