A parallel world

I’ve had the good fortune to have a cold to coincide with the freezing weather of the last few days – which is a bit of a result as a cyclist, because it’s two inconveniences that I can get through at the same time.

It’s given me lots of spare time time to contemplate the launch of Team Sky, Colonel Tom Brialsford’s latest swing at world domination. I’ve always been a bit sceptical of Sky’s involvement – I’m not a fan of the Murdoch empire and its often rather ruthless approach – but I’ve learned better than to express doubts too forcefully. The consensus among cycling fans seems to be that Sky loves cycling and is involved for purely altruistic reasons, and will never, ever dream of moving on if cycling falls from its current celebrated position in the UK. I’m sure this is right.

No, the thing that really struck me this week is that in just a little over ten years, from almost a standing start, British Cycling has used Lottery funding to create an almost instant elite sport. The mid 1990s was, so we thought at the time, a golden age for British riding – we had Chris Boardman, who won a couple of world titles and an Olympic gold, and Graeme Obree, who won a couple of world titles. They both broke the hour record. That was more or less it. There was no real depth of talent; everything depended on a handful of individuals. The number of serious British pros could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Then Pete Keen and subsequently Dave Brailsford devised and ran a system that rapidly became a factory for elite cyclists. There are now dozens of British pros in various teams here and abroad. This has been created from almost nothing. It many ways it has bypassed domestic racing as a means of finding the best talent. It can afford to run its own in-house selections using carefully picked events, some here, some abroad, in a whole parallel cycling world. It’s efficient, but it’s made it hard for someone who’s not been on the squad from a young age to break into it. I’m tempted to say it’s, well, ruthless, but that would be to miss the point – that it has been hugely successful at doing what it was supposed to do, and that’s win medals. Bear in mind that several other sports got the same kind of Lottery funding, and didn’t manage to capitalise on it.

The downside to all this is that it’s inevitably taken a lot of the interest away from domestic racing. Bike racing in the UK is becoming more about watching than it is about doing. I’d hate it to get to the position of some of the rest of Europe, where racing is for juniors and under 23s, and everyone else does long-distance sportive rides. That would be a real pity, and an ironic consequence of all that racing success.

34 Responses to “A parallel world”

  1. Jason May says:

    Thanks for getting into the regular blogging habit, 2 months on the trot is the best for ages!

    I don’t think anyone is a fan of the Murdock empire but it hasn’t stopped me from having a sky dish. As for the sky name being branded across a team, I’m probably like many people that couldn’t give a toss and are just pleased to finally see a well funded British team with some real talent. The science that British cycling have applied to the track squad obviously worked and it will be interesting to see how that transfers to a team racing arena.

    Is the athletes hour still relevant? It was in the ‘golden era’ but I’m not sure it is anymore it just seems to inaccessible and more of a personal achievement or a swan song than something that will ever capture broader public awareness.

    I disagree with you about the popularity of racing. From what I’ve seen over the last few years, as a numpty club cyclist based in the far southwest, there’s been a massive increase in racing, A few years ago it was normal for about 10 guys to turn up for a evening club time trial but over the last year on a consistent basis more than thirty cyclist, with many more women, have turned up, possibly through a bigger cross over with multi sport groups as the popularity of triathlon has increased. Time trialling is an easy access route to racing that has, from what I’ve seen, helped fuel an increase in crit racing both on closed and open curcuits.

    If nothing else, cycling is a hell of a lot more accessible than sailing. When it comes to racing that really is an elitist sport.

  2. admin says:

    It’s nice to know someone is reading…

    I’m happy to agree that participation levels are holding up all right — though as you say I suspect that, in time trialling at least, this has more to with triathlon than cycling. It’s still curious that racing participation doesn’t seem to be increasing at the same rate as cycling participation — more of the new riders are not turning to racing for their kicks.

  3. Simon Jones says:

    Michael,

    I’ve arrived at your blog via the washingmachine post - how I got to that website would take too long to explain - anyway, you’ve surprised me with your comments on the effect Sky will have on domestic racing. I may be misunderstanding your comments, but you appear to be taking a negative view. Mine would be the opposite as Sky facilitates getting British riders in to bigger european races - hopefully winning a few and grabbing headlines that might encourage some youngster to put down their computer game and ride their bike - perhaps. In terms of the british racing scene - professional level looks very healthy indeed, but I guess the grass routes of the sport - local timetrialling and road races could be better in terms of participation levels - so the sport needs to become more accessible I think. Hopefully both Sky and BC will work on this - it’s certainly in their interest to do so.

    One final point on domestic racing - I think it is a shame that Cycling Weekly appears to have lost interest in it, in terms of reporting races and providing results. This can’t help the sport or for that matter Cycling Weekly’s subscription numbers - but maybe it does - perhaps they just want to cater for Sportive riders. If so that s short sighted as I can imagine that doing a Sportive for a beginner may ignite a competitive streak and lead on to racing, but if none of the cycling magazines promote british racing how will the new riders now how to progress from Sportives?

    Anyway, I look forward to seeing you get the 25 record this season - and perhaps another crack at the hour? Floyd Landis is thinking about doing it!

  4. admin says:

    Simon — It’s not the job of Cycling Weekly to organise and run cycling in Britain, it’s their job to produce a magazine that sells. They are, for the most part, following the market. They can’t just produce what they think the market ought to want. That there is no magazine that devotes substantial space to domestic results and reports actually supports what I’m saying about the lack of interest in that scene.

    I’d very much like it if there was the market for a big circulation magazine about domestic racing, but at the moment I just don’t think it’s there. Sportive riding may, as you say, lead on to more competitive riding. Sadly, at the moment, there is very little racing in the UK that’s especially attractive to newcomers.

  5. ric palmer says:

    hutch who will you be riding for this year,and what will be your goals break 10 and 25 record this year as you where so close last year what ever you do good luck for this year and be safe!!!
    ric

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