Award-winning sports Journalist and author
Award-winning sports Journalist and author

Olympic cycling 2008

To be among the Great Britain cycling team on three nights in Manchester in late March was to share a single feeling: can it really be this good? For once, the term gold rush was not overblown: this was a collective surge of emotion that mounted steadily as each lump of the precious metal was put in the bag, as each vignette of victory was stored in the memory.

 

Rebecca Romero’s yell of triumph on taking the women’s pursuit race; Chris Hoy’s incredulous look on taking the men’s sprint; Victoria Pendleton’s burst round the final banking to defend her sprint title; Bradley Wiggins, three gold medals in the endurance disciplines to his name, showing his son how to raise his arms on the podium after the crowds had gone.

The bullet-headed performance director, Dave Brailsford, stood on that podium each evening – it was a handy vantage point in the track centre – and each evening his jig of triumph grew more intense. By day four, with nine gold medals in the bag, Brailsford could rightly claim “we’ve crushed everybody”, which is a rarity for any British team in any sport.

 

It could be claimed without hyperbole that that tally of half the 18 titles on offer meant this was the best world championship for any British team, anywhere. It was achieved on home soil, when it truly mattered, in an Olympic year, and as a result Britain’s cyclists will travel to China in a few weeks with a realistic chance of taking between six and nine gold medals.

 

Yet 10 years earlier I had gone to the world track championships and returned after a few hours, because the team’s sole hope, Chris Boardman, had bombed in his event. There was no one else worth watching, no true gold medal hopes. Boardman had managed a gold in Barcelona, but was past his best while the Scot Graeme Obree was in retirement.

 

That was part of a desolate bigger picture. The governing body was in meltdown, its members deserting in droves. The velodrome that hummed in March 2008 was derided as a white elephant. Only Boardman flew the flag in the Tour de France and he had only a couple of years in him. The notion that 10 or a dozen years later Great Britain would enjoy such dominance and such confidence for the future was laughable.

 

The turnaround has been epic in scale, incremental and inexorable: a single gold in Sydney, two in Athens, four at the 2005 world championship, seven last year. Worryingly for the cycling world, Britain may be set to dominate Beijing, but the current flow of young talent means London in 2012 may be even better.  The foundation is the influx of Lottery cash since September 1997, the builders two visionary, if very different performance directors.

 

Boardman’s former trainer Peter Keen realised that the measurable nature of many track events meant that if cyclists were given adequate backing, medals would come quickly. Under Brailsford, with his mantra “medal or nothing” the programme has expanded to include academies which ensure a flow of young cyclists into the bottom of the pyramid, while his current goal is a team to compete in the Tour de France. 10 years ago it was fantasy, now it looks perfectly attainable: in 2007 five Britons rode the Tour, all connected in one way or another with the GB system.

 

It is a success story that is unique in British sport, so attuned to failure that we shrug when our soccer team stays at home during Euro 2000 and merely purse our lips as our athletics squad stars fall by the wayside with the Olympic Games in view. British cycling is now where foreign coaches come to work with the best, and where professional cycling teams turn to learn how to create drug-free squads. And while those on the inside are occasionally astonished by the momentum they have achieved, it has not happened by chance.

 

On those March evenings, the GB cyclists were competing at home, in every sense. The Manchester velodrome is not merely on domestic soil; it has been the team’s base since Keen turned up in September 1997 and nipped out to a second-hand shop to buy himself a desk. Now, the oval building once seen as a white elephant is home to the entire programme with its 52 full time staff as well as the rejuvenated governing body, British Cycling.

 

The velodrome was the initial motor for success, as it provided Keen’s first generation of medallists with a base to train. But a week spent in its neon-lit corridors and echoing centre showed that in the last 10 years it has also become the home to an entire set of philosophies and a management system that should serve as a role model to any British sport in search of improvement.

 

 

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I start in a meeting room above the wooden boards of the velodrome where the sprinter Jamie Staff is standing in his boxer shorts as his skin – and what little subcutaneous fat hangs on it – is palpated between a pair of callipers. “I’ll be a miserable git if I cut out the biscuits,” says Staff. The nutritionist, Nigel Mitchell, attempts to lighten the mood as he assesses Staff’s considerable shoulders. “The gig to have in this game is to work with the Brazil volleyball team.”

