This morning in Manchester four men will settle around a table and begin the forensic process of choosing the riders to compete for Great Britain at next month’s Olympic Games. Selection is the Olympic issue of the moment and when it comes to cycling competition for places is, as should be expected in what has become Britain’s blue ribband Games event, fiercer than ever.
There are some extraordinarily tight calls to be made. Will it be Chris Hoy or Jason Kenny in the men’s sprint? Who will be named in the men’s and women’s pursuit teams, a selection that promises to come with a golden lining? Will David Millar, freed for selection by the lifting of the lifetime drug Olympic ban, return to support Mark Cavendish in the men’s road race? But the decision that may delay Dave Brailsford, the man behind British cycling’s success, and his three wise men the longest is over who will take the lead in the women’s road race
It is a straight choice. On one hand there is Nicole Cooke, who swept through the rain in Beijing to win a dramatic first British gold four years ago. On the other there is Lizzie Armitstead, the former track world champion long identified by British Cycling as a star in the making having first being spotted at school as part of a talent identification programme.
What makes the choice all the more intriguing is that both will be chosen in the team but it is a curiosity of cycling that it is only the leader, the one who crosses the line first, that is rewarded with a medal. And what makes it more intriguing still is that Cooke and Armitstead have history. Last year Armitstead was chosen as lead rider for the world championships in Denmark, but the race did not go according to plan and afterwards Armitstead accused Cooke of riding for herself. The team ethic in cycling is all and to accuse someone of breaking it inevitably caused a storm.
“It’s something I’ve learnt from,” says Armitstead of what happened in Copenhagan and how she reacted. “It’s something I wouldn’t do again, but I stand by what I said. I said it because I believe we will be a stronger team in London for it. I’m confident that on the day we will be able to work for each other.”
The decision on who will lead could be left on ice until the chosen team assemble in their Surrey hotel before the Games, but Armitstead’s case is a strong one. She is the form rider. “Form can change so quickly and you’ve got to be in form to win the Olympics,” says Armitstead. “You’ve got younger people coming up all the time who should be given the chance if they’re good enough.
“Every person gets their day. As a cyclist you’re always striving to improve, like any athlete, but you believe that one day you will get your chance. On that day you get your chance you know that you’ve worked for other people and so you will get the same support back. Because I’m still relatively young in the sport, I’ve been happy to work for other people in the past and felt that one day I’d develop into a leader and then get the support. It’s the culture of cycling – if you believe somebody else has a better chance of winning then you support them.”
Armitstead helped Cooke to win the world title four years ago and the unspoken suggestion is that it is vice versa time.
It is in Armitstead’s favour that she rides for the Dutch road team, AA Drink-leontein.nl, alongside fellow Britons Emma Pooley, Lucy Martin and Sharon Laws, who are all in contention for Olympic places. This season she has claimed two prestigious victories in Belgium, the Omloop can het Hageland and, notably, the first women’s Gent-Wevelgem road race over a course that has been compared to the one through London and Surrey over which the Olympics will be raced.
There is a purposeful singularity to Armitstead. She is quietly spoken, her accent revealing her Yorkshire roots, roots the 23-year-old has left behind to benefit her road ambitions. She is now based on her own in Nice, having decided to concentrate fully on the road at the expense of a track career that had seen her claim a world title as part of the team pursuit.
“I’ve always been quite an individual rider anyway,” she says. “I do quite a lot of my coaching. We [her and GB coach Chris Newton] discuss it but you have to be self-motivated. [For] the track guys it’s a kind of big brother life around the velodrome in Manchester, but the road riders generally look after themselves. I like the independence.”
On the hills and roads around Nice she relentlessly pedals out mile after mile, day after day. “I find Britain too distracting, the lifestyle, the traffic, it’s always so busy,” she says. “In Europe it’s so more relaxed in comparison. It’s much easier to focus on what I’m doing. I’ve got a good relationship with British cycling. It has to be a personal approach to peaking at the Games. I want to peak at the right time for me not when someone else tells me.”
Lizzie Armitstead is supported by BP, the official oil and gas partner for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. To find out how BP is supporting Lizzie, go to bp.com/london2012