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Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Thursday, 14 August 2008 12:02 UK

How GB cycling went from tragic to magic

By Matt Slater

Chris Hoy
Hoy and British Cycling have come a long way since the dark days of '96

When Chris Hoy made his international debut at the European Under-23 Championships in 1996, the future track legend had to sign his team tracksuit out and then return it afterwards as somebody else would be needing it the following year.

The governing body was so cash-strapped it could not afford to send officials to the Moscow event, so Hoy and his two team-mates went on their own, with their own bikes and one set of race wheels each.

The entire operation smacked of low expectations and even lower self-esteem - British Cycling looked, felt and acted unloved.

So when BC's new performance director Peter Keen stood up at the sport's annual conference a year later and said he wanted to make Britain the world's top Olympic cycling nation, many in the room wondered where they had found this guy. Such ambition and enthusiasm. It was all so, well, un-British.

Fast forward a decade, the sport is the jewel in our Olympic crown and the envy of the cycling world. It's very, very good and it knows it. Such confidence and success. It was all so, well, un-British.

The team that Keen's successor Dave Brailsford is leading to Beijing is a little different to the team that went to those European U-23s. Hoy is still there but this time he is going with more kit than Halfords, 24 team-mates, even more support staff and some serious expectations.

Britain's cyclists are now bombarded with the latest in sports science geekery and cocooned in a feel-good bubble where no stone is left unturned.

The challenge was to convert highly motivated, highly talented individuals into a system

Former British Cycling performance director Peter Keen
Worried about acclimatising to Beijing's heat and humidity? No problem, BC's gang of gurus will recreate the conditions at the velodrome in Newport.

Concerned about catching a cold? Don't be, they will get a top surgeon in to teach you all about germs and hygiene.

Want to know exactly how much stuff you can fit in your room at the Olympic Village? Worry not, they have got the blueprints for the building and we'll pack for you.

Alarmed that the Olympic BMX track in Beijing is unusual and our hot medal hope, Shanaze Reade, does not know it? Chill out, they will build a copy in Manchester for her to fine-tune her starts on.

So where did it all go right?

The answer to that question is both straightforward and complicated, and it is fitting that Keen's current job as elite performance director for UK Sport, the body which effectively runs Olympic sport in this country, is to help replicate what happened there across all the sports.

It should, however, be pointed out cycling's success story is not one man's tale.

The Moscow episode mentioned above comes from Richard Moore's excellent book "Heroes, Villains and Velodromes: Inside Track Cycling with Chris Hoy", and it is clear from Moore's account both Hoy and Keen join others in the heroes column, not that either would admit it.

Chris Boardman
Boardman, coached by Keen for 14 years, won a "one-off" gold in 1992
In 1980, aged 16, Keen won the national junior 10-mile race. It would be the peak of his accomplishments on the bike but only the foothills of his impact on the sport.

Six years later and the ambitious, but slightly bookish, sports studies graduate from High Wycombe had started working with an ambitious young cyclist from the Wirral. Six years after that, in 1992, Chris Boardman won Britain's first Olympic cycling gold since 1920.

But Keen knew nothing had really changed.

"What Chris and I were doing in the early '90s was classic British alpinism," remembers Keen.

"He was just another one-off success. Leave no ropes, leave no trail. There was no system so there was no legacy.

"I saw then the challenge was to convert those highly motivated, highly talented individuals into a system."

Keen was given a chance to put his ideas into practice soon after Britain's Olympic waterloo in 1996. The cycling squad contributed two bronzes to the Atlanta pot (not bad considering GB did not win a cycling medal during the '80s) but Redgrave and Pinsent's rowing gold was Team GB's only win.

And the challenge was made easier by the almost simultaneous arrival of National Lottery funding. Not that the money was an immediate panacea.

It wasn't until late 2001 that the penny dropped - I needed to clear out riders and coaches who weren't obsessed with winning

"Actually, one of my biggest hurdles at first was dealing with this inflow of cash," says Keen.

"First-generation performance directors like me were suddenly expected to write business plans. It was all very new."