 

In Beijing, Staff has a key role as starter in the team sprint relay, one of the few cycling events where Great Britain will not be outright favourites, he has a kilogram of body weight to lose and the responsibility seems to be hanging heavily upon him. “At the Olympics I don’t want that kilo. I want to be that perfect,” he says, and clicks his fingers at the avuncular figure of Mitchell. “I’m thinking about the weight I’ll have to shift out of the start gate. I don’t want to move a pound more than I have to. People talk about losing grams of weight off the bike or the helmet, but why do that when you can save it off the body.”

 

Fortunately for Staff’s mood, Mitchell is not worried about digestives, but rather that he might lose that last kilogram of subcutaneous fat too quickly and damage his form. He can have his biscuits, but their number has to be carefully considered, as well as the variety. Their joint conclusion is that thin oatmeal ones would be best, or perhaps a few squares of chocolate as a treat.

 

It is not just the biscuits that have to be analysed. There is the recovery drink Staff imbibes during training sessions, his intake of amino acid, creatine and fish oils, the size and number of tortillas he had for dinner the night before, the fact that he wants to eat more on non-training days than on days he spends training (this makes sense reassures Mitchell, as that is when his body is rebuilding after the previous day’s effort). The outcome of the meeting will be recorded in the diet plan that Mitchell will then write for Staff, and the pair will meet every few weeks in the three and a half months until the Games.

 

The meeting lasts an hour: a small part of many hours Staff will spend in the Manchester velodrome before Beijing, but it is a telling little insight. Over the next few days, a philosophy becomes clear: the need to seek small, incremental gains in every possible area where a cyclist can become as good as is humanly possible. When every small increase in performance is put together year by year over the decade since the lottery-funded team was founded, the result is a large advantage over the opposition. Staff’s 60 minutes with Mitchell is just one tiny part of this very large picture.

 

As well as controlling weight loss, in layman’s terms Mitchell’s main job is to make sure Great Britain’s cyclists eat the right things at the right times so that the effect of the training they do has the optimum effect on their body. “Diet coaching,” Mitchell calls it. Most importantly, as with physiological coaching, it does not end with a single session. A Great Britain Olympic cyclist is not left to his own devices – unless he or she particularly wants that – but is supported, advised, monitored.

 

 

 

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Analysis to the point of obsession, constant support: the approach is ubiquitous. It is evident earlier in the day, when Staff and a group of the other sprinters train in the velodrome’s gym. As Staff waits for his digital alarm clock to tell him it is time for the next set of squat thrusts, Mark Simpson, English Institute of Sport strength and conditioning coach is on hand, his computer monitoring each cyclist’s progress against their personalised programme. It is a far cry from Staff’s early days on handmade kit in a loft in Ashford, with only a book named “Weight training for cyclists” to guide him.

 

Simpson is one of a number of personnel seconded to the cycling programme from the EIS. Under his guidance, many of the sprinters – and the BMX world champion Shanaze Reade – use techniques common in powerlifting to develop the explosive force needed for instant acceleration, be from the standing start of the team sprint, the attack in the match sprint or the drop of the BMX start gate. “If the rider is a Formula One car, in the gym we are building raw horsepower,” he explains. The aims are to get the legs as powerful as possible, and at the same time make the cyclist’s core strong, to improve the delivery of power to the pedals.

 

As competition approaches, each rider’s programme will be tweaked: some will give up altogether, some will continue almost to race day, some will bring in exercises such as jump squats for extra speed, or exercises on a single leg at the same angle as when the rider sits on the bike. The riders would, he explains, get by without his presence, but “I want a no compromise service. In a lot of instances you need to change the sessions, someone is injured, has a niggle, is fatigued or feeling extra good so they need to judge what to do. I can encourage and motivate, and as I write the programmes I want to see how they respond.”

 

In the afternoon, the group of sprinters circling the track includes Staff, Victoria Pendleton – double women’s world champion a few weeks before – the up and coming Ross Edgar, like Staff a silver medallist to the French in the world championships, and the 2000 kilometre time trial champion from Sydney, Jason Queally. All are doing subtly different training, monitored by the sprint coach Iain Dyer and the performance scientist Scott Gardner, another EIS man: Queally is doing top speed work; Pendleton working on her starting efforts; Staff is doing a medium gear session, as he has the morning’s gym work in his legs.

 

The sprinters, men and women, are just one unit within the greater whole: the men’s pursuit squad, led by the world champions Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish, are all away in Europe racing with professional road teams to build a foundation of fitness for the Games. The women’s road racing team and their star, Nicole Cooke, are racing in Belgium. The double women’s pursuit world champion Rebecca Romero makes a fleeting appearance later on in the day, preparing for an evening’s track skills training. It is the sprinters, however, who spend the bulk of their time in Manchester: Hoy calculates that he has now ridden at least 2,000 training sessions here.

