Over the past eight years, the British cycling team has proved itself to be perhaps the most successful sporting team that Britain has ever produced. Sixteen Olympic gold medals, innumerable world titles and two recent British winners of the Tour de France have all helped to inspire a grassroots cycling revolution in the UK.
Yet as Ian Drake, British Cycling’s Chief Executive, points out, things haven’t always been so good for the organisation.
“When I first started here [in 1997] there were just sixteen of us. We were rubbish as a nation and as a team; we just did not have the resources.” But soon after Drake joined, British Cycling received the Lottery funding that would go on to form the basis of future success. Ranked 17th in the world having won just one Olympic gold medal in 72 years, British Cycling set the ambitious target to be number one in the world by 2012. Little did they know back then how significant 2012 would turn out to be. But just how has British Cycling managed to achieve such unprecedented success on the biggest stages?
“It’s not rocket science what we’re doing, but there are some very, very simple things that we’ve done. Having a great facility, putting talent in there and putting great people around them – you know you can do some pretty special things then.”
So British Cycling’s core philosophy revolves around recognition of the fact that success requires “a lot of resources going into a handful of people”. But as Drake points out, “the more successful you are, the more challenging it becomes.”
“Other nations startto replicate what you’re doing; we’ve seen it with France now – building a new indoor velodrome, basing their HQ there, basing their coaching staff there. Quite a few nations are trying to replicate our model and I think one of the dangers is that when you’re successful, you kind of stop doing the very things that got you there.”
It’s no surprise that other nations are looking to imitate British Cycling’s model of success. But I ask Drake whether this model for sporting success in cycling can be applied to other sports. He insists that it can and that in some cases it already is, so “hopefully by Rio [in 2016] we’ll start to see even more medals across more sports.”
He adds, “If more sports can start to say the reason we want to win is because we want to use that to get more people playing our sport then hopefully by Rio and by Tokyo [in 2020] we’ll start to see all sports talking about inspiration to participation, about the growth and having the same sort of figures that we’ve got.”
Drake talks frequently of success at elite levels having a “higher purpose”. How do we get to a point, he asks, “where we are the world’s number one cycling nation not in terms of medals but in terms of day-to-day bike usage?” He argues that it “comes back to really looking at that infrastruc- ture; how do you make it easier for people to get on a bike and not choose a car?”
“At the minute it’s something in the region of £2 per head spent on cycling and 2 per cent of journeys are done by bike. We’re saying that £2 needs to go to £10 per head and that 2 per cent needs to go to 10 per cent of journeys by bike as a start.”
The benefits of increasing the proportion of journeys undertaken on two wheels would be considerable. Some studies estimate the annual cost of physical inactivity to the NHS at £1.5bn. Achieving consensus on the best way forward is not an easy task, however. As Drake points out, “no cities were designed for bikes” so “it is really difficult trying to retro-fit to the existing infrastructure.”
2016 promises to be a momentous year for British Cycling, and not only in terms of the summer Olympics in Rio. It also looks to be the twilight year for Sir Bradley Wiggins, a man who has been a constant presence in the British team since the breakthrough Olympics for Team GB in Sydney 2000. British Cycling’s partnership with Sky will also draw to a close in 2016 and Drake feels that “the time is right now, from 2017 onwards for British Cycling to put a new 8 year plan together and bring in a new set of partners around that”, adding that they “owe it to Sky to do it bigger and better with somebody else.”
But what of Drake’s own career at British Cycling? He’s keen to emphasise how lucky he feels to have had the oppotunity “to be involved in all of it, to see it grow and to shape it.” His love and passion for cycling remain as clear as ever and he admits, “I still get really hands on now.”
“That’s probably my biggest Achilles heel actually – rather than conducting the orchestra I keep picking up the instruments!”
Mistakes, he insists, are in many ways as important as success. “If you’ve never made a mistake, you’re never going to learn and probably do the really special things. You end up being a bit mundane.”
“I think resilience is one of the strongest hings that I’ve got. The thing about sport is that everyone has got an opinion about it. Everyone’s really passionate about it. It’s sports greatest strength but it is its greatest weakness as well because it can absolutely really tie you up in knots.”
With Ian Drake at the helm, British Cycling has experienced unprecedented success in recent years. That success, both at the elite and grassroots level, looks set to continue.