In an exclusive interview with road.cc, British Cycling Performance Director Dave Brailsford says he believes that the Great Britain team is in the right place to face the challenges of the year ahead, but warns that changes to the Olympic track programme and qualification rules mean it is almost impossible to repeat the success of Beijing in 2008.
On 6 July 2005, the day London was awarded the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, 2012 seemed impossibly far away, but here we are.
The Olympic year is upon us, and this summer, the first home Olympics since 1948 will see a nation eager for British success, with the country’s cyclists shouldering big expectations.
Those expectations are born from the performance of the nation's top cyclists since London beat Paris to be awarded the 2012 Games, a full three years ahead of Great Britain’s dominance of the track events at Beijing.
On the road, Nicole Cooke would add a gold medal in the world championship in 2008 to the one she had brought home from China. Emma Pooley in the time trial in 2010 and Mark Cavendish in the road race last year have also won the rainbow jersey, while Team Sky, with a British core, has become one of the UCI WorldTour’s strongest outfits.
With Cavendish also picking up BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortly before Christmas, the profile of the country’s top cyclists has never been higher, and Brailsford insists they are ready to meet the challenge of the coming months.
“The team’s really focused,” he says. “They’ve put some fantastic work in over the last few months, I think for some of the more successful athletes they can really start to feel and touch the Games now, which is important for them.
“For the endurance guys and the endurance girls, it’s that January the First thing, once Christmas is out of the way, you’re really looking at the start of the next year, the World Cup and Olympic test event in London [in February] is really within touching distance, it’s a matter of weeks, and things are looking good, to be honest.”
Hard act to follow…
Cycling, of course, was one of the star turns for Team GB at Beijing, with seven gold medals, three silver and two bronze won in the Laoshan Velodrome. In women’s road cycling, Cooke won gold in the road race, while Pooley took silver in the time trial, to give a total of 14 medals. Shanaze Reade looked set to make it 15 in the BMX final before crashing out.
While Mark Cavendish has an opportunity to get Great Britain off to a flying start – the men’s road race on 28th July, the day after the Opening Ceremony, is the first medal event of the Games - Brailsford acknowledges that the team’s performance in 2008 is a hard act to follow.
“I think it’s always going to be difficult to compare Beijing results to London results because we had such a phenomenal Beijing, but I think our job is to support the athletes so that they can be the best they can possibly be on a given day at a given time in a given race,” he explains. “I think we’re looking good for that goal.”
He admits, however, that part of his task in the months ahead will involve playing down thoughts that Britain’s cyclists can repeat that phenomenal Beijing medal haul due to changes in the Olympic programme and the qualification rules.
Two of the events won by British cyclists at Beijing – the men’s and women’s individual pursuits, in which Bradley Wiggins and Rebecca Romero took gold medals – have disappeared from the track programme altogether, with five events now for both men and women.
A further – perhaps greater – challenge is presented by a new qualification process that sees only one rider per country in each of the individual events on the track.
At Beijing, four of the country’s silver and bronze medals went to riders in events actually won by British riders, including Wendy Houvenaghel’s silver after being beaten in the final Romero, and Steven Burke’s bronze behind Wiggins. The two individual events won by Chris Hoy also produced British silver medallists, Jason Kenny in the sprint and Ross Edgar in the keirin.
“I think it is important that we try and manage expectations,” agrees Brailsford. “It’s not a question of where the team’s at, it’s more about just making people aware of the changes that have happened to the sport in terms of the events and, of course, the most important thing which is the riders.
“For the men’s sprint squad in Beijing, wherever there was more than one rider in an event, we got gold and silver, so that really did bump up our medal tally.
“The overall medal count of 14 medals was very much by virtue of scoring two medals in the same race and that’s not going to be possible this time round, so it’s going to have an impact.”
Keeping the troops happy
With Olympic athletes by their nature very focused, highly driven individuals, Brailsford says that there needs to be clear communication to them of how the selection process works, particularly given the new restriction of one rider per event.
With some of the riders who miss out on a place in an individual event figuring in team ones, there are potential implications for team morale if athletes don’t appreciate how the system works.
“I think over the years we’ve recognised more and more that the important thing is that a rider needs to understand the basis on which selection is going to be made, who’s going to make that selection, and when that selection’s going to be made” he says.
