In a windowless gym in the bowels of the Manchester velodrome, a dozen young men with strikingly similar haircuts are attending an hour-long session on rider health as part of their induction into the British Cycling Senior Academy.
Physio Hannah Crowley talks to the lads about the benefits of massage, surrounded by a multitude of torture machines and unfeasibly large weights that look impossible to lift from their racks, let alone any higher.
“What is pain?” Crowley asks. We step out to order coffee, re-enter the gym ten minutes later, and she is still deeply ensconced in the subject matter. In a room dedicated to self-infliction of extreme discomfort, the latest batch of inductees to the BC medal factory are introduced to their futures here in Manchester: suffering and overcoming. Embrace both, and they might – just might – have a career in the world of bike racing.
Foam rollers are distributed, stretches are undertaken with the guiding eye of Crowley correcting when required, and we hear for the first time that day a phrase that is repeated in every lecture we attend: “Do not suffer in silence. Talk to the support staff.”
Given the torrid past two years British Cycling has endured, this is a fitting sentiment. Shane Sutton’s resignation from the role of technical director in 2016, following allegations of sexism, discrimination and bullying, sparked a spiral of increasingly troubling events culminating in further resignations and departures in the upper echelons of the organisation.
A scathing independent review included criticism of the “dysfunctional leadership” and “a culture of fear” among athletes and staff on the World Class Programme, as well as accusing the BC board of “sanitising” the original draft report – seven pages longer than the published version – and describing Sutton as totally unsuitable for a leadership role.
By the time the Culture, Media and Sport select committee had hauled Brailsford, Sutton et al before them in December of that year to try and explain the mysterious jiffy bag allegedly delivered to Bradley Wiggins at the 2011 Dauphiné, BC’s previously glowing reputation was in tatters.
The parents of these budding athletes might be wise to consider what their offspring are signing up for here in Manchester. The 31 young men and women across a variety of disciplines – road, track, BMX, MTB – who have either retained or gained places on this year’s programme need assurance that the “culture of fear” and “dysfunctional leadership” of the past is no more.
Former GB Olympic yachting manager Stephen Park appears to have steadied the ship since his appointment as performance director at the start of 2017. Head coach Iain Dyer has kept his head down and cracked on with the job in hand – producing more gold medals at Tokyo 2020 and the intervening World Championships – while men’s endurance coach Heiko Salzwedel was unceremoniously removed from his position at the start of this year.
Inviting Rouleur to spend a day or two in the belly of the beast (otherwise known as the National Cycling Centre) is not so much a charm offensive as a tentative dip of BC’s rather singed toes into still hot water. Despite the damning independent review, my off the record conversations with longstanding BC employees during our visit suggested they felt unfairly maligned by the criticism raining down on the roof of the building. There may well have been trouble at the top, but there is also a team of men and women doing sterling work with the athletes who deserve to be viewed outside of the management morass. Morale is, understandably, not exactly sky high, but neither is it on the floor.
The bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new recruits, meanwhile, spend a week in Manchester alongside existing Academy members attending seminars ranging from anti-doping to public speaking, to safeguarding and wellbeing. Talks titled ‘sleep hygiene’ and ‘budgeting’ vie with each other for driest subject matter of the day. Keeping this group of fit young people engaged when all they want to do is ride their bikes may be a struggle.
We leave the gym and head for the next lecture, the women joining the men for this session. Phil Burt, lead physiotherapist at BC, is at the head of the class, surrounded by saddles, skinsuits, custom shoes and chamois pads.
“Saddle health is the biggest loss of training days for women, and not far behind for men,” is Burt’s opening bombshell. He has their undivided attention.
In the run-up to London 2012, issues experienced by Victoria Pendleton led to the development of a custom saddle for the reigning Olympic sprint champion that eased her discomfort, aided her performance in the velodrome and contributed to her gold and silver medals. This led to a study conducted by Burt and his team post-Olympics that uncovered an uncomfortable truth. Every single female rider interviewed suffered problems like Pendleton’s, but with male doctors, physios and a predominantly male coaching staff at BC, had not felt able to mention it to anyone.
It was a staggering statistic that led to changes in BC’s approach and, ultimately, a relaxation of the UCI’s ruling on saddle tilt range – a major contributor to discomfort experienced by both women and men – having been presented with evidence from BC’s panel of experts.
“Don’t suffer in silence,” Burt concludes – the motto of the week. “Any burning questions?” he asks, an unfortunate choice of words given the subject matter. There are none from the class, unsurprisingly, but hopefully those present have got the message and there is now a system in place that enables them to talk in confidence to support staff.