 

“This is the glamour side,” says Pendleton ironically as she picks up an allen key and changes her chainrings, pointing at the heavy wheels and tyres on her bike rather than the usual lightweight items, the plastic chairs, the velodrome echoing to the bounce, bounce of a basketball and Dyer’s shouts of encouragement. “It sounds funny,” worries Edgar as he taps his aerodynamic carbon fibre frame. “That’s the 50p you lost last week,” says Dyer.

 

 

 

 

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The scale of the operation becomes clear as you wander the never-ending, windowless corridors of the velodrome, with their pictures of the team’s medallists, and, outside the door of the offices, a map of Beijing. “People who work here call it the dungeon, because they never see the light,” says Staff. The gym, rows of changing rooms for the amateur cyclists who come to Manchester on a daily basis, a canteen that is anything but haute cuisine.

 

One room, with soft sofas in front of the whiteboard, is where the team’s psychiatrist Steve Peters sees each cyclist to go through their “foundation stones”, the massive list of individual items that can affect performance: everything from diet to disc wheels to a dispute with a significant other. Peters estimates that 50 per cent of his work is with athletes, 50 per cent with “significant others”, mainly the coaches. That would not be top of most shopping lists, but if the system is looking to optimise performance in every area, ironing out the relations between the athletes and the people who manage them becomes critical.

 

As well as the team offices, there are more obscure corners: a hidden chaos of lathes, scales and tower drills where Tony Robinson the engineer responsible for servicing the team’s Powercranks spends his hours endlessly calibrating and recalibrating. A room that contains a jig for measuring the rolling resistance of a tyre, perched on half a ton of solid steel that has to be recalibrated after just half an hour’s use.

 

Locked within the locked equipment room is the legendary “Beijing box-room”, containing the items of aerodynamic kit that will be brought out on August and most probably shut up again so the competition will not have time to look at them. They are the work of the “secret squirrel club” that has pushed the bounds of cycling equipment under Boardman’s leadership.

 

Other members include Scott Drawer, head of R&D at UK Sport, the man who seeks out expertise, and Dimitris Kazantzakis, a Greek former team sprinter who has had “pivotal” influence as head of a company that makes carbon-fibre mouldings for companies such as McLaren and produces items such as bulletproof seals for military helicopters.

 

Boardman has drawn on his experience as a professional when he and his then trainer Keen left no stone unturned in cycling in their search for perfection; it is the same philosophy that led the pair to use the radical, one-piece carbon fibre “Lotus” bike when he won Olympic gold in 1992.

 

“I know what you can and can’t do with a bike, and you have to go outside cycling. Pete and I were ahead of our time, but when we hit the limits in cycling, what we did wrong was not to invite other people in.” He has learned the lesson, and with half a million pounds budget from UK Sport, Boardman can, for example, draw in a friction expert to look into the efficiency of the chain, ask BAe systems to assess axles and invest in his rolling resistance monitor.

 

He has the use of a wind-tunnel in Southampton, as well as “lab rats” among the riders – Rob Hayles, and Queally being the most assiduous, he says. In fact, not content with having Jason Queally available, he has invested £10,000 in “Jason’s brother”; a lifesize replica of the 2000 Olympic champion, with movable limbs which can be put in a wind tunnel, on a bike, for as long as it takes.

 

For Beijing, 200 equipment items are being renewed, says Boardman. “If you look at a square centimetre of the body or the machine, we’ve examined it. There is not a lot else we can do and that is good to know. Within the rules, we can’t go further. We’ve polished and tweaked everything.” Down to the nut that holds the front wheel in place? “Down to that nut.”

 

It all has to be done within cycling’s peculiar rules on kit, which boil down to one principle: if the referees don’t like an innovation, it can, potentially, be banned on the spot. As a result, anything developed by the squirrels has to be subtle, with “an element of psychology” so that the men in blazers will not feel it is too radical. As insurance against the officials, the equipment is used in selected events, and its use recorded so that a precedent has been established.

 

It’s not as simple as saying, “we want to go faster”, Boardman explains. “Take the helmets, there are so many different elements. There are safety standards, the details of the straps and clips, the visor which has to be the right shape, the protective foam inside, as well as the aerodynamic shape.”

