British cycling success: a shift of power from track to road?

British riders' success on the road was balanced by a disappointing performance at the Track World Championships

There were two very distinct sides to British cyclists’ success – or lack of it – this past weekend. On the road, we had two British riders claiming overall victory in stage races. On the track, Great Britain had what could be fairly termed a shocker of a weekend at the world championships in Paris.

A decade ago, in a time before Britain had a top-level road race team let alone two Tour de France champions, there was an almost constant barrage of abuse aimed at British Cycling – and Cycling Weekly come to that – asking why there was so much time, effort and money put into developing track and not road riders.

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After one such salvo, then BC president Brian Cookson took to an internet cycling forum (in a time before Twitter) to defend BC’s stance, and made the statement that there would be a British Tour de France winner within 10 years. How the trolls waded in, throwing their flaming spears. Little did they know that Cookson would be right. Twice over. And in far less than 10 years.

Now, it seems as though all the success is on the road. Since the medal haul of the home 2012 Olympics in London, many of the glittering British stars of the track have either retired, waned or turned to road racing.

Four years between top-level competition is a hard thing for any athlete to cope with for motivation, but GB’s worst performance in a track world championships since 2001 in the year directly before the 2016 Olympics in Rio will have set some very big and very noisy alarm bells ringing at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester.

It’s not just Olympic gold medals at stake, but the funding structure that goes with it. British Cycling has targets to meet.

Great Britain in silver medal position in the 2015 Track World Championships

Great Britain’s team pursuiters not looking happy in silver medal position at the 2015 Track World Championships

Road to glory
Meanwhile, on tarmac rather than sanded pine, there was much to cheer about. The manner in which Geraint Thomas won the Volta ao Algarve in Portugal and Chris Froome won the Ruta del Sol in Spain was what race fans hope for. Both victories came after the Sky riders launched a solo attack to win a key stage, putting themselves into the leader’s jersey and staying there.

Earlier in the Ruta del Sol, Froome looked to have been on the ropes against sparring partner Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo). The Spaniard had the measure of Froome on stage three, launching an attack that Froome could not respond to. The tables were turned the following day, when it was Froome who attacked – this time making up all of his GC deficit and then some to take the lead.

Chris Froome wins Stage 4 of the 2015 Tour of Andalucia Ruta Del Sol

Chris Froome wins Stage 4 of the 2015 Ruta Del Sol

Over in Portugal, Thomas attacked on stage two over the day’s hill finale to take a solo win. A strong performance in the time trial saw him place third, crucially ahead of his GC rivals. He then limited his losses on the final hilly day on Saturday, and retained the lead into Sunday’s final stage.

Neither rider simply sat in the wheels in an uninspiring show of ‘that will do’, but they each made the race they were in with perfectly-timed assaults. Ten years ago such a performance from British riders on a British team would have been unthinkable: it’s equally unthinkable that Britain’s track cyclists could come away from the 2016 Olympics without a single gold medal.