Britain's cyclists: better by design

A golden generation of cyclists looks set to mount Britain's strongest Olympic Challenge. Paul Newman reports on what could be a fortnight of unparalleled success

On the opening day of the Olympic Games the rest of the cycling world would be advised to enjoy today's men's road race while they can. From tomorrow, the Brits are coming.

With all due respect to Jonny Bellis, Roger Hammond, Ben Swift and Steve Cummings, who will be flying the Union flag through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City on their way to this afternoon's finish at the Great Wall, the real push towards what could be the greatest British Olympic performance in any sport for more than 80 years begins 24 hours later, when Nicole Cooke, Emma Pooley and Sharon Laws compete in the women's road race.

Even if Cooke and Pooley do not reach the podium – both could do well but the stifling conditions will be tough and road racing can be unpredictable – it should only be a case of delaying a surge of two-wheeled British success, particularly when the track events begin next week. The combination of a superbly talented generation of riders, brilliant management and improved funding has created an environment in which Britain is poised to enjoy a fortnight of unparalleled success.

UK Sport, which distributes Lottery funding, has set a target of six cycling medals, but by the time Oli Beckingsale and Liam Killeen finish the men's mountain bike race a fortnight today the British tally may well exceed that by some margin. Shanaze Reade, who rides in the BMX event, is arguably the hottest favourite of all, but it is in the velodrome where British riders are expected to enjoy their greatest triumphs. There are 12 gold medals at stake on the track and Dave Brailsford's squad boasts current world champions in seven of the events.

Other countries like to joke that British Olympians perform well only when sitting down, with cycling, sailing, rowing and equestrianism the country's most successful sports in recent times. British cyclists have certainly been making the rest of the world stand up and take note ever since Chris Boardman rode his revolutionary "superbike" to glory in Barcelona 16 years ago.

A second wave of podium appearances began with Jason Queally's gold medal in Sydney eight years later and gathered strength in Athens, where Bradley Wiggins produced the outstanding performance by becoming the first Briton in any sport to win three medals at a Games for 40 years.

Brailsford, who has led the sport to new heights since succeeding Boardman's former coach, Peter Keen, as British Cycling's performance director, feels even more confident of success here than he did four years ago. "We've had a whole Olympic cycle since Athens and I think we've improved our working practices and our professionalism," he said.

"We now have a model of how to achieve excellence and we all buy into it. There's a collective understanding of our principles and the philosophy on which the programme is based. We were still developing it before Athens. I feel I've been really lucky to be able to hire some fantastic people. We have some extremely good young coaches. We live on the edge all the time, but there's a greater stability and understanding about the way we operate, a better team ethos. We understand our business better than we did four years ago.

"The group of riders that we have now is the best that Britain has ever sent anywhere in the world. There are some world-class athletes and great strength in depth. The quality of the staff is also unbelievable. There's huge confidence in the camp, though we're not arrogant or overconfident. We're just ready to race."

Brailsford is the first to recognise that money has been a crucial factor. UK Sport's policy of rewarding success means that British Cycling's elite programme now receives £3.5m a year in Lottery funding, enabling a large squad of riders to train full-time with the support of the best coaches and with the benefit of cutting-edge equipment and facilities.

Sponsors, too, love success. Sky recently agreed a multimillion pound deal to back British Cycling over the next five years and a substantially bigger agreement is in the pipeline that will enable Brailsford to run an internationally competitive road-race team in events such as the Tour de France. Mark Cavendish, one of several outstanding products of the British Cycling Academy, won four stages on last month's Tour and with Wiggins, his track madison partner, ready to return to road racing next year there could be exciting times ahead.

The experienced Frenchman Arnaud Tournant, one of the sport's leading riders, described Britain earlier this year as "the only professional team in the world". Dipping into his bulging war chest, Brailsford has recruited the best back-room team in track cycling. Shane Sutton, a former Tour rider, has been his long-term No 2, and more recently he has brought in men such as the German sprint coach Jan van Eijden, who is a former world champion, and the Australian Scott Gardner, acknowledged as one of the world's leading performance analysts.

Steve Peters, who has become a world expert in the mental approach to sport, is also a key member of the team. The forensic psychiatrist, who in an earlier life worked on cases like that of the Soham child murderer Ian Huntley, was instrumental in convincing Victoria Pendleton to stay in cycling after she disappointed in Athens four years ago.

Central to Brailsford's philosophy is the belief that no stone should be left unturned in the pursuit of improvements and innovations that might make only tiny differences in themselves but, together, can be the difference between success and failure. For example, his team of doctors, nutritionists and sports scientists have developed regimes under which riders eat carefully – their diets include large quantities of fish oils and cherry juices – and dramatically cut their training programmes in the days immediately before competition, enabling the body to rebuild itself quickly.