 

It is not only cycling that benefits from the work of Boardman and his squirrels. The aerodynamic cycling helmets will also be use in Beijing by Team GB’s triathletes when they take to two wheels. The skeleton bobsleigh team will use cycling technology in the next winter games.

 

Almost a year was spent preparing kit to be tested at Southampton and each item goes through a three-stage process: computer simulation, the wind tunnel, finally what Boardman calls the “real world” of the track. “We spent two years asking questions so that we know the answers are true.”

 

The word “truth” is often on his lips as he describes the search for aerodynamic perfection, by which he means the need for absolute certainty that the research behind the end product is acccurate. Most of what goes on inside the velodrome could happily be called a quest for truth and in British cycling at least, it is a thought system that goes back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Boardman and his trainer Peter Keen began working together.

 

As a cyclist, Boardman did not exude joy in his greatest wins; what drove him was the quest for perfection that took him to those wins. The same feeling can be felt everywhere within the velodrome now. “I was passionate about understanding how things work,” he says. “The beauty of it all is that it is measurable. You start off with what you are trying to achieve, set off down a path and measure your progress and that’s what makes me passionate.”

 

Keen and Boardman had something in common: they wanted to win, but were truly driven by the process of achieving cycling perfection. They didn’t simply want to win. They wanted to know they had won while looking in every area that might bring improvement, other than performance-enhancing drugs. It was Boardman, for example, who tested different aerodynamic positions inspired by his fellow pursuiter Graeme Obree, using the same Powercranks used by the Olympic programme today.

 

Boardman’s interest was in the process of achieving success as much as the outcome of the process, in ensuring no stone had been left unturned. There were areas he did not visit, but the essential idea has been taken to its logical extreme under Brailsford. Everything is open to inspection, perfection is the goal in every area. The questioning is constant and here, compared to other Olympic sports, cycling is truly unique.

 

 

 

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If every area has to be examined to the furthest limit, that includes training itself. Pendleton does her quarter-lap standing start efforts with a box under her saddle measuring the force she exerts each time she accelerates from the start line. For the day, she is a willing guineapig: Gardner and his team will analyse the data from the different gears she uses, and the data supplied by the other sprinters – Staff did the exercise the day before, while the following week it is the turn of the Olympic kilometre champion Chris Hoy.

 

“In the gym we know what stimulus a given weight will have on a muscle, but we have no knowledge in that area in track cycling,” explains Gardner as he analyses Pendleton’s torque curve on the trackside computer. The results will enable the coaches to determine what gear choice will give the best outcome in training for a standing start.

 

It’s an approach that has taken Gardner into obscure areas such as precisely how far a rider needs to train when practicing a standing start. In the team sprint, where each rider sprints for one lap, with his team mates in his shelter, he is looking at the effect rider size has on the equation, and the distance between each rider’s front wheel and the back wheel in front. These are all tiny parts of the picture, but given that in one world championship GB’s team sprinters lost a medal by two thousandths of a second, the attention to every last detail is understandable.

 

Track cycling, with the riders circling every few seconds, is hypnotic for the onlooker. For the cyclists, training consists of one warm-up after another, interspersed with brief spells of intense pain. “Make sure you lunch three hours before and eat plain food,” ironises Pendleton as she watches an academy rider complete a kilometre time trial. After an effort, she says “you feel like you are going to throw up, you lie in the foetal position. It’s character building.” “You build the lactic acid in your legs, and it takes time to come out,” says Edgar. “For 10 minutes afterwards, you just can’t get comfortable.”

 

As the afternoon progresses Staff and Queally get visibly older, their faces greying and drawn as they complete their maximal efforts, warming up and finally swooping down for the 100 metres, with Gardner and Dyer yelling encouragement.  “People ask what we do, you say you are on the track for two and a half hours and you did four efforts that lasted five seconds, and it’s hard to grasp,” says Queally. “I often lie when I’m asked, so it sounds like a bit more. 20sec ballistic effort, that’s my session. I did starts yesterday, that was just over a minute, absolutely full on.”

 

“With the power we produce, you do a lot of muscle damage, people can’t understand that, because they can’t put themselves in that situation,” explains Staff. And who, indeed, can empathise with a body that produces 2000 watts of power with rotational torque on the start line that is briefly almost twice that of a Formula One car, not to mention legs that can spin the pedals at four revolutions a second?