Keen's first plan included a list of about 100 athletes he wanted to fund. It was a large group but there seemed to be enough cash to go around.

The Sydney Olympics, his first as BC performance director, seemed to vindicate this approach. Jason Queally stormed to gold in the "kilo", added a silver in the sprint and watched Yvonne McGregor and the team pursuit boys chip in with bronzes.

But Keen was not convinced.

"We had some good results but we couldn't really argue there was a system in place or that we had developed a culture," he explains.

"In fact, it wasn't until late 2001 that the penny dropped. I needed to clear out riders and coaches who weren't obsessed with winning.

"It was a very hard thing to do and a lot of people found the process incredibly emotional. It was our year zero."

What emerged from the soul-searching and goal-setting was a leaner, meaner machine. A flame was lit inside those who remained and riders like Vicky Pendleton, favourite for the women's sprint gold in Beijing, were reborn.

Victoria Pendleton
Pendleton was inspired by Keen's obsessive approach to success
Basing themselves at the Manchester Velodrome, another mid-90s arrival that deserves a mention in dispatches, this smaller, more elite group started to work (in Keen's words) "smarter and deeper" than any British squad had worked before.

It was not a move designed to win Keen any popularity contests (which cannot have been easy for such an amiable character) but the results were spectacular.

The 2004 Games in Athens brought Britain's first two-gold haul on the track since 1908, with Bradley Wiggins and Hoy claiming superb victories.

This Olympic breakthrough was replicated at the World Championships and by 2007 there was little doubt who was the world's top track cycling nation now. British cyclists claimed 11 medals in Mallorca, seven gold.

Spectacular became superlative a year later when the world's finest assembled in Manchester. Britain's stars scooped nine golds, half of the total on offer. They also set three world records.

The irony for Keen, however, is that he had moved on in 2003 to take up his role with UK Sport.


Having done more than most to set cycling on its new path, he was not around when it reached its destination and is rarely mentioned in the rave reviews the squad receives now. I could not even find a picture of him on the picture agency websites we use - an indication of just how behind-the-scenes his presence has been and remains.

But listening to him now there is no regret or wounded pride - all you hear is satisfaction in a job done well, happiness for old colleagues and zest for the job still to be done.

There is also honest personal assessment that perhaps he had taken British Cycling as far as he could go - the next part of the journey would have to be led by others, the irrepressible Brailsford, for one.

"Dave is better at people than me," admits Keen. "His man management skills are incredible. He gets people."

Mark Cavendish
Keen was not sure about Cav but backed his team's belief in the sprinter
As an example of this Keen recalls he had to be persuaded by Brailsford and others that a young tearaway from the Isle of Man had the discipline and maturity to cut it as full-time member of his elite set-up.

That tearaway, Mark Cavendish, has just won four stages in the Tour de France.

"There is some magic in the cycling programme," Keen enthuses. "We managed to go beyond the individual and generate a critical mass of people pulling in the same direction. That's what you need. There can be no silos.

"The cyclists were a very diverse bunch but the wins and failures were shared. It's what gets you through the dark days.

"Yes, the funding was a huge help. But it takes more than money. Success isn't a right - you have to strive for it."

He makes it sound simple enough but if it was that easy everybody would be doing it.

If Team GB is going to achieve its "stretch target" of fourth in the medal table in London in 2012, Keen is going to have to convince a lot more rooms full of sceptical people that magic can happen and it can happen anywhere.

see also
Pendleton ready for Olympic test
11 Jun 08 |  Cycling
Brailsford banks on racing start
21 May 08 |  Cycling
Team GB's revolutionary success
30 Mar 08 |  Cycling
Hoy extends GB gold haul to nine
29 Mar 08 |  Cycling
Cycling sets gold standard
12 Mar 07 |  Cycling
What's so special about Chris Boardman?
13 Dec 05 |  Get Involved
Wiggins shocked by medal haul
25 Aug 04 |  Cycling
Hoy shines for Britain
20 Aug 04 |  Olympics 2004
Queally wins gold for Britain
16 Sep 00 |  Cycling

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