The ride of their lives: Britannia rules the wheels
Lottery millions, laser scans, the latest in sports psychology, and a daily dose of Montmorency cherries... Paul Newman reveals how Britain's cyclists came to dominate the Olympic velodrome
Wednesday 20 August 2008
Dave Brailsford, the man at the head of the greatest performance by a British Olympic team for 100 years, had just watched two more of his team win gold medals here yesterday but was far from satisfied.
"We want to win everything," British Cycling's performance director said as he reflected on five days that have seen his team crush their opponents into the wooden boards at the Laoshan velodrome. "I have no qualms at all about saying that. We're pretty elitist. I know that's a word that doesn't maybe sit comfortably with a lot of British culture, but that's what we are. We want to win absolutely everything."
The track cycling programme finished yesterday with Britain winning seven of the 10 gold medals that were on offer, as well as three silvers and two bronzes. Add Nicole Cooke's gold medal in the women's road race and Emma Pooley's time-trial silver – not to mention the BMX gold that Shanaze Reade is favourite to win tomorrow – and you have the biggest British medal return from a single sport since the London Olympics of 1908. The opposition has certainly been fiercer this time around: a century ago there were some events in which there were no foreign entries.
For a country that had no tradition of success in Olympic track cycling until Chris Boardman won a gold medal at Barcelona 1992 on his Lotus "wonder bike", the past eight years have seen extraordinary progress. Jason Queally's gold in Sydney in 2000 launched a new wave of success – and golds for Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy in Athens four years later highlighted further progress.
However, the first signs that Britain was about to dominate the sport so utterly came with their seven gold medals at the world championships last year. Five months ago, Brailsford's squad took nine of the 18 golds on offer, paving the way for success in Beijing. Nevertheless, UK Sport had set British cycling a target here of "only" six medals. The tally is currently 14 and counting.
Brailsford has a mantra that sums up British cycling's philosophy. He calls it "the aggregation of marginal gains". The theory is quite simple: any advantage that you gain in any one area might be worth only tiny fractions of a second when it comes to racing but if you add them all together they can make the difference between success and failure.
From bike technology to nutrition, from sports psychology to medical science, British cycling has been determined to stay one step ahead of the opposition in every field. The French rider, Arnaud Tournant, one of the sport's most respected figures, says the British are so far ahead of the rest that they are "the only professional team in the world".
While you still need top-class management and back-up staff, there is no doubt that funding from the National Lottery has been crucial to that professional approach. British Cycling, the organisation that runs the sport, was in severe financial trouble in the late 1990s but with the support of Lottery cash it quickly turned around its fortunes. Most other countries look with envy at Britain's funding. Australia, the dominant cycling team in Athens four years ago, work with only a third of British Cycling's budget of £2.6m.
The cash has enabled a large squad of riders to train full-time and given British Cycling the chance to recruit some of the world's best coaching and technical staff and invest heavily in research and development. An academy system has also enabled Britain to produce a flow of young riders, several of whom have produced excellent performances here.
Brailsford, nevertheless, rejects the idea that Britain has simply bought success. "A lot of the other nations talk about the money we have but it's not a slot machine," he said. "You don't just put Lottery money in the top, pull the lever and a load of gold medals come out at the bottom.
"If it was, everybody would be doing it. Prior to Lottery funding we had won one Olympic medal in 76 years in track cycling. We've been trying to do this for a long, long time and this isn't just an overnight success. We've been working very hard at it."
Brailsford has been in charge since 2003, building on the work of his predecessor, Peter Keen, who was Boardman's coach. Boardman himself is now the head of what Brailsford calls his "Secret Squirrel Club", a team of technical experts who are constantly looking at advantages that might be gained through bike design, materials and riders' clothing.
Hours have been spent studying cyclists' riding positions in a wind tunnel at Southampton University, while Formula One technology has been used to help build bikes that are less resistant to wind and move more efficiently. Laser scans are taken of every British rider and then fed into a computer, enabling scientists to work out how best to channel their energy.