 

 

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Busiest of all the rooms in the velodrome is the mechanics’ lair, where the sprinters drop in to have their bikes serviced before each session. Ernie and Spike are two of the eight mechanics on the books (“not enough by a long way,” they reckon). The demands go well beyond the routine of servicing, preparing and washing bikes.

 

Of all the team, it is the treble world champion Bradley Wiggins who probably has the most machines (14 they estimate), and it is Edgar who requests the most tweaks: “saddle down, saddle up a few mill, bar tape thickness here and there; his attention to detail is incredible.” The women in the team are continually changing their saddle positions in search of greater comfort; the team pursuiters constantly experiment with different arm rests and alter the position of their hand grips.

 

The handlebars that Bradley Wiggins used in the Tour de France’s opening time trial in London last year were built here, as his professional team’s supplier could not come up with precisely what he needed. “We used this,” says Ernie, brandishing a length of anonymous aluminium tubing.

 

Success comes at a price: the black carbon fibre track machines are worth up to a quarter of a million pounds each; the bars alone cost £1700. Replacing the specially made, extra stiff chainrings that have been in use at major events since Sydney will cost about £100,000. Some of the team use individually made shoes with soles custom made from plaster of paris moulds.

 

Beijing will be a colossal operation. “We move like an army,” says Ernie, opening up the 18-page spreadsheet on his computer which lists every item for Beijing down to the gazebos that will keep the sun off the road time triallists as they warm up. The containers of “dead goods” – sports drink, exercise bikes for warming up, those gazebos – left for Beijing on May 12. 200 items will be sent in by air freight.

 

The bikes will each be individually checked on to the plane using the bar codes held by the airline; merely getting the team truck into Heathrow requires special arrangements due to security. The petrol-based cement used to stick on the tyres rates as a dangerous substance and needs the same licence to enter China as the shooters’ ammunition.

 

The mechanics cannot agree whether GB are the Ferrari or the McLaren of cycling (“McClaren are going off-track a bit at the moment, aren’t they,” argues Spike). Jason Queally’s view is more nuanced “It’s not quite like Formula One, where everyone has their own wind-tunnel so there is no great advantage for any team. We are the only ones in cycling doing it.”

 

 

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The quest for truth has a more academic feel to it in the EIS, a barn like building along the canal and behind the City of Manchester stadium. The relationship between the Manchester branch of the EIS and the cycling team is so close that it can be hard to tell which is which. An EIS physio may turn up on a GB training camp in Mallorca; three EIS number crunchers work solely for the cycling team but have their bank of computers back in HQ.

 

The EIS support team includes Mitchell, Simpson, Gardner, Barratt and three performance analysts, a doctor, a physiotherapist and a performance lifestyle specialist, whose role is as Peters’ “social worker”, advising on issues such as finance and education. The physio, Phil Burt will, for example, join forces with barratt to advise on the cyclist’s position on the bike, either to avoid injury, or merely to make them go faster. As well as managing, the physio will ensure the cyclists have a personal “prehabilitation” programme on DVD to “get the injuries before they happen.”

 

Among the facilities available to the cyclists is the Heath-Robinsonian rig Gardner has developed with an engineer from Frazer-Nash consultants to simulate riding on a velodrome thanks to flywheels and gears. The track is not available this afternoon, so Queally can do his “20 seconds” training here. The difference is that we can watch him close to as he replicates his “rolling 100 metres from the blue”, a flat out sprint from the line midway up the track bankings. As Gardner encourages, Queally gasps for air, his head and neck turn bright red, his face contorts with pain, and each wrinkle is thrown into relief. As before, with each effort, he ages. On July 10, when the team for Beijing is announced, he will know whether the pain has paid off.

 

The data from this session, as from all the others everywhere else in the programme, is fed into the performance analysts’ computers. Between them the trio – Duncan Locke, Michael Hughes, and Chris White – have every split for every ride in every discipline. For the team sprinters, they have the details of 1000 rides, with video, power output and speed synchronised so that the effect, for example, of Staff leading Edgar by a foot rather than six inches can be estimated and a tactic established.

 

They also examine the opposition. When Pendleton and Hoy compete in the individual sprint in Beijing, they will be provided with portraits of the opposing riders that go down to which pedal they press on to begin their final sprint for the line. “We have the lap they attack on, where on the track, their height on the track, the led they drive with,” says Locke. “If you are attacking from behind and you know what leg they drive with, you go when the drive leg is at the bottom of the pedal revolution, because it will take them half a rev to respond.”

