BRITISH CYCLING’S LOST CHANCE
If only the UK's female racers had been coached by a igure like Rod Ellingworth
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