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

Cycling Weekly - - Contents - James Shrub­sall

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.

Bordeaux blow

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.”

Sprint­ers un­done

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.”

Up­ward tra­jec­tory

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

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