Vive la Revolution - Road Cycling UK

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Vive la Revolution

The rumble of carbon wheels on wooden boards, the streaks of colour that represent the riders as they pass directly in front of you, the heat that rises from the track as they sweat beneath powerful lights, the guttural roar of a crowd sporting enough to show its appreciation for visiting riders, but vociferous in its support of home favourites - a night at the track can be hard to beat.

Add a liberal sprinkling of world and Olympic champions, many of them British, and many of that elite selection “graduates” who learned their trade as juniors in “the Revs”, and there is much to love about a series that this season celebrated its tenth anniversary and shows no signs of slowing down.

They call it the Revolution Series, and while the epithet is apt for a sport contested on a circular track, there is no sense of discord or revolt at this travelling circus, one that in recent years has expanded its list of destinations as new velodromes have been built. The construction of the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow, and the long-delayed opening to the public of the London Olympic Velodrome has expanded the horizons of an event that began in 2003 and which has fostered a family environment as much among the competitors as the spectators.

The steadily increasing profile of the Revolution Series reflects the explosion in popularity of cycling in this country since the phenomenal success of the Great Britain team at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The series, however, predates the unmistakable tipping point of a medal table-topping performance in China. Founded as a partnership between the national federation, British Cycling, and cycle events management company, FACE, ten years ago, the series has helped to advance the careers of British talents like Peter Kennaugh, Ben Swift, and Ian Stannard, now all employed by Team Sky.

It has also attracted the cream of an international crop of riders, including the Netherlands’ Marianne Vos, widely regarded as the world’s best cyclist. Insiders recall the Dutch queen of cycling arriving days in advance of her engagement to train on the track and prepare for a crowd-pleasing ‘rematch’ with Britain’s Lizzie Armitstead, the woman she defeated to claim Olympic road race gold during her last competitive visit to British soil.

London calling

The tenth season of the Revolution Series reaches its climax at the closing round, staged at the London Olympic Velodrome. The action is the first witnessed in a facility that echoed to the roars of a capacity crowd more than two years ago when the banners that decorated the track said “London 2012”. Dreams were realised here when the prizes on offer were the greatest in track cycling. Reputations were made. British winners became household names.

The velodrome is filled to what looks like near capacity for its reopening and the final round has already witnessed three rounds at Manchester’s National Cycling Centre and the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow. Ringmaster, James Pope, co-founder of the FACE Partnership, greets the VIP guests who make their way through a discrete entrance below the velodrome, down a flight of stairs and through a short tunnel to track centre. Pope has witnessed first hand the continued growth in popularity of the Revolution Series, from its earliest incarnation to what is arguably its crowning moment.

It’s a far cry from FACE’s initial modus operandi, when Pope and Fran Millar, now Team Sky’s operations chief, set up a company to manage athletes. Having caught the attention of a certain Dave Brailsford with their promotion of the Good Friday centenary meeting at Britain’s first Olympic track cycling venue, Herne Hill Velodrome, the pair were invited to promote the Olympic trials at the NCC. The rest, as they say is history. Brailsford needed a competitive arena to develop young talent; Jarl Walsh, general manager of the NCC, needed bums on seats. The Revolution Series was born.

Great Britain’s phenomenal success in track competition and the continued growth of the Revolution Series are therefore not coincidental, but closely linked. The list of world and Olympic champions who learned their trade at “the Revs” is impressive. Pope names the aforementioned Kennaugh and Rapha Condor JLT’s Ed Clancy, among the stars who have consistently shone. Both rode to Olympic gold in the final of the men’s team pursuit at London 2012, and both have dominated this current series. Kennaugh lapped the field seven times en route to winning the points competition in round four, and Clancy has been victorious in almost every round. Securing the big names is his biggest challenge, Pope confides. Numerous external factors, from UCI World Cup events to home games for Manchester City FC, held in close proximity to the Manchester velodrome, all impinge on the rider line-up for any given round. Negotiations with riders and coaches begin long in advance.

King Kenny deposed (tonight, at least)

Two of the biggest stars of London 2012 have returned to the Olympic Velodrome for this inaugural visit of the Revolution Series to the most prestigious track cycling venue in the world: Laura Trott and Jason Kenny, both of whom left Lee Valley two years ago with two Olympic gold medals each. The second night of the final round begins with the semi-final for the men’s sprint, an encounter that could be billed as the main event: a “rematch” between Kenny and the man who deposed him as keirin world champion three weeks earlier, Francois Pervis. The Frenchman wears his bounty this evening, a white skinsuit with the rainbow stripes of world champion across the chest; a garment he appears to have put on with the aid of a shoehorn.

