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The next generation: the second wave of British riders ready to crack the professional ranks

How the next generation of young British riders are preparing to follow in the footsteps of Wiggins, Froome, Thomas and co

When Roger Hammond finished third at Paris-Roubaix in 2004, the response from British fans was ecstatic, and rightly so.

When Team Sky’s Ian Stannard equaled Hammond’s result earlier this month, however, his achievement was greeted with a respectful nod.

The feeling in some quarters was that Stannard should have won the race, and become the first Briton to lift the cobbled trophy.

Expectations of British riders have risen exponentially in the last decade. Sir Dave Brailsford’s lottery-funded revolution at British Cycling has made success the rule, rather than the exception.

Compare and contrast: Ian Stannard’s Paris-Roubaix podium was met by only muted celebrations compared to the widespread plaudits Roger Hammond received in 2004 (Pic: Sirotti)

At some point in the 12 years since Hammond’s third at Roubaix, a period in which British riders have won Grand Tours, Monument Classics, World Championships and Olympic gold medals, podiums have begun to seem like missed opportunities.

This, of course, is grossly unfair to the likes of Stannard and team-mate Ben Swift, twice a podium finisher at Milan-San Remo.

It might also be considered unfair to the next generation of British professionals – a second wave, so to speak – after the extraordinary success of established riders like Stannard, Swift, Geraint Thomas, Sir Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome.

Yet British cycle sport’s new young guns appear to be holding up well under the weight of expectation, ready to make their move at the top level of the sport. In recent weeks, 21-year-old Hugh Carthy (Caja Rural) finished in the top ten at the Volta a Catalunya and Dan McLay (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) won the GP Denain.

And for the generation still bidding to turn pro, results are also positive. Tao Geoghegan-Hart recently won the Trofeo Piva for Axeon Hagens Berman, Axel Mercx’s US-based under-23 team, while James Shaw claimed fifth at the Liège-Bastgone-Liège Espoirs andJon Dibben, points race world champion on the track, finished second at the under-23 Tour of Flanders.

These are reassuring times for the future of British cycle sport. So how has it happened?

 

 

View from the Academy

Keith Lambert is as fine a judge of young cycling talent as you could wish for.

Lambert is a former pro rider and now a coach at the British Cycling Academy, an institution whose graduates have become diners at professional cycling’s top table: Cavendish, Thomas, Stannard, et al.

Can the Academy’s success in developing those once fledgling talents be replicated?

“It can,” Lambert says, but cautiously. “We strive to do that, but we have to accept that they [Cavendish and co] are gifted riders. They just came together as a group at one particular time and Rod [Ellingworth, then Academy chief, now Team Sky’s performance director] did an amazing job with them.

“As coaches, you can only guide them so far. They’ve got to have the talent. You can’t turn a donkey into a thoroughbred race horse; you have to have the talent in the first place.”

British Cycling has turned talent spotting into an art form, if its processes can be judged by the calibre of its athletes.

While Lambert accepts that the Academy’s first intake were exceptional, the quality of subsequent finds, notably Simon Yates and Owain Doull, suggests the production line is unlikely to shut down anytime soon.

It’s not a guaranteed pathway to success, however. Fewer make it to the WorldTour or to British Cycling’s Podium Programme – those fighting for a place at the Olympic Games – than miss out.

Keith Lambert, British Cycling Academy, team car

“It’s not going to suit everyone,” Lambert concedes. “If you have nine on the Academy, one or two are going to make it through to the WorldTour or the Podium programme.”

One rider from the most recent cohort has already left the Academy, Lambert admits.

“It wasn’t through going out to Italy because he was happy there, but he lost the desire to be pro bike rider. You can’t instill that. That comes from within. If they’ve just lost the fire in the belly, there’s no point in pressing on.”

While the original British Cycling Academy was part-based in Italy, neither Yates nor Doull were part of the programme while it had an overseas base, and were instead in Manchester year-round. But for the current intake, British Cycling has taken a house near Montichiari, close to a velodrome, and appointed David Millar to the coaching staff who will visit them there.

Lambert is also a member of the committee for the Dave Rayner Fund, which provides support for young road riders who may not fit, or choose to take a different path to, British Cycling’s track-focussed programme.

Millar was the first beneficiary of the Dave Rayner Fund, and his success might be taken as a barometer of its importance. Lambert’s generation had to make their way alone and unsupported.