“If they have those three criteria, and even more if they’ve been given the opportunity to give input into the selection criteria, then 99.9 per cent of elite athletes will say, ‘Okay, well this is a fair process, and may the best person win. If someone else is stronger than me, I’ll shake their hand, well done, they deserve the chance.’
“Where we have problems, or where it becomes a challenge, is where one of those three criteria isn’t clear, so they’re not sure maybe how the team’s going to be selected.
“That will make them constantly agitated, because they won’t quite know what they need to do to make the team, or if they don’t know who’s going to make the decision, or when the decision’s going to be made, that then creates this sense of agitation around the team, and that inevitably will then lead to problems.
“From a management perspective it’s absolutely critical from our point of view and it’s our responsibility to try and make sure that people do understand the process and then it’s a question of knuckling down, training hard and hopefully people feel we’re fair and following due process, so the best person, the fastest team, is on the start line.”
Taking a look at the competition…
Since Great Britain’s near clean sweep of the gold medals on the track at Beijing, where only the men’s and women’s points races and the men’s Madison saw winners from elsewhere, rival nations have upped their game, with Australia in particular enjoying a highly successful world championships in the Netherlands last March.
Brailsford believes that the increased competition will make for some exciting racing at London 2012.
“Other nations have stepped up and there’s a new generation of track cyclists that has come into the sport and they’re approaching it in a very coaching-led, scientific way,” he maintains.
“I think the Aussies have definitely hit back, they’ve got a great crop of young riders, the Eastern European female sprinters are looking stronger and stronger, the French national squad are looking great, the German team all round is looking very strong.
“So I think as always at Olympic Games you’d expect to be going in with a really high level of competition from all nations and I think that’s exactly what we’re going to get in London. Ideally we’ll be on top of our game and ready to give them a run for their money.”
…and the Olympic Velodrome
The track at the Olympic Park’s Velodrome has been billed as the fastest in the world. We’ll get an idea of just how fast it is at February’s test event, although as Brailsford outlines, that will just be an appetiser for what we might see at the Games.
“I think it’s a little bit early to say, there’s a bit of bedding down and maturing of the track, the more it gets ridden, the faster it gets, no doubt about it,” he says.
“I think a lot will depend on the climatic conditions, the temperature and of course the air pressure makes a massive difference to the times, we know that.
“Low pressure, high temperature will make you a lot faster for the same effort than if you’re in the opposite type of conditions.
“Whether it will be very hot in London in the Velodrome, will it be around 26, 27, 30 degrees, will the pressure be low, I think these are all factors that will have a real bearing on the fastness if you like of the track.
“But it’s a beautiful venue, fantastically built, and it’s an amazing spectator venue as well, you can walk all the way round the concourse and see the track, and the way the infield has been designed is very, very good.
“So as a venue I’m sure it’s one of, if not the, most exciting velodrome in the world. It will be great to get on there and see how fast we can go. Hopefully the fastest, who knows?”
With just under seven months to go before the Games start, the team is taking shape, although in the men’s road race, for which Great Britain has qualified the maximum of five riders, there is the possibility of a reshuffle.
That’s because the legality of the British Olympic Association’s controversial bylaw imposing a lifetime ban on athletes who have served a doping ban is to be decided some time in the early months of this year by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Should the BOA lose, that would free David Millar for selection to compete next summer, and Cavendish for one has publicly said he wants the Scot on the team.
Given the crucial role he played in Cavendish’s world championship victory in September, when Millar acted as Great Britain’s road captain, there’s a compelling case for him to be included in the Olympic team should the barrier to him competing be lifted.
It’s a situation Brailsford is watching closely.
‘I think we’ve got to let this one run its course first,” he states. “Once we have clarity around the situation and that’s been established we can make a decision from there.
“But obviously Dave, once his ban finished, he was eligible for GB and he’s been selected and done ever so well as we saw in the Worlds at Copenhagen in terms of marshalling his troops.
“In terms of the Olympics I think it’s for the BOA and IOC and CAS to make their decision and we’ll decide from there.”
Team Sky in 2012
Besides his role at British Cycling, Brailsford of course is also Team Principal at Sky Procycling, which he agrees puts him in a unique position when it comes to co-ordinating the programmes of the team’s British riders in an Olympic year.
Geraint Thomas, for example, will be switching between the road and the track early in the season before missing the Tour de France to focus on preparing to help Great Britain defend the team pursuit in which he won gold in Beijing, a programme that might have caused issues had the Welshman been at another team.
