Interview: "Where is our legacy?" Jody Cundy says track para-cyclists need more top-level races
Multiple world and Paralympic champion also outlines his ambition to ride the Kilo for England in Commonwealth Games in Glasgow
Jody Cundy has said that lack of competitive events make it very difficult for track para-cyclists to remain motivated and focused, and has called for more racing opportunity and reform of the Paralympic qualification process. Speaking exclusively to road.cc, the world para-cycling Kilo champion also outlined his ambition of breaking into the England team to ride that event in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow next year.
Yesterday, after IPC Athletics announced plans for an annual series of six track and field Grand Prix events, Cundy had taken to Twitter to ask, “Where is our legacy?” pointing out that no track para-cycling events, still less a world championships, has yet been confirmed for 2013.
Given the huge attention focused on the sport during last summer’s Paralympic Games in London, we asked the 34-year-old from Cambridgeshire, who is now based in Manchester, what could be done to ensure that it became more than a once-every-four-years phenomenon?
“It needs events for a start,” replied Cundy, a sprint specialist who had his lower right leg amputated when he was just three years old and competes in the C4 class.
“Track cycling itself is low on racing events and when you combine that with para-cycling, the amount of events is very, very few,” as he outlined his racing at international level over the past three years, comprising a couple of world championships and the London Paralympics.
“There’s a lack of progress and no moving forward,” he went on. “You’ve got nobody willing to put races on either,” a point he emphasised by listing the world championships that have taken place since the first such event was held jointly by the UCI and the International Paralympic Committee at the World Cycling Headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland.
Those were followed by championships in Bordeaux in 2007, Manchester in 2009, Montichiari in 2011 and Los Angeles last year; in 2013, as in 2008 and 2010, there will be no such event. “It is supposed to be every year but that pattern seems to have disappeared with this year,” he reflects.
Jody Cundy on the track © Kelkel
So, does Cundy feel that British Cycling has a role to play in raising the profile of the sport? “The problem is that a lot of nations expect us to put on a major championships and we just don’t have the money to be able to do it,” he says.
“But the other problem is that the races people want to put on, they don’t actually qualify any points for the next Paralympic Games.
“British Cycling were wanting to put events on, but they weren’t going to be counting for points to go to the next Paralympic Games in London so we didn’t put events on, and because of that there’s no interest for people from other nations to attend or come across.”
Cundy believes that the way in which points are awarded for Paralympic qualification disadvantages a strong track nation such as Great Britain and that the system should be reformed.
“The way para-cycling works is you qualify points on the track and the road and they’re all added together.
“Well, most nations have such big road teams that they can score all the points they ever need on the road and top up with the track worlds, whereas with GB, we seem to be very good on the track, so we score all our points on the track and top up the points on the road.
“But if you had a specific track slot and a specific road slot and you qualified for events by scoring points on either the track or the road, then I think you’d end up with nations committing a little bit more to the track programme so both forms of the sport would go forward.
“At the moment you have a situation where a lot of the guys who ride on the road ride on the track as well and vice-versa, but among the guys who ride on the track, not many of the track-specific riders like sprinters race on the road, so they maybe race once a year – national championships and maybe a world championships if you’re lucky and that’s all the training they do.
“The guys who are lucky enough to race week-in, week-out at C1 events or world cup or world championships on the road, they’ve got more racing opportunities than we have on the track.”
We put it to him that the system must put increased pressure on track riders to get those all-important points.
“Exactly, and especially for our GB team. We know that we’ve some of the best riders in the world on the track but we needed to finish with golds preferably at world championships to make sure we qualified enough places,” he explains, referring to qualification for London.
“It got to the point where we didn’t have enough points really and we had riders who only ever ride the track or who are out and out sprinters going out on the road and doing time trials and road races in the hope of scoring top ten places to boost our tally, which isn’t really pushing the sport forward.
That has another counter-productive effect, states Cundy. “It’s almost pushing it backwards because you’re not becoming specialists as sprinters or track riders, you’re becoming all rounders.”
Jody Cundy racing at London 2012 © Kelkel
Cundy went into London 2012 as favourite for the Kilo, the event he had won in Beijing and in which he is para-cycling world champion and world record holder.
However, he found himself at the centre of one of the most dramatic episodes of the entire Paralympic Games when he was refused a restart after his rear wheel became stuck in the starting gate.
TV footage showed Cundy in the track centre leaving the commissaires in no uncertain terms over how he felt about their decision – he would later reappear to apologise to the crowd for his outburst.
He would go on to take bronze in the C4/5 individual pursuit raced over 4 kilometres, where his time in qualifying over the first 1,000 metres would have secured him gold in the Kilo.
While the once-in-a-lifetime nature of a home Paralympics added to the emotion of the situation, we asked Cundy whether the fact that there is such a dearth of top-level events for him to compete in added to the frustration of the moment.
“I think it did, yes. What happened in London is unfortunate, but the frustrations are down to the fact that we only race so few and far between that you want to get it right that time, because you never actually know when the next time is you’re actually going to get to race.
