British Cycling aims for podium at road world championships
From Bradley Wiggins celebrating his groundbreaking Tour de France triumph on the Champs-Elysses, to Britain's record-setting medal haul at the London Olympics, the rest of the world has been trying to play catch-up to British Cycling the past few years.
Now, with the road world championships beginning this weekend in Richmond, Virginia, Britain once again has aspirations of landing several riders on the top step of a podium.
''I think we're pretty good on most of our age groups across the board there,'' said Ian Dyer, Britain's coach coordinator.
The team announced last week is highlighted on the men's side by former world champion Mark Cavendish and the versatile Geraint Thomas, and the women's side by Lizzie Armitstead, who last month was crowned the overall World Cup champion after a dominant season.
But there are also some familiar names missing from the roster.
Start with Wiggins, the reigning Olympic and world time trial champion, who has all but retired from road racing as he returns to track cycling for the Rio Olympics. Then there's Chris Froome, this year's Tour champion, who would have been among the time trial favorites in Richmond had a crash at the Vuelta a Espana not ended his season.
''Both for the road race and time trial, Froome would have been a pretty good bet, I think,'' Dyer said. ''But the main thing is he heals up and has a good winter now.''
There are many reasons Britain - once an afterthought in the sport - has climbed pedal stroke by pedal stroke onto the level of traditional heavyweights such as Italy and France.
Start with the vision of longtime boss Dave Brailsford, who stepped aside last year to focus on his role leading Team Sky. He introduced the concept of marginal gains, where the team would seek out even the smallest edges, such as ways to optimize sleep schedules. The idea was that all those tiny advantages would add up to significant gains on the rest of the competition.
''Often the process of training and preparing athletes was getting overlooked,'' said David Bailey, who was a physiologist for British Cycling and now works for the BMC Racing Team. ''Some things we did had less than a 1 percent benefit, but it all adds up.''
Of course, marginal gains are easier to unearth if there is plenty of cash available. Since the late 1990s, lottery funding has helped to fill British Cycling's coffers, allowing it to hire the best coaches and trainers and develop the best technology.
''The world of cycling is a bit of an arms race right now just in the amount of money teams spend on scientific training, research, nutritionists, stuff that didn't happen years ago,'' said Jonathan Vaughters, who runs the U.S.-based Cannondale-Garmin team.
That goes for trade teams and national teams alike.
''We don't receive government funding. Most of our competitors do,'' said Derek Bouchard-Hall, who was chosen earlier this year to be the new CEO of USA Cycling. ''We're dependent on membership activities and corporate sponsorship, and donors. That's a real hurdle to overcome.''
The evidence is in the hardware.
In 2011, Cavendish delivered Britain's first road world title since the star-crossed Tom Simpson in 1965 - nobody else had even finished on the podium. Nicole Cooke won the women's race in 2008, the same year she captured gold at the Beijing Olympics.
While the British were shut out of medals at the BMX world championships this year, they made up for it with two gold, three silver and two bronze medals at the mountain bike worlds.
Now comes the road worlds, where Cavendish and Thomas are joined by a young, talented roster that includes Luke Rowe and Alex Dowsett, and where Armitstead will be accompanied in the women's race by Alice Barnes and British national time trial champ Hayley Simmonds.
''We have high hopes for a number of riders in terms of medal prospects,'' Dyer said, ''but it will also be a fantastic opportunity for some of the younger and less experienced members of the team to compete at an international event for the first time.''