“I think a lot of people were concerned that I’d taken on too much, saying that I was too diluted across two jobs etcetera,” says Brailsford of his twin positions, “but in actual fact, although there is a lot of work, there are key benefits from having both roles.
“Being able to sit down with Geraint, Bradley, Swifty, Pete Kennaugh, Cav, Ian Stannard, all the [Team Sky] British guys in the Olympic team, obviously it gives us an edge when we can manage their programmes carefully,” he continues.
“We know they’re being coached by one coaching team, supported by the same people all the way through, it just makes life a lot easier. I think it’s a great thing for British Cycling to be able to manage both sides of it. I really do think it’s a huge benefit, although it’s hard work. I think the benefits are there for everybody to see.”
At the end of Team Sky’s debut season in 2010, Brailsford admitted that a mistake had been made in concentrating too much on Bradley Wiggins’ ambition to improve on his fourth place in the previous year’s Tour de France with Garmin Slipstream.
Wiggins would finish a disappointing 24th in his first Tour de France with Team Sky, but began this year’s race on a high after securing the biggest road win of his career in the Criterium du Dauphiné as well as becoming British road race champion.
While Wiggins left the Tour at the end of the first week after breaking his collarbone in a crash on Stage 7, he was back in September to get his first Grand Tour podium in the Vuelta – what’s more, team mate Chris Froome was second.
That set the seal on a very successful second season for the British team, with other highlights including Geraint Thomas’s victory at the Bayern Rundfahrt and two Tour de France stage wins from Edvald Boasson Hagen, as well as some high-profile wins from Ben Swift in races including the Tour Down Under and the Tour of California.
“We were too focused on one race with one rider, so we decided to try and look at the race programme in its totality and focus more on each race as it came,” reveals Brailsford.
“We obviously targeted some races that we felt suited our strengths more than others, so we had a strategy round it but that worked really well.
“I think the key thing going into next year is a lot of people debrief about what went wrong, and for us this year we’ve obviously done that, but also importantly we’ve tried to capture actually what went right – what are the things that led to some of the good performances we had this year, and how do we make sure that we don’t just disregard that and we continue building on those things and take it into next season.
“So I think it’s very important again not to get too Tour-focused – we’re a racing team, and we need to race every race we go to, and then we lift our heads up and go and race the next race, and eventually you lift your head up and it’s the Tour de France.
“Another thing that we did this year that we didn’t do in our first year was that we actually got the nucleus of the Tour team together early on and allowed them to race and compete and go to training camps together to build understanding, to build some camaraderie, to build that team into a unit, and that really worked well.
‘So that’s something again I think we’ll learn from and see whether we can put that into our plans for next year.
“I think there are certain ways of working, the way we approach things, that are becoming standard ways of doing things now, whereas as a new team it’s all about establishing working practices.
“Different people have different ideas so there’s a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, and eventually people start to see the way forward, get aligned into working to achieve the same goal, I think that starts to fall into place.
“To be honest, halfway through this year, all of a sudden the team started to find its feet and really find a bit of self-belief and I think we struggled for that in the first year,.
“Now we have a bit more self-belief so we can start to really look at races and approach races as how we think we can win them as opposed to how we think we can compete in them.
“Adding the likes of Mark [Cavendish] into the team, Bernie Eisel, Richie [Porte], they’re confident guys, they’ve been on the most successful team [HTC Highroad] and they bring some of that confidence with them, it can only be a good thing for the overall team and our ambitions.
As for what he’ll be concentrating on in the year ahead, Brailsford says: “First and foremost, just keep focused on the Olympics, get up to that point in time with the ProTeam, once that’s done we’ll take it from there really.
“At this moment in time we’re really enjoying what we’re doing, it’s a big, big opportunity, there’s some great challenges in the year and we’re very focused on that.
“So we’ll keep focused on that for the time being and not worry too much about what happens next,” although he reveals that the foundations for Britain’s campaign for the 2016 Olympics are already being laid.
“I think it is important to remember there is a young cohort of riders still being developed, there is a plan for Rio and that’s well on the go now, so I think that’s important to recognise too.”
In a little over seven months’ time, we’ll know for sure whether those riders being groomed for the Games in Brazil will, like the class of 2012, be burdened with the expectation of having to continue British dominance of Olympic cycling events.
It promises to be some summer.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.