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Team GB's revolutionary success

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Review: World Track Cycling

By Andy Nicolson

Great Britain's cyclists delivered an awesome series of performances in Manchester at the Track Cycling World Championships.

To win seven gold medals in 2007 was unprecedented. To improve on that, just a year later, to record nine titles is little short of phenomenal.

Almost certain to deliver the majority of GB's gold medals at the Beijing Games, British cyclists are the best in the world in a way that is arguably unrivalled in any other sport.

Success has not, however, come overnight.

At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Chris Boardman won Britain's first cycling gold - in the individual pursuit - in 72 years.

Unfortunately it was a triumph despite the system, and did not herald the beginning of the current domination; four years later in Atlanta, GB won nothing on the track.

BBC Sport's Andy Nicolson

But Jason Queally's one-kilometre time-trial gold in Sydney in 2000 signalled that the wheels of a revolution had started to turn. The team returned home with a gold, a silver and two bronzes.

Steered by performance director Peter Keen, who is now in the same job at UK Sport, the 2000 Olympic team made the most of its 3m funding in the weeks leading up to the Games.

Fast forward to Athens in 2004, and the team, under the guidance of current performance director Dave Brailsford, saw Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins deliver golds in the 1km time trial and the individual pursuit, respectively. There was also a silver and a bronze and, clearly, more to come.

Director of performance Dave Brailsford
Brailsford says his backroom team are the best in the world

A prerequisite for the transformation has been investment.

"We would not be here without Lottery funding, there is no doubt about it," said Brailsford, who has seen the annual budget for elite riders rise to just over 5m.

But money alone does not guarantee success; the British swimming team receives around 7m per year and only managed two bronzes in Athens, though their hopes are higher for Beijing.

At the heart of cycling's success has been the way that the funding has been maximised to support a surprisingly simple development model and an ethos designed to create elite performance.

It begins with a structure geared to finding the best youngsters and developing them all the way up to the Olympic team.

Having the riders in the middle is one of the key things we try to promote. And it seems to work.
Dave Brailsford

The Olympic Talent Team Programme aims to identify promising 14 to 16-year-olds and give them access to top-level facilities, equipment and coaching.

The best youngsters are then moved up through the Olympic Development and Olympic Academy Programmes and, ultimately, to the Olympic Podium Programme.

Into this structure is fitted the best that Lottery money can buy, whether in coaching, nutrition, psychiatry, mechanics, technical development, or massage and care.

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Meet Team GB's backroom team

"We've just been able to go out with lots of money and hire the absolute best people in the world in every single discipline," said Brailsford.

Just as money does not necessarily mean medals though, neither do the best staff and coaches. Just ask Andy Murray, who parted ways after 16 months with Brad Gilbert, the man regarded as one of the world's top tennis coaches.

"You cobble them all [athletes and staff] together, give them a good environment, you push them, make them not scared to fail," said Brailsford.

"And you say 'Let's end up all over the track having tried to win rather than play safe and get a silver or bronze'. You remove that fear from the athletes and off we go."

"We put the riders in the middle; we're just the minions around them giving them expert advice.

"We know our place in the whole team and that's really important and everybody buys into that.

"Having the riders in the middle having ownership and having responsibility for what they're doing is one of the key things that we try to promote. And it seems to work."

Men's individual pursuit - Bradley Wiggins
Men's keirin - Chris Hoy
Men's sprint - Chris Hoy
Madison - Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish
Team pursuit
Team sprint
Men's points race - Chris Newton
Madison - Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish
Women's individual pursuit - Rebecca Romero
Women's sprint - Victoria Pendleton
Women's BMX - Shanaze Reade
Women's road - Nicole Cooke

It is a sentiment certainly backed up by the Manchester medal haul.

The modest performance director would probably not, however, admit to the final secret ingredient, the oil that lubricates the gears of this incredibly effective machine.

"Dave Brailsford has a very charismatic leadership style," said Boardman. "First and foremost, he's a fan and that comes across.

"But he's a detail person and he's on the ground all the time. He knows all the riders; he's not an executive leader.

"He's very much hands-on, and is very close to every single decision.

To some, that could suggest a controlling personality atop an inflexible regime, but Boardman, now British Cycling's technical director in charge of developing the equipment, disagrees.

"It's a very fluid situation and he's very courageous. He has a very varied staff from logical, process-oriented people to very charismatic people," said the Olympic gold medal winner.

"And those can be very challenging relationships, but Dave manages all those individual characters very well."

It's no wonder then, that Brailsford has been the subject of approaches from other sports.

But fans of British cycling - and the GB Olympic team - need not worry.

"I think I know about cycling and I'm best sticking with that," said Brailsford.

Roll on Beijing.

see also
Hoy extends GB gold haul to nine
29 Mar 08 |  Cycling
GB chief predicts tough Olympics
29 Mar 08 |  Cycling
Cycling on the BBC
25 Mar 08 |  Cycling

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