Edition number 46; dateline 30 September 2011
Looking to Mozart and listening for legacy
Our summary in this issue of the London 2012 legacy situation and the accompanying scramble for the political lifeboats makes for depressing reading but we are delighted to have been able to leaven the despair with our front cover. It is, of course, a tribute to Mark Cavendish, the Mozart of the 11-tooth sprocket, as one French journalist has insisted. His fantastic victory made him the first British man to win the world road racing champion’s rainbow jersey since Tommy Simpson in 1965. He will now wear this famous jersey for a year in all road competitions and has the right to wear the stripes on his sleeve for the rest of his career. We hope he puts them on his jarmas.
Cav’s storming win marked the latest high point in Dave Brailsford’s project to place British Cycling at the pinnacle of the sport, a project that has transformed cycling in the UK at all levels. As regular readers will be all too wearily aware, it is a project that I have followed closely over the years. As a keen cyclist, I was thrilled to join the press corp invited to inspect the new Manchester velodrome a few months in advance of its official opening in September 1994. As we marvelled at the steep rake of the track and inspected the spectacular feat of joinery that enables the whole track structure to flex, expand and contract independent of the rest of the building, I listened to British Cycling’s long-term development plans with a mixture of excitement and incredulity. The aim, they explained, was to focus on the track to win Olympic medals and make Britain dominant in world track cycling before building on this success with a professional road team to take part in, and ultimately win, the Tour de France. This project had a timescale measured in decades rather than years and, given Britain’s occasional cycling successes and the generally chaotic nature of British sports governance, it all seemed highly improbable.
In the years that followed I was able to ride the track myself, confirming just how steep those boards really are, and spend one of the greatest nights of my sporting life watching the British team take 9 of the 18 available gold medals, and 11 medals in total, at the 2008 world track championships. Now British Cycling’s professional road team are producing serious contenders for the grand tours, the events that represent the pinnacle of professional cycling, and can add another world championship to their list of honours (lest we forget, Nicole Cooke was the most recent British woman to win the Worlds; British women have won a few times since Tommy Simpson).
This remarkable success is an example of what can be achieved in the name of event legacy. To a large extent British Cycling’s achievements have their origins in Manchester’s bid to host the Commonwealth Games (the bid, note, rather than the actual Games). Cycling’s success is also a legacy of Peter Keen seizing the opportunity of an organisational greenfield site created by the emergence of a new national governing body following the disappearance of its predecessor, the British Cycling Federation, in the organisational quagmire of twentieth-century British sport. Freed from the petty restraints and regulations of a traditional governing body approach, the new organisation was able to give Keen and his successor, Dave Brailsford, free rein to develop an elite programme capable of winning medals.
Which is exactly what they did. Brailsford was clearly elated after Cav’s victory but it was also clear that, after a moment to celebrate, work continues. “If you dare to set high expectations and work hard enough, most of the time you get there in my experience,” he said. When British Cycling began this process they had started with a focus on track cycling because they had a track. They then established a way of working that would ensure continuous improvement and ultimately long-term success. Seventeen years and numerous gold medals later two British cyclists were stood on the podium at the Vuelta a Espana with their eyes enviously, and not unreasonably, on the top step.British Cycling’s success and the accompanying transformation of cycling as a sport and a general daily pursuit form a tangible legacy of the Manchester Commonwealth Games and the long-term goals of a national governing body clear about its role and its ambition. As the DCMS noted in its response to Richard Caborn’s speech regarding the likely legacy of London 2012, there will be a legacy of the London Olympics and it will come with or without any help from government or the established sporting structures. This is true enough – a significant number of people, many of them young, will be inspired by what they see happening on the TV in their own country – but it will be the legacy of laissez faire, of hit-and-hope, of a wait-and-see approach to maximising the benefit of a unique opportunity to transform a nation. We will know we could have done better than that. Mark Cavendish has shown us.
letter from the editor
The Leisure Review editorial