We move on. At the store, the new recruits are shown an array of bikes, disc wheels and equipment that will be at their disposal over the coming year. They queue at a hatch, much like a school tuck shop at break time, while BC’s equivalent of a military quartermaster distributes helmets and kit.
There is even a demonstration from one of the mechanics on bike washing, in case there are any mollycoddled young ‘uns present whose parents have spoiled them rotten and done it for them. It may seem like overkill but, as we all know, dirty bikes not only function inefficiently, but do not look pro. And these kids want to not only look pro, but be pro.
To the next lecture: anti-doping. Granville Bennett from UKAD asks the first question of the session: “Who has had anti-doping training before?” All hands are raised. “How many of you have been tested?” Around two-thirds this time.
Bennett takes us through the minefield that is legal medication versus banned substances. Sometimes, they can be both. Sudafed elixir, a common cold decongestant, is fine out of competition, he informs us. During competition, it’s a no-no.
Booze provides an interesting example to back Bennett’s talk. Four sports have traditionally banned alcohol: motor racing, archery, powerboating and air sports. With WADA’s removal of alcohol from the prohibited list in 2018, now it is the individual federation’s responsibility to enforce their own guidelines. Don’t expect to see Lewis Hamilton behind the wheel of his Mercedes brandishing a can of Heineken anytime soon, though. And it’s been some time since the peloton cottoned on to the fact that raiding roadside bars for flagons of vin rouge is not conducive to winning bicycle races.
Bennett directs his pupils to GlobalDRO.com, the website listing all banned substances, searchable by country and sport – an essential resource. Of the five most-searched drugs when I log on in January, two are cold remedies (fair enough), two involve salbutamol (the hot topic du jour) and the final one is, puzzlingly, cannabis… Either the world’s cycling journalists are reading up for background on the Chris Froome case, or athletes are getting stoned as an alternative coping strategy for their asthma conundrums.
Another useful tool, Bennett tells us, is the 100% Me Clean Sport app, again listing prohibited substances, potential violations, medication and supplement information. Interestingly, at the very head of the drop-down menu, it reads: “Report Doping”, with a hotline phone number to call should you suspect a fellow athlete of cheating.
“Who would report it?” Bennett asks. Kye Whyte, the latest in a long line of graduates from the Peckham BMX club, raises his arm in an instant. The rest giggle nervously, spared having to answer by Whyte’s enthusiasm for the topic. A shame. It would have been interesting to see the show of hands. In closing, Bennett re-emphasises what we heard earlier: “If in doubt, talk to the support staff.”
One of those support staff is Arabella Ashfield, performance lifestyle advisor, who is in charge at the next talk. That job title may require some explaining. “I am supporting athletes through the entirety of their career, from when they come onto the programme, through the various transition points of their career, through to when they retire and move into the big wide world of employment,” Ashfield says.
The majority of her new charges are teenagers who have come directly from school. They are encouraged to study, Ashfield says, “but it must not impede their progress on the bike. They are here to be full-time bike riders.”
She screens a horror slide show of disgusting bathrooms, bacterial fridges and piled-high sinks from the shared Academy houses of previous years’ intakes. Google image search or for real?
“They are genuine examples from our Academy houses. They have to take responsibility for the environment they are living in. It is a genuine scare show of what they need to be aware of and the implications that can have. We talk to them about unclean environments and the implications that can have on your health if you have a compromised immune system.”
And if that fails, they send round Nora. “She is one of the cleaners who works at the National Cycling Centre – a fantastic woman who can probably scare them better than I or any of the other members of staff!”
It is not, in case you are concerned, a case of a “culture of fear”, so much as a culture of common sense. It is a point made in several talks during the day: illness means time off the bike; time off the bike means not improving; not improving means not succeeding. And a ticking off from Nora is no worse than having your mum issue a tongue lashing for not doing the dishes – probably better, as she’s not your actual mum…
On the track, meanwhile, five of the women’s endurance squad are doing laps in pursuit formation. The sprinters sit track centre, shooting the breeze before taking turns to put in explosive ten-second efforts on the boards. High in the stands, half a dozen coaches pore over laptops, analysing every step of the training below. A man operates a video camera, filming starting efforts to be scrutinised later in the day. The level of attention to detail is phenomenal.