Brailsford also has his "Secret Squirrel Club", a team of technical experts headed by Boardman and including specialists from Formula One motor racing. They are constantly looking at advantages that might be gained through bike design, materials and clothing.

The biggest scientific advances have been made thanks to work in a wind tunnel at Southampton University. Ninety per cent of a rider's energy is used to combat wind resistance rather than to drive the bike forward. Boardman's team take laser scans of every British rider and then feed the information into a computer, enabling them to work out how best to channel their energy.

"The position of the rider on the bike is absolutely critical," Boardman said. "We've put riders in the wind tunnel and given them real-time feedback so they can move their elbows or whatever and see what impact it has. I might talk to a rider and say his elbows are in the wrong position and he'll reply: 'Well, I feel much more comfortable in my current position and I feel I can generate much more power that way.'

"But if I put him in a wind tunnel he can see for himself that there's an instant drop in drag when he puts his head down or changes the position of his elbows. As soon as he sees that he appreciates what an effect it can have on his performance. Some of the things we've found have been surprising. We were always telling riders to get lower and lower on the bike, but we found that lower wasn't actually better and we've brought some of their riding positions up."

He added: "Ultimately, the rider is the chairman of the board. We just give them information and they decide what to do with it."

Rebecca Romero, who became the individual pursuit world champion in April only two years after taking up cycling, believes this approach, in which the rider is always in control, is crucial to Britain's success. The 28-year-old from Surrey won a rowing silver medal four years ago – if she finishes on the podium here she will be the first Briton ever to win medals in two summer Olympic sports – but quit the water in frustration at what she saw as a training regime based on the coaches rather than the athletes.

"The best comparison I can make is to say that going from rowing to cycling was like leaving school and going to university," she said. "At school you're dictated to and it's regimented. At university you're left to your own devices. You go away and work and you have your tutors you can use as and when you want. If you don't put the work in you won't pass your exams, but it's down to you. It's the same in cycling. There's the same trust and belief in the individual. They trust you that you want to be there, to work hard, and not to enjoy a cushy life.

"It's immensely different from the system I'd been in before. It really appealed to me. There was a lot of individuality. People did different things specific to their event. The whole system was based around the individual athletes. In rowing it felt as though the athletes were at the bottom of the pile."

Central to every aspect of Britain's success is Brailsford himself, a brilliant man manager who combines an ability to earn his team's trust with both a warmth of approach and a willingness to take tough and sometimes unpleasant decisions, such as dropping cyclists such as Queally and Rob Hayles, who have been mainstays of British success over the years.

He hopes that UK Sport's medal target will prove conservative but will not weigh his team's success in gold, silver and bronze. "We talk about target times, target processes and tactical racing plans rather than numbers of medals," he said. "If those target times help us to win medals, great, but if the opposition turn out better than us then good luck to them. If all goes well, though, I would hope that we're competitive for the podium in more than six events."

Wheels on fire: Britain's cycling gold medal prospects in Beijing

ON THE TRACK

Individual pursuit

Bradley Wiggins, Defending his Athens title and looked in top form in winning the world championship earlier this year. Gold rating 5/5

Men's team pursuit

Bradley Wiggins, Paul Manning, Geraint Thomas, Steven Burke and Ed Clancy

Broke world record in winning world championship in April and can go one better than four years ago. Gold rating 4/5

Keirin

Chris Hoy, World champion. Has successfully switched after 1km time trial, in which he won gold in Athens, was removed from Olympic schedule. Gold rating 4/5

Sprint

Victoria Pendleton, World champion for last two years and aiming to make up for first-round exit in Athens. Gold rating 4/5

Sprint

Chris Hoy, Became first British winner of track cycling's blue riband for 54 years in taking world title this year. Gold rating 3/5

Individual pursuit

Rebecca Romero, Became world champion in April only two years after switching from rowing, in which she won silver in Athens. Gold rating 3/5

Team sprint

Jamie Staff, Ross Edgar, Jason Kenny and Chris Hoy

Took silver at the world championships and have gone so well in training they believe they can beat the favourites France. Gold rating 3/5

Madison

Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins

Took world title in Manchester four months ago. Wiggins won bronze with Rob Hayles in Athens in 2004. Gold rating 2/5

Points race

Chris Newton, Veteran rider competing in his fourth Olympics. Won 2008 World Cup series. Gold rating 1/5

ON THE ROAD

Women's road race

Nicole Cooke and Emma Pooley

Cooke finished fifth in Athens four years ago, while Pooley enjoyed an excellent 2007 and recently won a World Cup race. Gold rating 2/5

ON THE BMX COURSE

Shanaze Reade, Outstanding competitor who already has four world titles (two junior and two senior) to her name. Was British champion at the age of only 13. Gold rating 5/5

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