The evening begins badly for Kenny, who loses the first of their encounters. In the second, however, he repeats the trick he pulled against another Frenchman, Gregory Bauge, at the 2012 world championships, attacking early and opening a gap that Pervis finds impossible to close, despite his extraordinary turn of speed. The effort is both audacious and grueling: Kenny’s mouth is wide open as he exits the last bend, funneling in air. The velodrome roars its approval and it’s 2012 all over again. The acoustics, woeful for the commentary, are ideally suited to the rumble of a passionate home support.

Kenny is as diffident in victory as he is in defeat. The three-time Olympic champion seems almost embarrassed by his talent. As he climbs from the bike to begin his return to track centre, he exhorts the crowd to repeat its show of support, and the punters respond with another huge roar. Kenny’s grin reveals that his gesture has been made with tongue in cheek, perhaps sending up the audacity of his attack and modestly acknowledging that, tonight at least, Pervis is the man in better form.

Kenny’s defeat in the deciding round of his encounter with Pervis means that Callum Skinner is the British interest in the men’s sprint final. The 22-year-old Scot was the star of the second round of the Revolution Series on what might be described as his home boards in Glasgow, though he learned his trade on the outdoor track at Meadowbank, like Hoy, his inspiration.

Skinner is young and fearless. He leads out Pervis in the first of their encounters, but is made to pay for his audacity by the world champion. Pervis makes their second encounter the last with another victory, but not before he has been dive-bombed by Skinner, who cuts inside the Frenchman’s line with a ferocity that confirms he cares little for reputation. The Commonwealth Games and a return to Glasgow beckons for Skinner: a suitable stage, perhaps, for the Scot to announce his presence to the wider world.

Hot to Trott

Laura Trott is back at the venue where she became a household name two years ago by winning two Olympic gold medals. A fascinating talent by any measure, relentlessly successful on the track, disarmingly direct off it, and endlessly hungry for victory, Trott can count perhaps only Mark Cavendish as one who shares her approach: one that identifies victory a necessary rather than desirable outcome.

There are no major or minor competitions for Trott. Every race is a ‘must win’ fixture. She seems to have little choice in the matter. Once the starter’s pistol is fired, she becomes a prisoner of instinct. The women’s omnium provides further evidence: Trott wins all six events. There is no reason for her to go to her limit so soon after the world championships, except to satisfy her competitive instinct, a drive that appears to extend some way past professional pride.

Signature event

The men’s madison time trial, the most exciting event at the third round in Glasgow’s new velodrome, steals the show again in London. It is contested by riders with impressive credentials, including the aforementioned double Olympic champion, Clancy (Rapha Condor JLT), his team-mate last year in Great Britain’s world championship-winning team pursuit squad, Andy Tennant (Madison Genesis), and newly crowned world madison champion, Albert Torres.

Tennant and team-mate, Tom Scully set the early pace, but Clancy is visibly quicker than any of have gone before him, and slashes four-tenths of a second from Scully’s opening effort. It is of considerable credit to his young team-mate, Ollie Wood, that he extends the margin, and by the time the pair have finished their work, Rapha Condor JLT have recorded victory by nearly 1.5 seconds. “Ed the red” has dominated the Revolution Series in recent years and shows no sign of slowing down.

The Madison time trial will be closely linked in the imagination of established Revolution Series audiences. Pope’s favourite moment in the series’ 10-year history was the pairing of Sir Chris Hoy and French sprint king, Arnaud Tournant, for the event. The duo, brought together specifically for the event, set a still unmatched time of 54.549. Hoy is here tonight, and while his discussion with commentator Hugh Porter is lost to the vagaries of the PA system, his presence is acknowledged by the rapturous response of the crowd.

Bravehearts Only

Rewind four months to round three of the series and Hoy is again the star of the show, this time in Glasgow and at the velodrome bearing his name. The Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome, built at a cost of £115m, is another showpiece facility commissioned for an international sporting occasion: the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

The brightly lit interior forms a striking contrast with the building’s steel grey facade, one whose vast scale and elegant detail forms an edifice at once sleek and imposing. Celtic Park glowers from across the concourse, its brutal and uncompromising silhouette issuing a silent but unmistakable warning to visiting teams. Those who will come from across the Commonwealth next year to race at the velodrome may arrive with a similar sense of trepidation.