 

Track sprinters, like all people, are creatures of habit: Mickael Bourgain of France, for example, likes to attack out of the second turn on the third of the three laps, at the start of the back straight. The coach, Van Eijden – the main tactician – might already have sensed this, but as Locke explains, the database gives him and his proteges confirmation that his gut feelings are right.

 

 

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For the sprinters, the stakes are high. Only four of them will travel to Beijing. While Hoy, Staff and Edgar are most probably assured of their places, having set the fastest time by a British team at this year’s world championship, Queally is being pushed hard by the younger generation of sprinters such as Matt Crampton and Jason Kenny, both within a gasp of medalling at senior world championships.

 

Queally has not ridden a world championship in two years, and he accepts his efforts this spring may be for nothing, although he will not leave racing without a fight for his place. “I’m clinging on, trying to make the most of it. But it’s a good position to leave in – when I began, getting in the top 10 was something, now you don’t get a mention unless you get two golds at the world championship.”

 

The next day the sprint coaches meet with the team’s senior managers – Dave Brailsford, the Performance Director, the head coach Shane Sutton – to talk through the selection criteria, with the team’s psychiatrist Steve Peters in the chair, as a neutral who is universally trusted. The dilemmas would be familiar to any selection panel: gut feelings or objective data, experience and history against youthful potential. The criteria are hard to pin down, because for all the number crunching, this is not an exact science. There will be a trial, on July 4, but even the data gathered on that day will be relative, because of the variables.

 

The ability to ride quickly around the track is not the only consideration: can riders adapt to the other events, can they “back up” over the four days of competition? Complicating the picture is the need for the sprinters to contest three drastically different events, the match sprint, man to man over three laps; the team event, in which three are timed over three laps, and the motorpaced keirin.

 

The specifics of the meeting remain behind closed doors but as so often within the velodrome, the process is what counts: the importance of clarity to ensure the riders know precisely what they have to do and exactly how they will be judged, and, underlying it, the complex equation between ruthlessness in the search for medals, and compassion for those who will fall by the wayside as the team is formed.

 

That afternoon, the bigger issues of the week are thrashed out between Brailsford, Sutton and Peters – the fourth member of the senior management team, Chris Boardman, is absent, looking at aerodynamic helmets in Italy. There is a certain symbolism in Boardman’s tripartite role, as senior manager, head of R&D and director of coaching. It was Boardman’s 1992 Olympic gold that inspired the building of the velodrome which in turn led to the influx of lottery funding under Brailsford’s predecessor Peter Keen.

 

The four men complement each other: Sutton the passionate ex-pro with an instinctive feel for the riders, Boardman the cold-headed technical visionary, Peters the non-judgmental human face from outside cycling, Brailsford, drawing together the different strands, tweaking here and there. “I’m like a sculptor: you shave off a bit here and there, the danger would be if you took a mallet to the structure and the whole thing shattered.”

 

The issues under discussion include staffing, selection processes, the fall-out from selection, where to allocate management time. Disconcertingly, they are already looking beyond Beijing: the next winter’s World Cups have to be planned and invites to post-Olympic celebrations are coming in. Most apparent is a lack of defensiveness in spite of the fact that every step seems to create fallout of some kind. “There are always glitches, we push so hard that there are always issues,” says Brailsford. Many of those issues are raised fortnightly at Rider Development meetings, essentially a forum where any athlete can get anything off his chest.

 

Part of the secret of Brailsford’s success is his ability to stand back; Peters, he says, has taught him to delegate. “The thing functions because it is all divided into small units.” But each unit shares the common purpose. “There is” – he apologises for the jargon – “clarity of mission. Everyone is here because they understand we are here to win medals. Anyone, in any job, can sit down and pinpoint what they are doing towards the medal-winning process now or in the future.”

 

How does a “medal or nothing” philosophy square with the technicians’ drive for perfection in the abstract? The key is in the way the core quartet have managed to channel the talents of men like Gardner, Locke, Mitchell and Kazantzakis. A management consultant might say that process and outcome have been perfectly harmonised, but Boardman offers the best definition: “In Beijing, the athletes will get on their bikes and say to themselves: the guy over there has no advance techically, I’m personally within 100g of the weight I want to be and mentally I’m prepared for an audience of millions of people. What we are shooting for is that the cyclist sits on the start line and says I’m as good as I can be, in every way.”

This article appeared in the now-defunct Observer Sport Monthly in 2008. Great Britain went on to dominate the 2008 Olympic Games.