Interview: Shane Sutton on the road to Rio, beating Australia and repeating the success of London 2012 - Road Cycling UK

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Interview: Shane Sutton on the road to Rio, beating Australia and repeating the success of London 2012

British Cycling technical director speaks to RCUK as Team GB step up preparations for Olympic Games

We might be in Canary Wharf, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of bankers buying and selling stocks and shares, but Shane Sutton is in a relaxed mood. He leans back in his chair and chuckles during our opening pleasantries, and donned in a dark tracksuit top and jeans, the Australian cuts a much different figure to the trackside alter-ego we have become accustomed to seeing on our television screens.

“I feel a lot better after the worlds,” a relieved Sutton tells RoadCyclingUK at the launch of the Royal Bank of Canada V Series, the corporate challenge for which he is an ambassador. Returning the Great Britain team to the top of the medal table at the Track Cycling World Championships in London is evidently a weight off his shoulders. Wind back just 12 months and he oversaw a team which came back from the Vélodrome de Saint-Quentin en-Yvelines in Paris with just three silver medals. This year – an Olympic year – there may have only been one silver medal, but there were also five golds and three bronzes.

Shane Sutton is two years into his role as head of Great Britain’s track programme and is preparing for his biggest test – the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro (Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com)

The boss

Almost four year ago Sutton and the Great Britain team were the darlings of the nation having won seven out of ten events in London’s Olympic velodrome, and ended the Games with nine medals in all. By 2014, however, that success on home soil was becoming an increasingly distant memory; Team GB’s gold medal hauls had started to melt away at successive World Cups and World Championships.

Following two Olympic Games’ of track cycling dominance, the chief architect behind that success, Dave Brailsford, stepped aside from his role as performance director at British Cycling in April 2014 to concentrate on his road duties at Team Sky.

Sutton, who had previously shied away from the top role, stepped up. But it wasn’t a like-for-like swap. Although he would need to take on a more managerial role, British Cycling gave him the newly-created position of technical director when he formally took the reins in December 2014. “Its a totally different role,” he says, clearly now more comfortable in his position at the head of affairs, but keen to emphasise that he is not a direct replacement for Brailsford.

The two undoubtedly have different management styles. Brailsford is calm personified, rarely flustered and meticulous in his attention to detail, while the straight-talking Sutton shoots straight from the hip (“This is a publicly funded system and we need to make sure we are doing the right thing with the money,” Sutton said earlier this week following British Cycling’s decision not to renew the contract of sprinter Jess Varnish).

Great Britain ended the 2016 World Track Championships with five gold medals, including for Sir Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish in the Madison, a non-Olympic event (Pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

The road to Rio

The focus for Sutton now is the road to Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 Olympic Games. The dust has settled on a bountiful World Championships but the success of British Cycling has always been measured in Olympic medals and, with less than four months to go, we’re in the calm before this summer’s storm.

“We are in a good place,” says Sutton, with his riders into their final 16-week training block. “Our periodisation is in place and everybody is back to work, starting to build up for Rio. The worlds are gone.”

We are in a good place, everybody is back to work after the worlds, starting to build up for Rio

Sutton refuses to dwell on the past but neither does he dream of what may come this summer. Nor does he let his riders. For now it’s all about the process of ensuring everyone is “the best that they can be” – a gold medal is only the final result of that process.

“For example, if Bradley [Wiggins] is producing 700 watts on the front [of the team pursuit], he won’t be thinking about the gold medal,” says Sutton. “On a daily basis, he will be thinking about how can he get to 720 and what that is going to take – ‘cos that is a win to him.”

Old foes reunited in Rio

Wiggins will go to Rio in search of a fifth Olympic gold medal, and a second in the team pursuit, but his and Team GB’s biggest challenge will come from Sutton’s native Australia, who beat a British quartet made up of the 2012 Tour de France champion, Ed Clancy, Owain Doull and Jon Dibben to gold in April’s worlds.

While points race world champion Dibben fractured his elbow at last weekend’s ZLM Roompot Tour, a week after finishing’s second at the under-23 Tour of Flanders, British Cycling remain confident the 22-year-old’s Rio ambitions remain unaffected. Whether or not Dibben makes the squad, or if it improves Mark Cavendish’s chances of replacing him (“Mark is definitely in the frame,” Sutton told Reuters), the Team GB chief remains coy and clipped on whether the Brits can overhaul the Aussies.

Great Britain’s men’s team pursuit squad couldn’t hide their dejection on the podium after being beaten by Australia at the World Track Championships in March (Pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

“Ah, I don’t know,” he says, refusing to be drawn on the chances of Wiggins and co. While Sutton, doesn’t squirm in the face of difficult questions, he pegs his responses to the facts. British Cycling do things by numbers, not guessing.

“We pretty much know what we can be,” he says of the British track squad. “Because all the testing and what we do these days, we know what we have in the tank and what power we can do. That doesn’t mean we are going to win. We can only be the best that we can be and if we do that, I am pretty sure that we will be in the hunt.”

Raising the bar

Only time will reveal the fruits of that hunt but the bar has been risen at the previous two Olympic Games, first in Beijing and then London. “I can only fail,” said Sutton upon taking over the reins but that doesn’t mean he has completely written off the possibility of repeating the gold medal haul of four years ago. Can it be done?

“We like to think so,” he says. “But its a tough one. It’s a high bar to jump. [We won’t have] home advantage, familiarity and all those things. Now we are going into the unknown again, but we try and put everything in place. We’ll do all our due diligence before we arrive out there and hope that we have the athletes finely tuned and ready.

We can only be the best that we can be and if we do that, I am pretty sure that we will be in the hunt

One of the main people standing in Sutton’s way this summer will be his brother, Gary, a coach with the Australian squad. Do they speak to each other before a race? Do they ever swap notes? “Yeah we talk,” Sutton says. “But we never speak about cycling. [We talk about] all the kids, the siblings, mum,” he says, though he then admits cycling does occasionally creep into the conversation.

“Every now and then we might have a conversation about ‘how are your girls doing, or how are the boys travelling’, but that is very rare. It wouldn’t be something that we chat about at the coffee table; we don’t talk about what is happening in cycling, we talk about our domestic life.”

About whether Australia will get the Ashes back? “Well, of course, we talk about things like that,” says Sutton, as if cricket’s a given.

Pastures new

There are some sports, like cricket, that we’d expect Sutton, as an Australian, to have an interest in, but cycling and horse racing were thrown into the headlines together when one of Sutton’s former students, Victoria Pendleton, raced at last month’s Cheltenham Festival. The two-time Olympic champion finished fifth in the St James’s Place Foxhunter Chase in what she called “probably the greatest achievement of my life.” Sutton was also impressed.

Great Britain’s women’s team pursuit squad came back strong to win bronze in London – but will expect to be on the top step of the podium in Rio (Pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

“I’m not into horse racing,” he says, “but I think she did fantastically, she received quite a lot of criticism prior to that from certain parts of that community. I sent her text with a thumbs-up and kiss afterwards. I heard she won fifth or something afterwards.”

His words are subtle but telling. To Sutton, it isn’t Pendleton’s finishing position that mattered but instead her achievement of making a transition from one elite sport to another. It is a similar mindset that forms the foundations of how he is preparing the British team for Rio, to focus on each day, controlling only the things that can be controlled in the never-ending quest for medals. “We all want to be the best we can be on a daily basis,” he says “Life is not just about challenges; it is how you embrace those challenges.”

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