When Team GB were also-rans
Team GB’S international dominance on the track is easy to take for granted but not too long ago the Worlds podium seemed like a distant dream
ere’s a track cycling quiz question. You’ll need a good memory for this one. When did Team GB last return home from a Track World Championships with no silverware? No Googling now...
Anyone who turned up ‘1998’, have a merit point — it was indeed 20 years ago this year after the Bordeaux Worlds that Britain last returned home empty-handed.
If that happens in Appeldoorn next week there will be furrowed brows and questions asked, but in 1998, medals were less an expectation than a bonus.
In the context, this is unsurprising. Only 18 months previous, British Cycling had very nearly come apart at the seams: “Close to bankruptcy, 14,000 members and falling, one Olympic gold in 76 years and not much else to show. It was pretty dire,” is Brian Cookson’s assessment of BC of the time. He had just been elected president following its near-implosion and could have been forgiven for thinking he’d been handed a poisoned chalice.
But thanks to a brand new National Lottery funding programme, all was not lost. An interim slice of funding in 1997 allowed BC to interview for a new performance director, and on December 1 that year university lecturer Peter Keen took a seat in his new office for the first time and set about mapping out Team GB’S renaissance. The future was completely in his hands.
“He had an open brief,” recalls Cookson. “He said himself he had an empty office and a complete blank sheet of paper. That wasn’t an accident.”
Though he left in 2003, Keen was still being hailed a hero in 2008, when Great Britain achieved nothing short of world domination on the track, stamping their authority all over the Loashan Velodrome at the Beijing Olympics. Team GB’S 14 medals — including eight golds — left established world-beaters like France shaking their heads in despair.
Back in 1998 Britain had lottery funding, they had Keen, not to mention a bunch of athletes with more potential than many of them knew themselves, but success was far from instant and there were hard yards ahead. While Keen spent 1998 amassing a support team and drawing up a bid for further lottery funding for the new World Class Performance Plan, the Team GB riders themselves travelled to Bordeaux in August for the Track Worlds, where they ran the full gamut of emotions from optimism to frustrated despair.
The individual pursuit was the one event that GB riders had excelled at in recent years. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s they had often returned from the Worlds with a medal or two in this discipline, and frequently one of them was gold. Chris Boardman and Yvonne Mcgregor flew the flag in 1998, but a tired Boardman misfired in the first round and while Mcgregor mounted a promising campaign,
“We didn’t have a background in running big budgets. We were learning on the job”
she was ultimately beaten into fourth by Germany’s Judith Arndt.
Also on the endurance side, the team pursuiters were in with an outside shout of a podium finish. Assembled to all intents and purposes from the roster of domestic road squad Team Brite, the line-up boasted fierce potential, much of it so far untapped: Jonny Clay, Rob Hayles and Bryan Steel, all future Olympic medallists, were joined by Matt Illingworth and a resurgent Colin Sturgess — both already Commonwealth medallists.
“We were very fortunate to be part of a commercial team; it was very strong,” recalls Clay, who is full of praise for his old team-mates: “People like Rob Hayles were truly world class; Colin Sturgess the same, Matt Illingworth... way more world class than most people think — massive powerhouse people that could really hurt you in training. There were some special people around and we kind of came together as a team.”
And while the team wouldn’t win any medals that year, a promising fifth place — and a reduction in their 4,000m time from 4.12 earlier in the year to 4.06 — definitely felt like part of an upward trajectory.
“We performed well for sure, compared to ’97,” says Clay. “It was a big step forward for us. Although funding didn’t really show its face until 1999, it contributed a bit in 1998.
“We were already benefiting from more specific training under Simon Jones and Keen was already managing the process. It was a mix between some World Class investment and some commercial team investment that raised the bar,” Clay says. “We were, I guess, the best riders in the country that had come together into one unit, which was helpful."
He adds: “We’d struggled for years and [in 1998] we were
suddenly a player, and aware there was some respect.”
Clay’s team-mate Hayles also cites the Team Brite advantage — particularly helpful during an era when time on the Manchester track was a lot harder to come by for the national squads than it is now. “Back then we were very limited, so it did help that we were riding week in, week out with each other,” Hayles reflects.
During ’98, an outsider would have had difficulty spotting the early signs of lottery funding. But behind the scenes, wheels were in motion. Welshman Steve Paulding, who two years earlier had been British national sprint champion, was brought in by Keen as head track coach in late 1997. He formed part of a group of key staff in charge of a budget that Paulding estimates had jumped from around £80,000 when he was riding to £600,000.
