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.