Last Wednesday evening, on the eve of the London World Cup in the new Olympic velodrome, Dave Brailsford met his British team and thanked them for their hard work during the winter.
Six days later, on Tuesday, Brailsford and his coaching team will gather again, this time to review the weekend’s work. And the overall assessment, said British Cycling’s performance director, will be positive, after what he described as “the best performance across the board for a good couple of years."
There were even some surprises. “You could see the green shoots of spring appearing during training,” said Brailsford. “Just little signs that we were moving forward.” But he hadn’t expected those shoots to burst into flower so early. “We’re a lot closer in some events than maybe we thought. We’re further ahead than we thought we would be.”
Those events include the team pursuit, though Britain were beaten by an Australian team that posted the second fastest time in history. Despite the defeat, Brailsford singled it out as the most pleasing performance: “If you look at where we were at the Europeans [where they won gold ahead of Denmark], which wasn’t our best performance, they have made big strides forward. They have worked their socks off over the winter."
Britain topped the medals table for the weekend with five golds, two silvers and a bronze. Of the ten Olympic events, they won medals in seven, including four golds. But there were gaps: after Victoria Pendleton and Jess Varnish won gold in the team sprint, both female sprinters failed to medal in their individual events, and Ben Swift never looked like challenging in the omnium, though Brailsford pointed out that the Team Sky rider “is not an omnium rider.” At the Olympics the event follows the team pursuit, and so Ed Clancy is likely to ride.
One of the highlights for Brailsford was the performance of Laura Trott, who followed an outstanding performance in the team pursuit with bronze in the omnium. It seems to have all but cemented her place in this event for the Olympics, yet she has not done any specific omnium training, and said after winning her medal that she has no plans to do any, preferring to focus entirely on the team pursuit.
Brailsford backed this approach. “She is our leading omnium rider,” he said. “The events where she’s strong are the timed events, and team pursuit training lends itself to that. As soon as you start training for two events you dilute it.”
As for the failure of the female sprinters to win medals in their individual events, Brailsford blamed fatigue. “The programme here is so much more congested than the Games. [The Olympics] will be like a walk in the park. There’s time to recover. The fatigue element will be more manageable.”
One rider who seemed immune to fatigue, despite taking on a full programme, was Sir Chris Hoy. In Beijing Brailsford talked about Hoy’s role as leader: “When there's a wobble in the team people stop and you can see all the people look at Chris. Then they look at what he does and they follow suit. It's a bit like a wolf pack. When something spooks all the wolves, they turn and look at the leader and they all stop.”
After Hoy’s haul of two gold and one bronze medals he is once more the top dog, or wolf, as Brailsford confirmed. “Of course it helps [the whole team] when Chris is riding well. It’s the little things. When you’re 1-1 against [Grégory] Baugé and you know it’s going to go down to the narrowest of margins, you think: in the last couple of years that’s probably been rolling against us. But that’s why he’s such a big champion; more often than not he can turn it round. It takes something special and most athletes don’t have that.”
Now, said Brailsford, he expects the track team to carry the momentum forward towards the world championships in Melbourne and the Olympics in London. “When the team gets self confidence and belief, it puts a different perspective on training. Rather than chasing something, it’s more of a positive experience all round.”
The most difficult question concerns the men’s team sprint. GB won a bronze medal with Ross Edgar as man one, but Chris Boardman was among those to claim that Jason Kenny should be in this position, even if that compromises his ambitions in the individual sprint.
“I think it’s an obvious and logical thing to do,” said Brailsford. “We had a process, and we decided we’d look at where Ross was at. Given our performance here... you want to go faster, you’ve got to go faster, and you have to build the team sprint from the front. The theory is obvious: Jason Kenny could potentially go faster than Ross has been going here. So we’re going to have to look at that very carefully.”
With Hoy’s win in the sprint, it could be that he, rather than Kenny, is Britain’s best hope in the individual event in any case. And so it is possible that Kenny, though he is the reigning world champion in the discipline, will be told to forget about the sprint and focus on the team event instead. “If there comes a point where I have to say that,” said Brailsford, “I’ll tell him first.”
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