Tales from the Peloton, August 24, 2008
Team Great Britain put the rest of the world to shame when they took seven of the ten gold medals on offer in the Beijing Olympic track cycling events. How did this nation, not traditionally a cycling powerhouse, get to this point? A new book by Richard Moore tracks the progress of the British programme. Cyclingnews offers an exclusive excerpt from "Heroes, Villains and Velodromes: Chris Hoy and Britain's Track Cycling Revolution".
Shane Sutton has been involved with cycling all his life. He has seen it all. He has certainly seen how badly teams can be run – he was part of a British team that started the 1987 Tour de France, whose owner vanished halfway through, and was never heard of again (with the riders going unpaid for their three weeks of toil around France). He is therefore in a good position to analyse what makes the British team successful, to define what it is that has led to such a spectacular transformation from laughing stock to superpower.
Does it come down solely to the investment of millions of Lottery funding? "Nah, the thing that makes us successful is good leadership," says Sutton, not pausing even to consider the question. "But it doesn't just come from the PD [performance director]. Leadership happens throughout the programme and it's the key to everything. Now we've got underpinning groups – young riders who are following the lead of the Chris Hoys, the Jason Queallys.
"These senior athletes are responsible for their own success but also for the success of the programme downstairs. So these athletes provide leadership in that way. If you're a young junior and you're training with Chris Hoy, he's an icon for them, and you need icons. These guys have been instrumental in the way this programme has moved forward."
"We've got this saying, 'performance by the aggregation of marginal gains' ... we are always striving for improvement, for those one percent gains, in absolutely every single thing we do." - David Brailsford explains how the British became so dominant..
Sutton continues: "Chris and Jason are ... okay, I'll say it, they're nice guys, but they both have that c**t element. You gotta have it. Need it. He believes in himself 100 per cent. Bottom line, he's selfish. He'll admit that. It's all about Chris. But he needs to be like that, and when you take him away from the performance, from this arena here, you wouldn't get a nicer guy.
"Chris loves training. Loves it. Very few are like that. Normally you're pushing athletes, saying, "Come on, you gotta get your arse in gear." But with Chris you're pulling him back, pulling him back, pulling him back. He's a trainaholic: he just loves getting up, going to work and leavin" everything on the track. That's it."
Much of what Sutton says chimes with what Peter Keen tells me. "The thing that stands out among hugely successful athletes and coaches is a fascination with the process," says Keen. "They are genuinely fascinated by the process, not just the end result. It's something Chris Hoy and Chris Boardman have in common. In fact, they have quite a lot in common: a total unwillingness to accept mediocrity around them; a willingness to challenge for better in quite a constructive way."
According to Sutton, it is Hoy's trainaholism that should see him continue to perform at a high level for several more years. "I was thirty-nine when I retired," says Sutton. "Queally wanted to pack it in a while back, but I told him, "Keep going as long as you can. Stop if you start going backwards and looking stupid. But enjoy it, because before you know it, it's over." I wish I could go back and do it again, mate. Take it a bit more seriously."
Chris Boardman's involvement with "the programme" – as he refers to it – "gives me satisfaction because you're surrounded by problems all the time". Also, "you have to take risks to stay ahead." Boardman therefore likes to think "outside the box', or outside the sport of cycling. "On the equipment research and development front," he reveals, "there is no one with anything to do with cycling involved in that. There are fifteen people who we work with on everything from clothing to handlebars. They come from Formula One and further afield – we'll be taking another new step soon."
(A few months later I find out what he means, when a tie-up between BAE Systems, the global defence and aerospace company, and UK Sport is confirmed, to "deliver expertise in structural and mechanical engineering, aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, mathematical modeling and simulation, human factors and materials science" to the sports of cycling, sailing, canoeing, rowing and bob skeleton.)
So much for the equipment; how about the athletes? How are they prepared? How do they compete – within the rules?
"We've got this saying, 'performance by the aggregation of marginal gains'", says the fast-talking Dave Brailsford, repeating the phrase more slowly for emphasis: "performance ... by ... the ... aggregation ... of ... marginal ... gains. It means taking the one percent from everything you do; finding a one percent margin for improvement in everything you do. That's what we try to do from the mechanics upwards; if a mechanic sticks a tyre on, and someone comes along and says it could be done better, it's not an insult – it's because we are always striving for improvement, for those one percent gains, in absolutely every single thing we do. Now, it's my belief that some guys don't do that; that they rely on doping instead. And they neglect all the little bits. I suspect some look on doping as a substitute for training properly."
Hoy says, "I would agree with Dave [Brailsford]: I think some guys maybe do see drugs as the biggest part of their preparation, with the result that they don't pay as much attention to every other detail, trying to squeeze everything out of every other area. But that's what motivates me to put in 100 percent everyday. I try to go into the major competitions knowing that I've done absolutely everything I possibly could."