“We didn’t have a background in running big budgets and organisations,” he says. “We were learning on the job. It was superexciting. I had finished racing and it was like my dream job.”
Between Keen, Paulding, and their small pool of colleagues, they embarked on the sort of R&D campaign that would become Team GB’S calling card in years to come.
“We were working with Hotta on aerodynamic bikes, carbon-fibre bikes,” Paulding reveals. “We were working with manufacturers to build better carbon bars for the team pursuit, we were looking at technology within science labs, looking at how we could better train endurance.”
Meanwhile, back on the ground, in the homes and the lives of the GB riders, funding was also making a palpable difference in the form of personal allowances.
“I certainly remember being able to relax a little bit,” says Hayles. “In 1998 I moved permanently out of home. Me and Vicky bought our first house in Stockport and I was able to be self-sufficient and concentrate on my training and riding.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by sprinter Craig Maclean, who was part of the Team GB team sprint line-up. “Things did change because we were able to be full-time athletes without having to worry about how to fund ourselves, basically,” he says. “From that point of view it was great, even though our funding was downgraded from ’98 to ’99, it was still more money than we were used to living on.”
To be to be told your funding was to be cut so soon after it had begun must have been a blow for the sprinters, and it came about thanks to a poor showing in Bordeaux that had as much to do with ill-fortune in the team sprint as anything else.
“There was a very French, partisan crowd,” recounts Maclean, “and as we got the countdown beats in the start gate there were a couple of young French kids who had a track pump with an airhorn, and as the beats were counting down, in-between every gap they were pumping this airhorn so we were getting all these offset beats. The guy who
“It was nice to be able to turn the tables after being the poor relation for generations”
was man two [Craig Percival] was massively affected by it and froze on the start line. Chris [Hoy] was 15m up the track before he set off. He never saw Chris’s back wheel.
“So although it was the first Worlds since Lottery funding, it didn’t really show what we were capable of,” says Maclean. “It was a bit of a blow.”
Returning to Manchester from Bordeaux at the end of August that year with nothing to add to the trophy cabinet, there was little cause for celebration.
But all was far from lost. Throughout 1998, the Team GB trackies had been improving. If that hadn’t been immediately obvious at the ’98 Worlds, a year later the story began to change, starting with the team sprinters, who took home Britain’s first sprint medal in nearly 40 years from the 1999 Worlds in Berlin.
“It was actually disbelief at the time,” Maclean admits. “I think we were up in the grandstands, already changed into our civvies, not expecting to make much progress, then all of a sudden we were called to the semi-final and we were leaping around in disbelief, thinking ‘how on earth did we manage that?’”
The team pursuiters, however, were unable to match their 1998 result and finished sixth after a lacklustre ride.
Despite the sprinters netting Team GB’S only medal in Berlin, there was a palpable optimism in the air back in Manchester. Says Paulding: “We were pushing new boundaries and were super-enthusiastic about it.”
There was just one year to go until the big reveal: Sydney 2000.
Cookson recalls: “I have a strong memory of Peter Keen calling me up one morning and saying, ‘Brian, how much more good news can you take...?’ We were like, ‘Wow, now we’re rocking and rolling!’”
At the Olympics Games in 2000, Team GB took team pursuit bronze, women’s pursuit bronze, team sprint silver. The result that really put cycling on the map at home, though, was Jason Queally’s gold in the kilo.
“Jason Queally took 1.01.609 to win gold in the kilometre time trial,” reflects Cookson, “and in that space of time Manchester Velodrome went from being a white elephant to being a medal factory.”
They were results that made even the riders stop and think. “I’d just signed a two-year contract with Cofidis,” remembers Hayles, “I was going to be a road rider. So we get to Sydney and it’s, ‘Oh, s**t’... Actually we’ve got a lot more to give.”
It’s easy to lay Team GB’S newfound success at the door of the £3 million lottery funding BC had received since 1997. But big money alone does not a nation of champions make.
“We had the right people with the right resources, talented athletes coming through with the right support level, and the results were obvious to all,” Cookson concludes. “It was nice to be able to turn the table after being the poor relation for generations.”
The Team GB story had begun.
Sydney silver for Maclean, Queally and Hoy (l-r)
Illingworth, Clay and Sturgess (l-r) in one of only a handful of photos from the 1998 World Championships
Queally on the way to kilo olympic gold in 2000