Great Britain have been the team to beat on the track in the last three years. After finishing at the top of the table with France and Australia at the Bordeaux worlds in 2006 (with a total of 5 medals), the Brits dominated the Mallorca championships in 2007, taking home seven gold and two each of the bronze and silver variety. Then, for their home town Worlds in Manchester last year, a lot of people said it would be hard to top that result, so they came out and did just that: Nine Gold and a pair of silvers.
‘Peaked too early for the Olympics,’ some said: Seven Golds, three Silver and a Bronze on the Beijing boards proved that theory wrong too.
With that record behind them, the team were headed into this year’s Worlds in Poland as one of the top ranked nations, but speaking to Dave Brailsford, you get the impression that leaving Poland without a bag full of gold, might just be part of a grander plan.
PEZ: What are your expectations for these championships given that you are missing Chris Hoy, Brad Wiggins and Rebecca Romero?
Dave: This time around there will be a bit of experimenting. For these world championships I just want to see how we perform with different, experimental line-ups. There’re no expectations in terms of outcomes or in terms of medals, we’re just looking at individual performances to see how that relates to the preparation that we’ve had.
The absence of Chris Hoy was and is significant, but provides a growing opportunity.
It’s quite an interesting opportunity to change things around. With this as a first step towards London in 2012, it’s fair to say we’re prepared to lose now to win in the future.
PEZ:What about the expectations of the media back home?
Dave: (Laughing) We have to be realistic. Everything is cyclical. You can’t maintain the intensity at this level,
PEZ: So with last year an Olympic year, is this now the start of your next build-up phase?
Dave: Absolutely. Everything we do now is geared towards 2012. All of our planning is part of that process. Everything we try here is for that. Our training has been different, our preparation has been different, and we’ve moved our line-ups around using younger riders.
All of that will feed into the mix and so this is all about that. In terms of the world championships, we pay great respect to that, but from a strategic point of view, this is the first step of a four year plan.
PEZ: Was the non-selection of Rob Hayles an indication that you are looking at putting together the best squad for 2012 and not necessarily putting the best squad on the track this week for the Championships?
Dave: We’re now looking at what’s the potential of a rider winning or being competitive in four years time. If we feel a rider is no longer going to be competitive in that respect, then we take them off our program in preference for a rider who potentially could be.
The differing paths of a Six Day partnership: Cavendish is a superstar now and Hayles is a non-selection.
That’s our philosophy, that’s how we work and that’s evident on our selections for this World Championships, where we’ve come with a lot of younger riders with future potential.
PEZ: Talking about Mark Cavendish now, he’s definitely the man of the moment. In the lead up to Milan Sanremo, his team were keen to stress in their communications that there was no pressure on him for results and then he came out and won. Are you doing the same this week? Can we expect big things?
Dave: I think we need to start from a certain standpoint and that is, ‘Mark Cavendish is a winner.’ Mark always wants to do his best and he’ll come here to do his absolute best. He hasn’t come here just for ‘the trip’, he’s come here to race hard as he always does.
Cav went straight from spraying the bubbly in Sanremo…
It’s a testament to the guy that after Milan Sanremo he didn’t take a couple of days off to bask in the glory. As soon as that race was over, he was straight on to getting ready for the Track World Championships.
…To the chaos of a World Championships Madison race.
If anyone wants to get an insight into what make Mark Cavendish special, I think that really says a lot about him. If you go back to the truly great riders of history, including the likes of Merckx, they raced both the track and the road and I think Cav is going to be the same.
PEZ: Do you think that will continue throughout his career, or do you feel that once he has a few more Classic wins behind him, the draw of the boards will be lessened? Will Mark still be racing the track at each World Championships in the lead up to the Olympics and beyond?
Dave: I think that’s a decision for him really. We’re here to support him. That’s how we work and should he decide that he wants to pursue his track ambitions alongside his road ambitions then we support him 100% with that.
Cavendish and Hayles are not strangers to the top step of a World Track Championships podium.
If he decides he doesn’t want to do it, then we’ll support him with that too. We don’t dictate to riders, we’re supportive of them and let them take the lead in terms of what they want to do in their careers and which discipline they want to pursue. We’ll discuss it with him but whatever he decides we’ll back him.
PEZ: We spoke briefly in Milan about possible challengers for Britain at these World Championships and beyond. You mentioned NZ then, so along with them, who do you see as your most dangerous competitors?
Dave: I think if you look around at all the other nations, the New Zealand team are working very hard, they’ve got a good structure in place, they seem to be doing the right things and I think you’ll see their performance levels increase over the coming years. I also very much suspect that the Aussies will be following a similar kind of process over the next four years. You’ll see their performances improve too. Also, the Russians are working hard at it and there are also the Dutch and French. The French sprint program is a great program and so there’s a lot of competition. Even Germany seems to be coming back with their sprint team. We just have to be ready to stay ahead of the game.
PEZ: We’ve seen in the past how some nations like Italy, France and even Australia have brought full time road riders, who have a track background, into their teams pursuit line-up just prior to World Championships or Olympic games and done so quite successfully. Have things moved on from there now?
Dave: I think it’s a specialist event now and as it gets faster and faster, the more specialist it has become. I think it will require a specific preparation for it and specific targets, Certainly, this will be true by the time we get to 2012.
Bradley Wiggins is a successful specialist gone roadie. He transfers easily from the road to the track.