Keeping it slick

The home crowd shows its appreciation, but the racing is only the final act of a drama played out across two days at the velodrome. The team behind the Revolution Series are well-practiced in setting up the event. Pope describes operations as “slick”- an accurate description if the manner in which the racing in Glasgow and London unfolds. The event is “built” a single day in advance of race day. Riders will arrive in the city hosting the event and are collected by members of  the FACE team to attend pre-race briefings.

Race day is busier still, and finds the organising team working solidly through the afternoon sessions and into the evening, when racing typically finishes at 10.30pm. They do not leave with the crowds or the riders, however. “De-rigging” must be completed first, the taking down of the temporary infrastructure that accompanies the race, in a process that can continue past midnight.

The slickness of the operation means the efforts of the organising team passes unnoticed. This is how they like it. Racing is still hours away when practice begins, and the absence of spectators from the velodrome in any meaningful number throws the sound of the riders and their machinery into sharp relief. The harsh whirr of disc wheels on rollers, the rush of air as a rider hurtles past on the track, the echo of anything dropped or banged in track centre fills the cavernous space, and rises quickly to the complex network of giant ducts and pipework hung from the ceiling to control the ambient temperature.

Rollers, revolutions and recovery

The practice session provides a privileged insight into the world of the track rider; an existence seemingly governed entirely by the routine of rollers, revolutions, and recovery. The sprinters in particular demonstrate astonishing cadences as they warm up, their feet dissolving into a blur as sustained efforts explode in moments of controlled fury. It is cycling’s equivalent of preparing a stationery racing car: the technicians here are not mechanics, but coaches and physiologists; the riders are both engine and driver.

Great Britain’s senior riders are in Mexico when the Revolution Series calls in Glasgow, competing in the second round of the UCI Track World Cup, and the senior backroom staff are with them. The absence of celebrated sprint coaches, Iain Dyer and Jan Van Eiden, means Jonathan Leeder, a physiologist assigned by the English Institute of Sport to work with British Cycling, is monitoring the riders’ performance.

Leeder stands at the gate that serves as the riders’ entrance to the track from the so-called ‘mixed zone’ in the centre, and chats with sprinter, Helen Scott, tandem pilot to Aileen McGlynn, and winner with McGlynn of Paralympic silver and bronze medals at the London Games, one of the few senior riders present in Glasgow. He is here to provide support to a young squad that includes Academy members, Danielle Khan and Rosie Blount, who come and go amid practice laps while Leeder and Scott talk.

Leeder will not be offering racing advice to avoid the possibility of contradicting messages from the coaching staff in Mexico, but will use the event to gain data on his riders and the track, the latter an exercise he compares to recce-ing a road ride. With the Commonwealth Games less than a year away, it is perhaps unsurprising that British Cycling has sent a sports scientist. Leeder admits he was attracted to cycling by its quantifiable nature, especially sprint time trials. If his response sounds like the most cerebral form of enjoyment from such an adrenalin-fuelled pursuit, he offers the women’s team pursuit qualification at the Olympic test event as a moment when the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. “When the girls got up, we’d never heard a noise like it,” he remembers. “All the sports staff and coaches stood still.”

Practice continues amid a sense of rising tension as the beginning of the afternoon session draws closer. Khan fires her machine like an arrow from the outside edge of the track, diving to the sprinter’s lane as she powers through the first bend, hunched low over the bike, seemingly crushed by the gravitational force generated by her velocity. She is a current member of British Cycling’s Olympic Academy. One of its many successful graduates, Andy Fenn, strolls into track centre as Khan continues her assault on the track, the Hertfordshire-born Scot clad in the uniform of his day job with Omega Pharma-Quickstep. Jermaine Burton, another developing talent, will tonight ride in a Sky jersey, perhaps not for the last time.

French revolution

The Revolution Series has become something of an institution in its ten year history and next year those behind its success will seek to expand their horizons. A six-round series, with three rounds in Manchester, two in London, and one in Glasgow, is expected to be confirmed when the UCI has finalised its calendar for the 2014/15 Track World Cup. And then there is the new velodrome in Paris to consider as FACE dreams of taking the series beyond the UK. “The ‘French Revolution’ has a nice ring to it,” Pope says. Tournant and Pervis would certainly agree. The French cycling public, if they are anything like their British counterparts, are likely to do so too.

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