“That’s a big thing to push forward,” he continues. “Obviously there’s a demand for track cycling, we had four days of track cycling at the London Paralympics and they were sold out every day, and they were one of the hardest tickets to get hold of.
“So there’s a demand there but it’s not really sold that way, other nations don’t seem to have the same kind of passion for it compared to what we do in the UK.
“We need to be at the forefront of pushing forward events to show the rest of the world that it is possible to get sell-out crowds to come and watch paracycling and that it is possible to make money off these events.
“But at the moment, we’re waiting on other people, whether it’s worth something to put these events on, if it attracts the people you need, the sponsors, the general public to come and watch, it’s very hard for it to move forward.
“It’s hard to be part of a sport where you peak once a year if you’re lucky,” he concedes, “and that makes training very hard, because it’s a constant day-in, day-out process and you sometimes wonder what the end goal actually is.”
At Los Angeles world championships in 2012 © Kelkel
The Revolution Series has given able-bodied track cyclists in Britain increased opportunities to race at top level in front of packed crowds, and while Cundy, who has competed in the event, maintains that its organisers have been supportive of para-cycling, he says there is only so far they can go in embracing it within the format.
“It’s very good in that regard, they had the tandem racing last season, I think that went down really well, and I’ve competed alongside the able-bodied guys because I’m fortunate enough that I can actually do that – the guys that are in a lower disability class just don’t have that opportunity.
“One of the things for para-cycling I think is all of the events other than the team sprint and the tandem sprint are individual time trials or pursuits, which in the Revolution format isn’t entertaining for the crowd.
“They debuted a scratch race at the world championships in February last year and that went down really well, the men’s race and the women’s race were really exciting, very fast, quality riding throughout.
“I think that’s a future where para-cycling needs to go, getting people up and racing and making it entertaining for people to watch, and for something to be incorporated into a Revolution format, that’s kind of what you need.
“Tandem sprinting is fortunate in that you’ve got head-to-head sprinting and people understand what sprinting is and there’s already sprinting going on at Revolution, so that kind of fits in to the whole programme.
“But individual pursuits and time trials don’t really fit into the Revolution format. In a space where you only have three hours to do some racing, you need little bunch races or something else to really help promote para-cycling.
“Revolution does a good job of helping when they can, but I think that the whole programme for para-cycling needs to be looked at as well, if you’re going to keep that whole entertainment factor as well as the performances.”
Cundy, who took a similar route to Dame Sarah Storey into cycling – like her, he is a multiple Paralympic champion in the swimming pool and he was talent-spotted after trying out track cycling at Newport in 2005 – is clearly very driven, and that manifests itself as he outlines his hopes to clinch a berth at Glasgow next year.
“As I said, we’ve not really got that many events between now and Rio that are planned, and one of the ambitions that I have set myself is to try and qualify for the Commonwealth team for England, to ride the Kilo at the Commonwealth Games,” he reveals.
“I’m going to be meeting Shane Sutton to discuss what I need to do to make that team, and I’ll be aiming to try and do that. I don’t want any special compensation because if I make the team, I want to make it on merit, as it’s an able bodied team.
“There’s only tandem sprinting as a para-cycling event at the Commonwealth Games, which means that I’d have to compete on an able-bodied level and at the highest level to make it.
“I know it’s a very hard task but if I make the Commonwealth team then it gets me into the ball park of making the Olympic team as well. I know I have to make a bit of improvement and it’s an ambitious target but if you don’t have a target then you never know how far you can go.
“It’s a goal for me and I’ll aim for it – if it comes off, it comes off, and if it doesn’t, it just makes me a better para-cycling rider to hopefully push on the boundaries of the sport and prove what’s possible.
And that meeting with the Australian who played such a key role in Team GB’s Olympic success and Sir Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France victory?
“Shane Sutton is one of the people who is going to have a say in who the team is, so if I go to him and say, ‘What do I need to do?’ and he says, ‘You have to ride a 58-second Kilo,’ then much as I know that’s almost impossible, it will give me a goal and a target to aim for,” confides Cundy, whose paracycling world record for the Kilo stands at 1 minute 05.144 seconds.
“I should be meeting with him some time next week hopefully and get that goal set, and everything will change and be geared towards that.”
In conclusion, Cundy says: “The demand for the sport is there, it just needs the organisation and events to show the rest of the world and get the athletes on board and up and running. I think that’s ultimately what needs doing.
“We need events, we need to be able to showcase not only to guys that are in the sport but also for the guys that have seen it on TV and want to compete, but don’t actually have any opportunity to go racing to see if they’re any good.
“That’s the ultimate thing we need to find at the moment, and to come to an agreement about how we’re going to push that forward. I think we need to get quite a few people together and work out what’s best for the sport and how it is.
“I know there are a lot of frustrated riders out there who are training for no reason or who are training just to compete on the road, so it’s knowing where we go from here.”