IMAGINE the scene for a moment. It?s July 2012. A British-sponsored, team of British riders is a few days into its second Tour de France. Mark Cavendish has already won a stage and has a narrow lead in the green jersey competition. Bradley Wiggins, one of the most experienced riders in the team, is in good form, but he has his eyes on the London Olympics in a few weeks? time.
Team manager David Brailsford is leaning against the bonnet of the team car, surrounded by journalists. There are yet more rumours that he?s fighting off approaches from a string of top professional teams asking him to join them.
The squad has enjoyed another fantastic year, on the road and the track, with both the men and women?s teams winning on a regular basis. More glory beckons in London, where the mainstream media is expecting the cyclists to deliver.
No longer is it seen as a bit quirky when a cyclist is asked to be a guest on A Question of Sport. No longer are cyclists the butt of Adrian Chiles? weak jokes about whether it hurts to fall off. Cycling is mainstream.
You?re not dreaming, there?s no need to snap out of it. This could be reality in just over four years? time.
Brailsford has never made any secret of his ambition to manage a British pro team in the Tour de France. He went public with his vision in the summer after committing himself to British Cycling until the 2012 Olympics.
But the revelation that there will be a women?s pro team sponsored by a British company and led by Nicole Cooke next season proves that the dream is not pie-in-the-sky thinking.
The long game is to establish the women?s squad, show what can be achieved in Olympic year, and attract more corporate sponsorship to help create a British Cycling team that encompasses riders across all disciplines.
A professional, sponsored national team that competes in everything: the Tour de France and the women?s World Cup, on the track and off-road. That?s the vision.
The idea that the British team is broken down into separate factions, men and women, roadies and trackies, BMXers and mountain bikers, will be swept away. Instead, there will just be cyclists.
It?s tempting to believe the new women?s team is the first step on the road to creating a men?s squad but, in fact, it?s not the first step. The plan isn?t even in the early stages. That journey began long ago, back in the bleak, first days of the World Class Performance Plan when Britain?s roadmen accused Peter Keen of writing off any chance of success on the road by concentrating on developing track riders.
Ten years ago, the mailbags and phone lines at Cycling Weekly were jammed with complaints that Keen was ignoring road cycling by chasing track success. The argument that by aiming for quantifiable goals on the track ? after all, you know what sort of time you need in the team pursuit or the kilometre to win a medal ? would mean more National Lottery funding fell on deaf ears.
If you?d listened to the doom-mongers, Britain would never have any success on the road again. Quietly, they are being proved wrong. Silently the lines between roadie and trackie have been rubbed out.
Of course not all our great riders have been products solely of the system put in place but that system now incorporates riders who come to prominence by another route. The world class programme may be harsh in the sense that if you fail to hit the marks and keep hitting them you will be out. But its success is beginning to breed more success. As the system strengthens, there is more support for those who don?t quite make it first time round.
A TEAM TO SUPPORT
Next season Nicole Cooke and her 12-strong team of British women will compete in elite international competition. Think of that: A British team at the very top of the sport. The dream is that she can deliver a medal ? hopefully gold ? at the Olympic Games and World Championships.
Along the way the other riders will get the support of a full-time professional outfit. The back-up will be world class, at least as good as anything the biggest women?s pro teams can offer.
And, if the success comes, Brailsford will have plenty of ammunition to take back to the corporate world and say: ?Look, this is what we?ve achieved. Now back us to take it to the next level.?
A British team ? with a great majority of British riders in its ranks ? at the Tour de France? It?s not such a pipe dream anymore.
Cooke to lead major British-backed pro team