If only the UK's fe­male rac­ers had been coached by a ig­ure like Rod Elling­worth

Procycling - - PROLOGUE -

Slid­ing Doors is a fun game: imag­ine the course of events if things had been dif­fer­ent at one key mo­ment in time. Geraint Thomas’s Tour de France win prompted two such ques­tions: what would have hap­pened if, in 2004, Rod Elling­worth had not es­tab­lished the GB Cy­cling Academy, or if it had been founded by a coach with a dif­fer­ent cut to his jib.

Two sto­ries say much about the coach and his Welsh charge. One con­cerns the time they were rac­ing in the Alps when Thomas fell off on one of the de­scents: “He slid down the road on his hands. Took all the skin off. The next morn­ing he turns up for break­fast, his hands cov­ered in ban­dages. He wasn’t wear­ing his rac­ing kit. I said, ‘Come on Geraint, you don’t cy­cle with your f*ck­ing hands do you?’”

The sec­ond comes from the Com­mon­wealth Games in 2006, when the Bri­tish team were pon­der­ing how to take on the Aus­tralian sprinter, Ben Ker­sten. “I said [to the lads] with a dead straight face, ‘The best way to go about win­ning this scratch race is to take him right out. Hands up, who’s up for it?’ It was Geraint Thomas who raised his hand. ‘I’m up for that’. ‘Only flip­ping jok­ing mate.’” Elling­worth was an un­com­pro­mis­ing coach, who built a cul­ture of im­mense loy­alty and com­mit­ment among his charges, none more so than Thomas.

The stars of Bri­tish rac­ing who emerged ini­tially through Elling­worth’s tute­lage would prob­a­bly still have made it with­out the academy. Mark Cavendish was set to race in Bel­gium if his academy place had fallen through. Thomas, mean­while, had al­ready won the ju­nior Paris-Roubaix.

How­ever, with­out the academy, Cavendish and com­pany would have taken longer to break through. They would not have been given the same chances as early as they were, and they would have strug­gled to learn the sur­vival skills that were crammed into the academy years. Un­der a less driven coach than Elling­worth, they would prob­a­bly have learned more slowly, less in­tensely, and maybe not at all.

It’s a known fact that Team Sky would not have been formed with­out the academy. Dave Brails­ford was con­fronted dur­ing the 2007 Tour de France – con­tested by Thomas and Cavendish, who showed tal­ent and fear­less­ness – with in­dis­putable ev­i­dence that a pro­duc­tion line of road cy­cling tal­ent had been es­tab­lished. It was, said Brails­ford, about hav­ing a “crit­i­cal mass” of Bri­tish cy­clists, and the academy pro­vided that. With­out the cul­ture that was cre­ated at Team Sky, would Geraint Thomas have been trans­formed into a Tour win­ner? It’s safe to say he prob­a­bly wouldn’t.

That “crit­i­cal mass” led to some­thing else. The academy’s leg­endary sta­tus and the achieve­ments of its ear­li­est alumni have cre­ated a vir­tu­ous feed­back loop. Now most am­bi­tious young male bike rac­ers in Bri­tain want to be part of it. The academy has fi­nally done away with any lin­ger­ing fear that Euro­pean cy­clists are in­her­ently stronger than those in Bri­tain. This was some­thing that Elling­worth em­pha­sised from day one: they are no dif­fer­ent from us.

There is one caveat to this suc­cess story: Elling­worth’s vi­sion was de­fi­antly cen­tred on U23 men only. When a women’s academy was founded, it was not given con­sis­tent back­ing from the high-ups, and it foundered af­ter a cou­ple of years be­fore be­ing re­launched re­cently.

I know of at least one woman whose ini­tially promis­ing in­ter­na­tional cy­cling ca­reer could have been rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent if the ap­proach had con­sis­tently been one of com­plete equal­ity across both sexes. That im­bal­ance set Bri­tish women road cy­clists back years. Slid­ing Doors is fun, but not a game where you al­ways ar­rive at happy con­clu­sions.

Wil­liam Fother­ing­hamis a jour­nal­ist and au­thor. He was the found­ing edi­tor of Pro­cy­cling. He co-wrote Project Rainbow, Rod Elling­worth's ac­count of how Bri­tish Cy­cling be­came a cy­cling su­per­power

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