I think riders dropping in off the road won’t be an option and the teams that wish to be competitive will be training together and trying to get every competitive advantage.
PEZ: Is it this quest for a competitive advantage that saw the GB skinsuits shredded ‘for secrecy’ following the Olympics?
Dave: I think that you’ve got to look at everything. It’s not just that [the skinsuits], you have to look at everything that impacts on performance and a marginal gain in any area is worth looking at.
Then when you aggregate them all together, which requires a lot or resources and a lot of smart guys to make sure everyone is on the same page, then it adds up. It’s easy to talk about, but it’s quite difficult to do.
PEZ: The GB cycling program has an incredible amount of public money behind it which is unheard of in the US and Canada where baseball and ice hockey are the big ‘Olympic’ sports with the huge following. How does your program get so much money?
Dave: Well, basically the money is there. It has to be distributed and it is a meritocratic system. It’s there to reward success and more success equals more funding and that’s exactly what has happened with cycling as we’ve become more successful.
Gold Medals speak volumes. Many volumes were spoken at the Olympics for the GB Team.
They’re there to fund the programs that can win. Ultimately medals at the Olympic Games are what are important and that is why the funding has followed the success.
PEZ: Are you on a four year Olympic-cycle funding program?
Dave: Yeah we are, so what has happened in Beijing has set us up for the next four years and there’s no worry about other things.
PEZ: Ed Hood spoke to Heiko Salzwedel [the new GB team director of coaching] a few weeks ago and he said that Russia was also a nation pouring a huge amount of money into their cycling program at the moment. Are they another nation, along with those mentioned earlier, who are on your radar?
Dave: Yeah, I think you have to take everybody as a serious threat, but also it’s not just about money. You don’t put a pound in the top of a slot machine and expect gold medals to pop out the bottom. It’s a lot more complicated than that. Obviously having the money available makes it possible, but ultimately it’s the system and the people responsible that determine how far you can go and how competitive you are. Money’s important, but it’s a people business at the end of the day. It’s all about people and how you manage people ultimately.
PEZ: What are your track guys doing when they aren’t racing the track?
Dave: Most of the endurance squad are in our Men’s Academy program based over there in Italy or in pro teams. During the year they follow their own programs and then during the winter they come to us and it’s ‘off we go again.’ But it’s tailored to each rider. It’s not a generic program, each rider has their own goals and specific targets as part of working toward the main goal.
There are many interesting questions, ideas, and thoughts, but when it comes to Nicole Cooke? Just big time wins in 2008: Olympic and World Championship Gold.
We can bring riders in and out [from their professional teams] for World Cup races, and that will be one of the reasons behind Team SKY. We have control over both aspects. Not only do we want to perform on the road at the highest level, we also want to maximise the chances of winning Olympic medals and world titles on the road and track as well.
PEZ: With reference to Team SKY, both you and sports director Scott Sunderland told the PEZ Team in Milan that you knew the riders that you wanted. With your budget confirmed this far out from your start-up point, what steps are you taking to sign riders or at least reach a definite ‘understanding’ with riders for next year?
Dave: We have to observe a kind of professional code at the moment in terms of respecting the teams where riders are currently under contract. Professionally we aren’t just going to run amok. It’s important we do things correctly. We can sign option contracts now and then the riders can sort themselves out for their future where they are, and then we can sign proper contracts towards the end of the season.
PEZ: To use the example of Team Saxo Bank, Bjarne Riis has one team. It’s a road team and he oversees everything to do with making the best road team in the world. Next year Dave Brailsford will have a road team, a men’s and women’s track team as well as a BMX and MTB squad to oversee. Is it possible?
Dave: It’s all about people. I think if I was to continue to work in a way that I have worked previously, then it would be too much. It’s like any big organisation. You’ve only got one person at the top of big multinational companies, like, say, Vodaphone. The way you do it is you put good senior management around you and you delegate people to manage those particular projects.
It’s definitely not just the men bringing in the success: the women have been rampantly successful both on the boards and the road.
You essentially break it down into bite size chunks. That’s the way to do it. But I certainly feel confident that it can be done. I’m confined that I have the right people around that can help. We’ve got Heiko Salzwedel back into the team and he’ll be a great resource and also Scott Sunderland with his experience too.
PEZ: Will it be an ‘easy sell’ to get the general public on board behind Team SKY? Cavendish’s win at Milan Sanremo was largely ignored by the mainstream newspapers in the UK and when it was reported on Sky News, they just carried file footage of him on a training ride.
Dave: The Olympics are huge in the UK but I think the Tour de France will capture the public’s imagination in the UK. I think as the general public get more aware of cycling then both the public knowledge base and fan base will increase and take that awareness onto another level. That’s one of the advantages of having a partner like SKY. Having a media company behind the team is going to make us unique and it’s one of the things we are going to try and capitalise on.
At that point, our conversation was drowned out by the track announcer, so it seemed like a good point to let Dave go and digest his lunch before the start of the women’s pursuit rounds that afternoon.
With the track championships only a few hours away from starting off when we had this chat, we thank Dave Brailsford for giving us his time and for his patience with our questions. It was a great insight into how the GB program will proceed towards their home Olympics in London in 2012 and also as to how the new Team SKY project will dovetail in and support that quest, while also trying to provide Britain with their first-ever winner of the Tour de France.