Ian Yates sits lower down in the rows of plastic seating, surveying the scene. As Performance Pathway Manager, part of Yates’ role involved overseeing the progression of the likes of those new recruits we met earlier to the World Class Programme riders on the track below us and, of course, in the other disciplines falling under his remit – BMX, mountain bike and road racing.
Notice the past tense description of his job. Yates recently announced his departure for the possibly greener pastures of the Lawn Tennis Association. He came to cycling after similar roles at the English Institute of Sport working with the skeleton bobsled and taekwondo teams, spending four years with BC.
“The last two years has been a real focus around our senior Academy,” Yates explains, “particularly in terms of getting back out to Europe, with a base in Italy for the men, and Belgium for the women. My role has been about best practice and how to add value. How do we keep making this thing better?”
Inspiration comes, not just from outside cycling, but from outside sport altogether. Yates undertook a comprehensive fact-finding mission to the US to study the approach of basketball and football, plus some other unlikely sources.
“I looked at the NBA and NFL – they have got similar programmes and projects. I also spent time with the Juilliard School of Music and the US Military Academy, came back and contextualised it with the coaches. What does that mean for us? How does it apply to our bike riders?”
Putting aside the management-speak rhetorical questions, measuring success for the new trainees may be quantifiable in terms of Olympic medals, but is not the sole aim, Yates tells me.
“We think of it in two ways. There is a very business-minded progression. Do enough youths go through to juniors, juniors to under-23s, under-23s to seniors? But ultimately, are we producing enough world-class bike riders across the disciplines? For some that might mean moving into a track endurance podium programme, but in another discipline, that’s a rider gaining a professional contract on the road.
“The Olympic target is top, for sure, and that comes around every four years, but as a pathway and as a system, it’s about producing world-class bike riders. And I’d like to believe that that’s why riders want to be part of the programme: because they believe we can help them strive for their success.”
The 2017 road World Championships in Bergen provided proof for Yates’ pudding, with impressive results in all races from Team GB. “Standing on the podium is quantifiable, of course, but in Bergen across the board we had a team that stepped up in every discipline, every age group, both genders. To be in the race in pretty much every event was great to see, but as important was the feedback of strong team performances across the board.”
Given that the anti-doping lecture we attended earlier was one hour long, and the next day’s media training session was three hours, I wondered if the induction week’s priorities were somewhat skewed. Is teaching them to talk in soundbite platitudes more important than learning about drugs?
“We have got 18, 19 and 20 year-olds. The ethos is to keep it short and sharp, to the point,” Yates explains. “From an anti-doping perspective, I think there is only so much you can say. It is pretty factual. The media training is much more engaging. As much as it says three hours on a piece of paper, it is more creative and hands-on.
“Last year, for example, they took the group across the road to the Manchester City ground and put them in front of the cameras in the media centre. That was a tangible, hands-on session, with everyone getting asked the difficult questions. You can be a little bit more creative with the delivery of that information.
“It’s not ‘you should say this’ or ‘you shouldn’t say that’. It is giving real life experience, including when they will get the awkward questions thrown at them. The whole week is not about creating a list of a hundred things you need to know, but it is creating awareness of what they might come up against, and giving them tips and tactics to deal with those situations.”
It is hard to think of another country in the world putting this level of attention to detail in with their riders. Iain Dyer mentions the Netherlands and Australia as being strong in this respect, but still some way behind the GB system in terms of overall support.
Of course, British Cycling’s annual budget dwarfs its competitors. Arabella Ashfield, in her talk earlier in the day, let the riders know how much funding is required to put them through one year of life on the Academy.
“They are not necessarily going to appreciate how much it costs to put a rider on an Olympic podium,” she tells me. “It is a lot of investment, a big figure, and I think making them aware of that is crucial.” Ashfield asked me not to publish the numbers here. She does not exaggerate. It is indeed a big figure…
“From an Olympic perspective, particularly in cycling, there isn’t another country going to the depth of detail that we are,” says the departing Yates. “We have done a good job in the last two or three years of consistently building it and challenging ourselves to be better.”
We head back to London, missing the bake-off to finish the week’s activities on Friday. No bad thing, according to Yates. “I’ll be honest, it is varied in terms of quality. They are not Mary Berry standard yet. A flapjack is beyond some of them.”
Baking skills aside, I leave Manchester with the impression these young riders are in good hands. Not all of them will have long and successful careers, but everything is in place here to give them the best chance. The jury is still out on the board and the upper reaches of power within BC. Hopefully, they too are doing the right thing. Time will tell.
Published in issue 18.2 0f Rouleur