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News feature, March 27, 2008
Overseeing Britain's track cycling campaign
The Great Britain team will start its world championship campaign on home soil as the big favourites. Dave Brailsford is one of many who has played a crucial part in reaching this point, and can be confident that more big performances will follow this week. However, big, brash predictions are not his style, as Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes discovered.
At last year's world championships, the Great Britain team put considerable pressure on the other countries with a phenomenal campaign. Gold medals in seven events made it the most successful Worlds ever for British riders, and showed that its rivals had a lot of work to do. Twelve months on, people are wondering if the country can show the same dominance on home soil.
This question is one which British Cycling performance director Dave Brailsford has faced many times in the build up to the 2008 championships in Manchester. He's hoping for big results, of course, but also keeps his eye on the overall picture. In this Olympic year, Beijing is the most important target, after all.
"I think I've heard that question more than anything else," he told Cyclingnews on Wednesday, the day before the championship started. "People are asking if we have set the expectation level too high after last year. But at the end of the day, when you go to a race, you are going to try to win. We took lots of race victories last year and you just can't say that we will back off now.
"This time around, we are going to try and do the same here. Then on Sunday night we will sit back and see how we got on. I think we will be competitive. Whether we win everything, whether we compare it to last year…it is in all honesty irrelevant, really."
In Majorca last year, Brailsford said at the end of the campaign that he was delighted with the medal haul. Individual gold went to Chris Hoy (keirin and kilometre), Bradley Wiggins (pursuit), Victoria Pendleton (sprint and keirin) while collective wins went to Pendleton and Shanaze Reade (women's team sprint) and Wiggins, Edward Clancy, Geraint Thomas and Paul Manning (team pursuit).
In addition to that, silver medals were secured by the team sprint quartet of Hoy, Craig MacLean and Ross Edgar plus individual pursuit rider Rebecca Romero, while Edgar landed bronze in the keirin and Staff did likewise in the kilo.
That haul of eleven medals eclipsed the showing of other track-centric nations such as Australia (which achieved two golds and four bronze medals), and scored an important psychological victory in the pre-Olympic year. Brailsford acknowledges this, but says it counts for little this week.
"I think the media and everybody else is interested in what happened last season and how it compares to this year, but I am only interested in what happens tomorrow morning and how we go in this next few days until Sunday," he said on Tuesday. "We will then take stock of that situation, learn from that and move on.
"Everybody else likes to make comparisons. But whatever happened last year, we are starting afresh from zero now. Everybody is starting from scratch tomorrow morning, and last year's results have no bearing. They are not going to give us half a second [on other competitors], they are not going to give us any advantage whatsoever. We are all starting from zero, and I can tell you now that the other nations are catching up."
Fortunately for the British fans who will be present in the velodrome or following the results via the media coverage, he said that he is generally satisfied with how things have progressed in advance of the championships. "The buildup has gone really well. I think that when you take a championship team, you always tend to find across the whole squad that one or two riders have either been ill or are just coming back to form. There is usually a little worry somewhere, but in the main, I think we are looking good at the moment. It is exciting."
Brailsford is not the type of person to make brash statements or predictions; indeed, he appears prone to understating things. Those seeking macho pronouncements that the GB team will wipe the boards with the other competitors will be disappointed. He clearly wants the team to do well here, but he wisely chooses to play down expectations when asked what he would be satisfied with.
"We set ourselves a target, we wanted to do a couple of things. We wanted to get to the world championships having qualified the majority of our places. We didn't want to come to the worlds really under pressure, thinking that we would still have to qualify many riders…we wanted to have that nailed by now.
"We also didn't want to have to go to the World Cup in LA, and we achieved those goals. We didn't all go to LA because we didn't want to travel, and now on the night before the worlds we have qualified most places. We have a couple of minor things to sort out but, in the main, we are where we wanted to be.
"So, in that respect, from the qualification point of view and this whole first phase of our qualification, I think it is job done. Now we have to just go out and race here. If we perform well, great. If we don't, we will be competitive anyway. In effect we are in a pretty unique situation – we will be in front of a home crowd and we can just get out there and race. So it is quite exciting."
In this Olympic year, every team is aiming to boost morale by performing well in Manchester. Riders have been building their form and setting personal bests or – better again – new world records would be a considerable psychological boost. When asked if he thought that new world marks could be set on the boards here, Brailsford was non-committal.
"Who knows? I think that people will go fast…in training, things have been running fast. But then training is always different. You have got circulating air, you have got a lot of riders on the track, it makes a hell of a difference. Everybody always gets super-excited about training times, saying that we are going quick, they are going quick, everybody is going quick. But when you are on your own on the track, it is a different story. So it would be great to see some records go, but let's wait and see.
"At the end of the day it is the riders who will have to do it on physical performance and tactical performance plus their mental ability. I think that we are prepared, there is a great opportunity for us and I am very excited about it."
Chasing success in Beijing and beyond
With two major goals in the one year, riders have to be careful about their training and racing schedules. However the considerable gap between the world championships and the Olympic Games makes things a lot easier.
"You just back off after the Worlds, and then build things up again," said Brailsford. "We are confident in our conditioning and training programme going through to the Olympics, where we obviously want to be at our absolute best.
"There's no worries about being in very good form here. In the main, I think we will be able to deal with that. There is enough time. In fact, in some respects filling the time is going to be more of a challenge than having not enough time to do the job! So I think we will be fine in that regard…we are as well placed as anybody else to do it."
British cycling is reaping the benefits of a long-term investment in track cycling. Numerous world championship and Olympic medals have been secured and 2008 should increase that haul yet further. When asked if this was the definitive golden generation of the sport in Britain, Brailsford said that it is certainly a bright period, but that more is yet to come.
"I think this is certainly a golden generation, I don't know if it is the golden generation. I would like to think that we have got some great young emerging talent coming through. Whilst we have some absolutely unbelievable stars on this team now, I'd like to think that there are other riders who can come through and keep it going."
And that's not just in track cycling. Shanaze Reade will be amongst those heading to Beijing aiming for a top performance in BMX, while the country's road riders are also enjoying considerable success. British cycling is on the way up and Brailsford has played a big part in that. He recognises that success breeds success, that the medals and top performances achieved now also help pave the way for more in the future.
"That is the name of the game, we are always trying to move forward on the international stage," he stated. "The more that we can win, the more impressively we can perform internationally, then the more people who will take note.
"Really we are not in it to create awareness, we are in it to win bike racers. But I think that the more we win, the more awareness comes with it…so it goes hand in hand. First and foremost, we are going to concentrate on winning bike races."
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Images by Shane Stokes/Cyclingnews.com
Images by AFP Photo