British Cycling’s new performance director talks gold medals, independent reviews and Wiggo’s UKAD investigation
Cyclist: Before joining British Cycling in 2017 you managed the world-beating GB sailing team. What new ideas will you bring to cycling?
Stephen Park: Hopefully I can bring a different perspective. Having been involved in the Olympic environment I have a good understanding of what it takes for athletes to be successful. But every sport is different, so I don’t come to British Cycling thinking I know how to automatically deliver medals. We have a huge number of people with a great range of skills and a bigger cohort of high-quality athletes than ever before. I hope to bring some perspective to the leadership of that team.
Cyc: Where do you look for new ideas?
SP: Once you are a learner, you become a lifelong learner. Do I listen to podcasts? Yes. Do I listen to them just in cycling? No. Do I listen to people who are a bit disruptive? Yes. Do I listen to Question Time and think about leadership styles? Yes. Have I been to look at other high-level sports? Yes. But I’m conscious that I won’t always come back with five great things to implement. It is more about continuing to grow and add layers.
Cyc: You joined before the independent review into allegations of bullying and discrimination was published. How has it shaped your plans?
SP: No doubt it shaped the year pretty significantly. I was spending a lot of time reacting. There is a missile going off so you run over there and put your shield up. And there is another one coming in over there, so you run back there and put your shield up. So there was a little bit of time needed to stabilise things.
There is no doubt people here were – and still are – concerned about their interaction with other staff or riders. They were questioning themselves. Is this right? Is this not right? Is it really as bad as it says over here? The other side was the challenge of people feeling they were being judged unfairly. I think most people in the programme didn’t feel that the review represented their observations of what they saw and how they operated on a day-to-day basis.
That is not to say they felt the views of some of the people being represented were incorrect, or were not accurate observations, because it is the experience they lived. A lot of people felt it didn’t necessarily represent what they saw but they could understand why other people might have felt like that.
So people were quite badly dented and I felt sorry for the sport because they’d just come back after a fantastic performance in Rio and never really got the opportunity to celebrate.
Cyc: What changes have been made to improve athlete welfare?
SP: In terms of my own role, thinking more about culture – changing some of the thinking, so it’s not just about what we do but how we do it. We want more interaction, but we also have to recognise that athletes are different to 10 years ago. The environment is different. I don’t need to tell people how hard they need to train because they
The descent is a scintillating dash along a snaking road flanked by rocks covered in moss the colour of kiwi fruit
This historic pass, which marks the boundary between the Cottian and Graian Alps, has been used for centuries. The Carthaginian general Hannibal is believed to have passed here on his famous elephant crossing of the Alps in 218BC. Charlemagne, the King of the Francs, crossed it with his army (not of elephants) in 773. Medieval pilgrims used it on their way to Rome. Then Napoleon Bonaparte constructed the road here in 1810 to allow carts and carriages to pass over.
I had expected the climb to be the easier of the day’s two ascents. I was mistaken. The Mont Cenis rises 682m over 9.8km, with an average gradient of 7% and bursts of 10%. In the early afternoon heat, however, it’s a gruelling ascent, although thankfully the shade of the forest makes the temperature more bearable.
The road is a sinister blend of steep straights and wide hairpins and in the last kilometre, as the road straightens out, we face a punishing headwind that seems determined to swipe us back downhill from whence we came. And
although this entire route features less than 2,500m of climbing, most of it is at high altitude so it’s much tougher than the profile suggests.
At the summit we’re welcomed by the glistening expanse of the Lac du Mont Cenis. Surrounded by pointed spires of rock and glowing bright blue in the sunshine, it’s a scene more evocative of Patagonia than the Alps. The peaks of the 3,610m Pointe de Ronce and the 3,478m Mont Lamet stand guard over the lake and more than 700 different types of flowers light up its shoreline.
In the 1961 edition of the Tour de France, French riders Manuel Busto and Guy Ignolin arrived here with a commanding 25-minute lead and Busto took the opportunity to dive into the lake to cool down. Ignolin did the gentlemanly thing and waited for him, before outsprinting his soggy countryman to the line in Turin. Today we meet a cyclist who says he is cycling from Geneva to the south of Italy. He’s wearing running trainers and has a track pump lashed to the back of his bike. I wish him luck as he continues slowly on his 1,500km journey.
At the summit we’re met by an even more improbable sight than the chapel that sits atop the Iseran: a giant stone pyramid. Apparently, Napoleon wanted to build a pyramid here to commemorate his Egyptian campaigns, but he died before he could realise his ambition, so in 1968 the energy company EDF, which manages the Cenis reservoir and dam, duly obliged. The structure sits equidistant between Paris and Rome and contains a chapel and a museum with information on the colourful history of the pass.
At the end of the lake is the stone-covered dam that marks the start of our descent. Before we gather speed, however, we take a moment to explore an eerie abandoned village that lies in the shadow of the dam wall, its houses now crumbling since the residents have moved away.
The descent from Mont Cenis is a scintillating dash along a snaking road dotted with white road markers and flanked by rocks covered in bright green moss the colour of kiwi fruit. Only a thin wire stands between the road and the
drop below. At some point over the last few kilometres we crossed the invisible border between France and Italy.
Further down, a deep drainage gully sits between the road and a wall of rock. I don’t fancy skidding into it so I rein in my speed. Halfway down I see the crumpled remains of a van that wasn’t so fortunate.
We eventually roll into the Italian town of Susa at the foot of the Cottian Alps. This atmospheric old town is filled with Roman ruins, narrow passages, shuttered apartments and crumbling old walls. It’s the end of our route and we have a long journey by car to get us back to our hotel in Val d’isère, but seeing as we are in Italy it’s only right that we linger a while and grab some gelato and espressos on the terrace of a cafe before we leave. After a long day in which we reached two summits above 2,000m, viewed pyramids and mountain chapels, followed in the footsteps of Roman emperors and French kings, and crossed the highest pass in the Alps, it’s a welcome reward.
A deep drainage gully sits between the road and a wall of rock, so I rein in my speed. I see the crumpled remains of a van that wasn’t so fortunate
Above: The descent from Mont Cenis is a twisting, turning delight
Park has already started making changes to the culture at British Cycling in the wake of last year’s damning independent review, yet he adds a note of caution: ‘There will be peaks and troughs and we shouldn’t get away from the fact that cycling is a...