With the Rio Olympics just around the corner, Britain’s period of cycling dominance looks set to be over
British Cycling is now in a position that 15 years ago would have been unimaginable. Since Lottery Funding was introduced to elite sport in 1997, Great Britain have won 19 Olympic golds. Manchester’s Velodrome corridors are adorned with pictures of British victories, and Team GB were so successful at London 2012 that the French accused them of bringing special wheels that were “too round.”
However, all good things must come to an end, and it’s looking increasingly likely that Great Britain will struggle to retain most of their London golds. Most cycling events are unwatched by those who don’t follow the sport, meaning that it may come as something of a surprise to many that GB are on a poor run of form. The once-dominant GB men’s team hasn’t won gold at the World Championships in two years.
What potentially makes things worse is that UK Sport have set an ambitious target of 66 medals at the Rio 2016, and in doing so, are attempting to become the first nation to improve on a haul at their home games. An exceptionally ambitious goal with a high performing cycling team, it is a nearly impossible aim without one. It shows how much the funding authorities are banking on all sports increasing their medals in Brazil, and by implication, track cycling. Just to underline the importance of track cycling to the chances of achieving this aim, seven of Great Britain’s 29 Gold Medals in 2012 were from track cycling. Without them, Team GB would have finished fifth rather than third in the medal table in 2012, and eighth as opposed to fourth in 2008.
GB coach Chris Newton—himself a triple Olympic medalist—is confident that the men should win at least one event at March’s World Championships. He told The Mancunion that on the endurance side, things are looking solid, with the overall picture being that “things are on the right pathway for the worlds.” This is despite the sprint team still having, as he put it, “a little bit of work to do.”
At the moment “a little bit of work” looks like a massive understatement. The big guns of sprinting are the ruthlessly consistent New Zealand, Germany and France. They’ve been the top three at the last three World Championships, while GB came 6th, 5th and 8th. On the women’s side, form would say that the medals will go to China, Russia or Germany, with GB ranked outside the top seven in all events. Former double world champion Becky James is making her return to the boards this year, after an 18 month absence due to injury, but will have to prove that she has recovered back to pre-injury levels if she is to make it into the team. The less-than-impressive results over the last three years make it difficult to see GB usurping the big guns at the Olympics, which is doubly concerning due to six of the ten medals up for grabs being in sprint events.
One possible explanation for the decline in the success on the track is the growth of British road cycling. Young rider Simon Yates won the Scratch Race on debut at the 2013 Worlds, but now rides for Australian outfit Orica-Greenedge with his twin brother Adam, and is forging a successful career on the road. The allure of more year-round rewards rather than the prospect of gold once every four years (and naturally the higher pay) makes the road an ever more attractive option for young professionals. It is also now the domain of Sir Dave Brailsford (Sky’s Team Principal) who masterminded the near-sweeping of the board at the past two Olympics. Commitments to the road also make it increasingly unlikely that Mark Cavendish will make the squad, having to adjust to moving to a new road team for 2016, and his favorite discipline, the Madison, being left out of the Olympic programme.
Having said all of this, there are reasons to be cheerful. Team WIGGINS have certainly improved the men’s endurance chances, with them coming on in leaps and bounds since they started in May. Sir Brad’s development squad includes most of the British endurance team and prevents national level riders from having to race road events that jeopardize their training for Rio. The impression from this year is that they have really gelled as a team, with GB claiming European gold in the pursuit with a team made up entirely of WIGGINS riders. Andy Tennant, himself member of the victorious team at the Euros, was singing the team’s praises. Speaking to The Mancunion, he said that “It’s a great platform for myself and the boys. I owe a great deal to Brad and his management company and Sky, who are funding the team, enabling us, hopefully, to achieve our dreams.”
Laura Trott is also in fantastic form, comfortably leading the world Omnium rankings and she won gold in the event at the World Cup by an impressive 56 point margin. Trott has been a marked rider since winning double gold in London, but has clearly coped with it well, winning a further six medals at World Championships since 2012. Her form, coupled with a strong pursuit team, also won European gold, which makes the endurance side of the team look increasingly strong.
Of course, it’s impossible at this stage to tell whether Britain will be able to replicate the success of 2008 and 2012 or not. If there’s something British Cycling have proved they’re the experts at, it’s the art of pulling off spectacular peaks in form at Olympic Games, and there’s no way of definitively saying that it won’t happen again. However, the way things are going at the moment, British sports fans may have to stop assuming that the track will be the bringer of handfuls of British golds. The fact is that Britain have slipped from being a dominant force, and many other countries have raised their games, which for cycling as a whole, is probably a good thing.