How Did Britain Become So Good At Cycling?

They’ve become household names over the last few years and won nearly a quarter (7) of Britain’s 29 gold medals in the 2012 Olympic Games. Wiggins, Hoy, Cavendish, and Laura Trott – they are our new national heroes, our two-wheeled warriors riding to victory on the track, road or in the triathlon.

Sir Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny are the most successful British Olympians in history. They have both won six gold, and one silver medal each in track cycling. Sir Bradley Wiggins isn’t far behind them with five gold medals. With Laura Trott becoming the most successful female Olympian with four gold medals.

And the accolades don’t stop at the Olympics. Sir Bradley Wiggins was the first British winner of the Tour de France in 2012. Team Sky have dominated the race since. Chris Froome bagged multiple victories in the race, winning in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017. The gauntlet then passed to cyclist Geraint Thomas in 2018. As a result, he also won the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year.

Yes, Britain has become the hottest cycling nation in the world. But how did it happen? Just how did we get to be so very good at cycling?

It may seem that our cycling success came from nowhere but that isn’t the case. British cyclists have been increasingly successful since winning three track cycling medals, including Jason Queally’s gold, at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. We did even better at the 2004 Games in Athens where we won two gold medals, with British riders going on to dominate world championships and World Cups including seven golds at the 2007 world championships.

“Great Britain is probably the only professional track team. The rest are amateur.”

So how have we got to where we are today – arguably the leading cycling nation in the world? Well, it all started nearly 20 years ago when British Cycling launched its world-class performance plan. That was thanks to a huge wad of lottery cash and was a new initiative aimed at spotting and nurturing cycling talent. Through schools and youth programs, and the construction of the Manchester Velodrome, built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, the plan was underway.

Crucially a decision was taken very early on to focus on track racing rather than professional road cycling events like the Tour de France. Racing on the track is more easily controlled than road racing. Plus high performance was going to be required to achieve the targeted wins required to ensure sustained and increased funding from the lottery.

It was an easy decision to make. Quite simply, track racing had the biggest potential for winning Olympic medals and this was what everyone wanted. The seven cycling track golds in Beijing reinforced it.  It was the first sign of British cycling dominance with Team GB’s cyclists bringing home 14 of the total medals available.

Of course the Government might claim some of the credit for our rider’s success and are always quick to point out the importance of National Lottery funding. Britain’s elite competitors are funded to the tune of more than £5m a year, enabling a couple of dozen riders to train full-time at the Manchester Velodrome. So they do have a point. But there’s much more to Britain’s cycling success than just cash.

Peter Keen CBE was the special advisor for performance at UK Sport for the 2012 London Olympics. He is credited with masterminding Britain’s move from cycling’s 13th ranked nation to where we are today. Alongside Keen was cycling coach, Dave Brailsford CBE, who’s was in charge since until 2014.

Both are inspirational leaders and recruited some of the world’s best coaches and sports scientists to their team. Brailsford, who is also the British based manager of Team Sky, oversaw Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome’s and Geraint Thomas’ Tour De France victories. He believes in seeking advantage in every field – nutrition, fitness, medicine, coaching, tactics, psychology and technology.

However, it was Chris Boardman’s gold at the 1992 games in Barcelona that became the starting point for the sustained and focused campaign by Keen and Brailsford. His success led the British team into the cycling force they have become.

Of course, top quality, superbly maintained, innovative kit plays an important part in our success. Except for the final day of his winning Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins spent the race on a hand-built, carbon-fiber framed, Pinarello Dogma 2. Pricing for a kit like this can vary a lot, but a reasonable estimate for this type of bike would be around the £10,000 mark.

Lottery funding, backing from Sport England in promoting grassroots cycling and the focus of UK Sport in supporting elite athletes, have all been critical in the process. But many believe that the biggest breakthrough – particularly in terms of our success in the Tour de France – has been Team Sky.

Formed in 2009, Team Sky provided training, support and financial backing for Wiggins, Froome and Cavendish. However, the media giant decided not to renew its sponsorship of the team and it was renamed as Team INEOS from April 2019.

And let’s not forget the dedication of the rider’s themselves. Most have been riding since childhood and their years of training show on the track. Bradley Wiggins tells a story about how, as a 12-year-old, he sat and watched Boardman take gold in Barcelona on television. Wiggins says that as soon as the race was over he jumped on his own bike and pretended that he was Boardman, racing around his neighbourhood, even commentating on himself as he cycled.

Identity is strong for Team GB and the advantage of the cyclists training and working together at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester should not be dismissed. There’s no substitute for living, eating, and breathing your sport and that’s just what our cyclists do.

Our success is not good fortune nor is it a flash in the pan. It’s about finding good riders, nurturing and training them as well as providing facilities and support that are second to none. It’s about vision, leadership and continual focus; and the British cycling teams seem to have it in spades prompting Frenchman Arnaud Tournant, one of the world’s great cyclists, to say: “Great Britain is probably the only professional track team. The rest are amateur.”