Nutritionists advise the riders on diet. The British team consume large quantities of fish oils and juice from Montmorency cherries. As antioxidants, they help the muscles to recover more quickly after strenuous exercise. British riders also train differently in the build up to events. They cut down their training and spend some days doing little more than resting just before major championships in the belief that it enables muscles to recover and rebuild.
With substantial funds available to him – UK Sport, which distributes Lottery funding, rewards success, which means British Cycling's grants have been going up and up – Brailsford has surrounded himself with many of the world's top people in their fields. In the past year, his recruits include Jan van Eijden, a German former world sprint champion, and Scott Gardner, an Australian recognised as the world's leading sprint sports scientist.
Steve Peters, a world expert in the mental approach to sport, has also become a key member of Brailsford's team. He is a forensic psychiatrist who – in an earlier life – worked on cases such as that of the Soham child murderer Ian Huntley. Many of the riders say that his work in focusing them on their tasks in hand rather than worrying about success or failure has been crucial.
Asked whether any one of his "marginal gains" had been crucial, Brailsford said: "Not really. It's an amalgamation of everything that we do. We've worked hard. You get little setbacks along the way, but we've learnt well. We have a great staffing team and unbelievable athletes. We've had the top guys performing at the top of their ability here but we've had the young guys stepping up as well.
"That's what's scared the rest of the world. They knew Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Vicky Pendleton and our pursuit team were good, but when they see a 20-year-old like Jason Kenny winning silver in the individual sprint that really scared everybody."
Could other sports learn from British cycling? "The smart ones will," Brailsford said. "The ones who think they know it all will be the ones who probably aren't performing to the best of their ability. We don't know it all, but we always want to learn from others. It's that quest for knowledge that goes with success."
Failed cyclist with a ruthless streak who inspired success
For a former cyclist who knew within two years that he was never going to make it as a professional rider, Dave Brailsford has not done badly.
The performance director of British Cycling has been regarded for some years as one of the brightest figures in sports administration and his reputation rose several notches further with the phenomenal performances by his team here.
Brailsford, 44, spent most of his childhood summers in France, where his father worked as an Alpine guide and raced bikes in his spare time. He passed on his passion to his son, who on leaving school at 16 spent four years racing in France as an amateur. "I went over there to win the Tour de France," Brailsford said yesterday with a smile. "I grew up in north Wales and I was pretty naive. I knew after the second year that I wouldn't make it, but I still tried."
Brailsford went to Chester University at 22 to study sports science. He then moved on to business school, equipping himself with the financial knowledge that has helped him to run British Cycling's elite rider programme so efficiently.
He joined British Cycling 10 years ago and became performance director five years ago. "I don't coach," he said yesterday. "I just manage. I conduct an orchestra of people who have more expertise than I have. I'm interested in excellence in human beings."
Man management and communication are his greatest strengths. Warm and approachable, he has earned the trust and respect of riders and backroom staff alike. But he has never been afraid to make hard decisions. When he thought the men's team pursuiters were not making progress after their silver medal at the Athens Olympics, he put his No 2, Shane Sutton, in charge of their programme.
Changes were made to the line-up and the benefits were there for all to see with their gold medal and world record here on Monday night.
After Athens, Brailsford also dropped all the women's endurance riders from his squad because he did not believe they were good enough. He went looking for new riders and brought in Rebecca Romero, a former rower, and Wendy Houvenaghel, who took gold and silver respectively in the women's individual pursuit on Sunday.
In the light of his success, Brailsford has been increasingly talked of as a candidate for a wider role in British sport. He insists, however, that he is happy in his work.
He also knows that there are even more exciting times ahead. British Cycling recently signed a multimillion-pound sponsorship deal with Sky and has been working on a long-term project to run a professional British road-racing team. The hope is that they will be competing in the Tour de France by 2010.
Three years ago Brailsford was awarded an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours list. Further recognition of his achievements is surely just round the corner.
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