WORLD ROAD RACE 2011: THE SHOCKING TRANSFORMATION OF BRITISH CYCLING. HOW, WHY & WHAT IT MEANS.

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A few hours ago I was screaming and crying. Mark Cavendish had just won the World Championship Road Race in Copenhagen. I shouted so hard in the closing sprint that my wife said I went a funny colour. Then I started weeping with joy and the dog jumped on me and it was all bloody brilliant, apart from being a bit purple.

A few hours ago I was screaming and crying. Mark Cavendish had just won the World Championship Road Race in Copenhagen. I shouted so hard in the closing sprint that my wife said I went a funny colour. Then I started weeping with joy and the dog jumped on me and it was all bloody brilliant, apart from being a bit purple.

Mark Cavendish - World Champion

Mark Cavendish – World Champion

The last time I went that crazy was when Greg Lemond beat Laurent Fignon on the final stretch of the Champs Elysees in the 1989 Tour. A Tour De France so grippingly dramatic through the constant cat and mouse between Greg & Laurent, and Lemond’s incredible comeback from near death. I ran into the street and screamed "HE’S WON HE’S WON GREG LEMOND HAS WON THE TOUR DE FRANCE!!". And my Mum and the whole street tutted with indifference. If any Britons finished, or even took part that year the tiny British cycling community would have nodded sagely and we’d have continued to be ignored. Cycling was nothing in Britain and to the British. We were freaks.

Greg Lemond, Tour De France 1989. He can't hear me screaming.

Greg Lemond, Tour De France 1989. He can’t hear me screaming.

When I started riding a bike seriously and then racing, a British rider doing ANYTHING was noteworthy. Robert Millar was a lone genius climber and Sean Yates a hugely respected time trialist and domestique. But they were rare individuals who’d fought through to the Continental Pro ranks despite the system, not because of it. The Irish and Americans were ripping it up, and we followed them as our own. Stephen Roche, Sean Kelly, Lemond, Andy Hampsten. When it came to World Championships, if a British rider even finished the race, it was a job well done.

And so this continued through the Nineties and the era of EPO and massive drug taking. A few plucky Brits caught the headlines, namely the stratospherically talented Chris Boardman with his, at the time, unusually scientific approach. And the possibly even more naturally talented Graeme Obree. Both hated the drugs culture and very very unusually, refused to engage in it. That they managed to break The Hour Record is extraordinary, considering what they were up against. Boardman particularly could have transferred his immense talent to stage racing. But was hamstrung by the drug abuse around him. However, his scientific approach inspired others, and started to inform an essentially amateurish GB set up, with no facilities, bikes, or indeed kit. No funding.

In the meantime, The War On Drugs was in its infancy, starting with the Festina Scandal. The French were the first traditional cycling country to be shamed into hammering down on drug use, and thus dropped off the World Cycling Map. The Drugs were winning.

Meanwhile, a chap called Dave Brailsford took over at Great British cycling coaching and brought with him an utterly new attitude, and importantly, new Lottery Funding. His attitude was very un-British. That WINNING was what they were there for, not just taking part. There would be no more Plucky Brits. If an athlete was not in with a chance of winning, if they had neither the talent or application to get to the top, they were dropped.

No More Plucky Brits Mentality....Eddie The Eagle

No More Plucky Brits Mentality….Eddie The Eagle

There was a new atmosphere of professionalism. This was and still is demonstrated by the policy of finding and accessing every marginal gain: The stiffest cranks. The lightest bolts. The most aero gloves. All informed by Chris Boardman and his search for The Best of Everything.

And above all, the binding philosophy, the key to the unity of the athletes and in fact the key to their eventual domination, was that there was zero tolerance on drugs. It was THE cornerstone.

Bike Pure

Bike Pure

So Olympics and World Champs on the track brought us greater and greater respect in cycling. Britain’s outstanding talent David Millar got banned for drugs and became an anti-drugs phoenix (see the David Millar blog here, which was well received by those involved: David Millar Blog).

All the time cycling was slowly but surely becoming cleaner and the teams and countries that had either supported or ignored drugs programs were falling behind. A renaissance of leisure and racing cycling in the UK brought greater funding and sponsor interest. Now a competitive anti-drugs British cycling team was possible. An ultra professional outfit unlike the plucky teams of yesteryear, such as ANC Halfords, crushed if they crossed into Europe. Team Sky was born, sitting alongside Team GB, with Brailsford at the helm. This was a man who wasn’t just happy for Team Sky to exist. He wanted it to dominate, and set out his stal immediately. A British TDF winner in 5 years. Everyone laughed at temerity of his ambition.

Now all the talent spotting and development had one clear route to the top, and the anti-drugs stance suddenly made performance sense as well as moral, because now the marginal gains and intelligent coaching were bringing up the Brits to at least the same level as their previously doped rivals, who seemed lost in this new era.

All this, and one incredible talent. Mark Cavendish. Another ex track racer with a pudgy face and an incredible kick. The most naturally gifted sprinter of his generation, the most successful rider in British history and a man of irrepressible self-confidence, touching on arrogance, if it wasn’t he kept on winning. How very unBritish.

Mark Cavendish with Highroad, aged 12, probably.

Mark Cavendish with Highroad, aged 12, probably.

So it comes to 2011. Tea Sky is bedded down. The spats between Wiggins, Millar, Cav are settled and numerous British riders reach World Class, such as Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome. GB riders score enough points to qualify for eight riders in The Worlds and Cav is set up for great support on a relatively flat course, bar a nasty kick at the end. He would need to be on his bestest ever form, plus be delivered fresh, to beat the uphill sprint specialists, especially his own HTC team mate with excellent team support, Matt Goss.

Great Britain Totally Committed to One Cause. Cav.

Great Britain Totally Committed to One Cause. Cav.

So after all this, what genuinely shocked me today was the absolute obliteration of every other country in the race. They literally rode the entire race at the front. This has never happened in the 25 years I’ve watched Worlds. Perhaps ever?

The tactic was simple. Set such a high pace at the front, riders were either too on the limit, or too intimidated to attack. And when attacks came, the steady horsepower and determination of the GB riders would bring them back.

It required a huge pool of talent and total conviction in the idea. The point was that each member of the squad had to stick with the plan and not falter. Total sacrifice. Very Dave Brailsford…A singular path to victory.

And then the Aussies take over in the last few kilometres. They are fresh and they mass on the front. It’s all over, surely? And that is where Cavendish showed he absolutely is the righteous holder of the Rainbow Jersey. Because he fought his way through and smashed it up an uphill finish far from suited to his talents. THAT is what makes him so worthy of the jersey.

They did it! THEY ACTUALLY DID IT! They bossed the World’s best. Crushed them. Humiliated them. I have never seen anything like it.

Mark Cavendish, Complete With Marginal Gain Skinsuit & Aero Helmet Cover, Wins World Title.

Mark Cavendish, Complete With Marginal Gain Skinsuit & Aero Helmet Cover, Wins World Title.

Britain aren’t just plucky anymore. They dominate on the track, Women’s road cycling, BMX, Downhill, Junior, Time Trialling and now even Mens’ Road. Italy – nowhere. Spain – forget it.

Britain are the dominant force in World Cycling. I never ever thought I’d see it and that is why I cried with joy.

My sport, the thing I’ve always loved is taking over this country in every way, from the streets of British cities to the Rainbow Jersey.

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