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Exclusive interview: British cycling technical chief Tony Purnell talks Rio 2016 success and the team’s new Cervelo T5GB bikes

"We went absolutely bonkers in the stands," says the man behind Team GB's new gold medal-winning machines

Brazil is a long way from England, but the hoarseness in the voice at the other end of the phone line has nothing to do with reception issues.

Instead, it is the after effect of Professor Tony Purnell’s first direct experience of Olympic success. A matter of hours before we speak, he had roared on the men’s team sprint squad to victory, with two-thirds of them aboard the Cervélo T5GB – the first flagship bike of his reign as British Cycling’s technical chief.

“I’m not very hung over,” he assures me, with a chuckle. “We were very controlled last night, but we went absolutely bonkers in the stands. We were surrounded by New Zealand supporters, and they were red hot favourites for the team sprint. I was pretty emotional.”

Team sprint, Philip Hindes, Jason Kenny, Callum Skinner, Rio 2016, track cycling, pic - Alex Whitehead_SWpix
Philip Hindes, Jason Kenny and Callum Skinner won Team GB’s first track cycling gold medal of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)

It’s a wonderful story, made more so by Purnell’s background as team principal of the Jaguar and Red Bull Formula One teams. In that most scientific of sports, jubilant displays are usually limited to the magnum toting driver. In his new world, however, Purnell is free to enjoy the success he has helped to engineer.

“I find it very nerve-racking,” he admits, with a laugh. “It’s pathetic, really. I’m nearly 60 and I’m cheering in the stands like a ten-year-old.”

Purnell’s nerves stemmed entirely from the unpredictability of racing. Team GB’s victory over their Kiwi rivals was achieved by one tenth of a second, after all. He had no doubts concerning the machinery.

Callum Skinner, Jason Kenny, Philip Hindes, Great Britain, team sprint, pic - Sirotti
The team sprint marked the first Olympic victory aboard the new Cervelo T5GB track bike for Skinner and Kenny. The bike was brought in by new technical chief Tony Purnell, who has previously worked in Formula One (pic: Sirotti)

“As an engineer, I was absolutely sure. You have to have an evidenced-based mentality. We were completely sure the bike was a good step on from the hugely successful EIS bike, and I was completely confident in its performance, but it was done so quickly you think of all the things you had to somewhat shortcut and think, ‘What could go wrong?’”

This last observation is another delivered with a chuckle. British Cycling is not known for shortcuts, even if the T5GB has been realised in a very short timescale. The federation only agreed its five-year partnership with Cervélo in May 2015, and as Purnell admits, “I’d never made a bike before.”

“I had no idea how difficult making a bike was. They’re not like F1 cars. F1 cars have a big factor of safety. When a car whacks the curb, it gives huge shock-loading; you have to design for that, but you don’t really have that for a bike, it’s in some ways closer to the edge.

“All those complicated tubes and sharp corners make the moulding process difficult. We were trying to make the best bike in the world, for the track. I had a lot to learn, Cervélo had a lot to learn, because they’re not track cycling specialists, and we had a lot to learn from them. It was like getting a lot of people who really know their business, but had never performed together, or on this task. I think it’s taken a couple of years off my life!”

Purnell admits the T5GB project got by with a little help from his friends. He is a visiting professor at Cambridge University and involved some of the brilliant minds in the engineering department. Paddy Lowe, technical director at Mercedes F1, was another who provided invaluable advice.

Callum Skinner, Cervelo T5GB, pic - Sirotti
Callum Skinner acknowledges the crowd aboard the new bike, which Purnell says he had input from former Formula One colleagues when designing (pic: Sirotti)

“Some folks at Red Bull helped us out just a tiny bit,” Purnell continues, “but when you’ve got your back to the wall and you need a bit of help, tiny bits can push you a long way.” Williams Grand Prix Engineering, he adds, were “fantastic”.

He is just as quick to pay tribute to “the network of cottage industries” that support the Formula One teams, and who provided invaluable assistance in the development of the T5GB.

“They range from a man in his garage to quite impressive sub-contractors. They can work quickly and I called on them massively, but through Cervélo; I tried to steer Cervélo to people who could get things done.”

“It’s a great thing for British industry,” he adds. “I don’t think we could have done it in any other country.”

Mark Cavendish, Cervelo T5GB, pic - Alex Whitehead_SWpix
Mark Cavendish finished second in the individual pursuit after a great ride, leaving him third overall at the halfway stage of the men's omnium (pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)
Cervelo T5GB track bike, pic - Sirotti
Jason Kenny, Cervelo T5GB track bike, pic - Alex Whitehead_SWpix cropped

With the best possible introduction to Olympic competition now behind him, how does Purnell compare the experience to a Grand Prix? Track cycling is a pretty sophisticated business these days, but can it compare with Formula One?

“There are huge similarities and huge differences. The one similarity is there are a lot of passionate people who work really hard. It’s what they want to do; they’ve dreamt of it. The big difference is that F1 is awash with money, and cycling is not awash with money. It’s about passion and dedication – you aren’t going to make yourself rich with it, for sure – and that has been kind of nice.”

The irony, he adds, is that Formula One engineers are obsessed with bicycles and cycling. Both fields are exemplars of British engineering excellence, backed by the commercial might of partners with an interest in translating competitive success into market share. For Mercedes, read Cervélo, perhaps.

Purnell is now bracing himself for the days ahead. Tonight, Sir Bradley Wiggins will lead Great Britain’s men’s team pursuit squad in its quest for a third consecutive Olympic title, and the riders who have already achieved the same feat in the men’s team sprint – Philip Hindes, Jason Kenny, and Callum Skinner – will roll out again for the individual competition.

There may yet be more opportunities for Purnell to cheer himself hoarse.

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