Lambert cites the Fund as a credible alternative for riders whose talent is better suited to the road than the track and says the Academy pathway to Team Sky followed by the likes of Stannard, Swift and Luke Rowe et al isn’t the only route to the WorldTour for talented Brits.

He offers Carthy and McLay as examples of riders away from the Academy and enjoying success with second-tier Pro Continental teams. British riders might enjoy further opportunities at this level too, now that One Pro Cycling has moved up from the Continental tier.

Young riders on the domestic scene, meanwhile, have had a valuable ally for the last two seasons: the eponymously-named Team Wiggins.

Lambert, pictured with academy graduate Simon Yates, hailed the work of the Dave Rayner Fund (Pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWPix.com)

The Wiggins connection

Simon Cope has been involved with cycling for 38 years, starting as a 12-year-old racer and, now, aged 50, working as a sports director for the Wiggins team.

As a rider, Cope followed the only route available to young British talent aspiring to reach the top level and took himself to Europe, sleeping on wooden floors in Belgium in a bid to toughen himself further. Does the modern rider have things easier?

“I talked to [Dave Rayner Fund committee member] Sid Barras about that,” Cope laughs.

“Everyone says their era was harder. The 1960s were harder than the ‘70s; the ‘70s were harder than the ‘80s. I said to him, ‘The 1900s must have been brutal!”

Then he strikes a serious note: “Racing’s always hard.”

Cope believes passionately that the home nations have always produced great cyclists, but until the Dave Brailsford-led revolution at British Cycling, lacked the structure to develop that talent, citing Chris Lillywhite and Les West as examples from a long list of riders who today would have enjoyed the benefits of the contemporary scene and lottery funding.

Team Wiggins is providing a ‘second bite of the cherry’ for those better suited to the road than the track-focussed GB Academy programme (Pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWPix.com)

Still, there is something of the old school in Cope’s approach with the Wiggins team: “We throw a load of work at them, and the cream will rise to the top, as Shane [Sutton] says.”

The team was founded specifically to provide a road programme for the men British Cycling hope will win a gold medal for Great Britain in the men’s team pursuit at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. One of the team’s leading riders, Owain Doull, rode a varied road programme in 2015, including a top three finish at the Tour of Britain, and will now likely form a part of Great Britain’s team pursuit squad at the Rio 2016, before joining an unnamed WorldTour team in 2017.

But Cope says his outfit has a two-pronged attack and also provides ‘a second bite at the cherry’ to under-23 riders who may not have prospered on the track-led Academy programme, using an informal network of talent spotters, including agent Jamie Barlow and Darren Tudor, the head of Welsh Cycling, to bring in new riders.

“We all communicate with each other, in the same way that I communicate with Rod [Ellingworth],” Cope says.

Cope accepts the term “second wave” to describe the recent success of British riders like Carthy, McLay and Dibben, and doesn’t foresee the succession ending any time soon.

“Owain Doull, Dan Pearson, Scott Davies,” he says, listing the next generation. “They’re definitely there.”

Dan McLay’s GP Demain win shows he is on his way to the top after choosing a different pathway (Pic: Sirotti)

Dan the man

Dan McLay is a young British rider enjoying his first European success as a pro rider.

McLay won the prestigious GP Denain earlier this month, a UCI 1.1 race held this year for the 57th time, and contested by more than 150 riders, including the FDJ WorldTour team.

Overhead footage of McLay skillfully weaving through the smallest of gaps to claim the win became something of a hit on Twitter, but the Leicestershire rider is no overnight sensation.

McLay moved to Belgium as a 19-year-old and slogged for four years with backing from the Dave Rayner Fund and a regular berth with Lotto-Soudal’s under-23 team, while also riding selected races for the British Cycling Academy’s road team, before earning a pro contract with Bretagne-Séché Environment, now known as Fortuneo-Vital Concept.

He is quick to pay tribute to the Fund for its support, and believes British riders making it in cycling’s traditional European heartlands has now become the norm. Are British riders – taking Stannard’s podium at Roubaix – now expected to win?

“I don’t know that everyone is expected to win, but enough British riders have gone and done big rides and won big races that no longer is a third place or a top-10 a big story in the world of British cycle sport,” he ponders.

“It’s only natural now there are more pros and more guys have won lots of races that it goes that way, like for the traditional cycling nations, who, when they don’t have a win for a couple of years, it’s a disaster.”

McLay agrees that a second wave of British talent is breaking on Continental shores, but offers a definition of his own to describe this continued success.

“It’s starting to feel like there’s a constant flow, if anything,” he adds. “I’m sure there’ll be years where there are more good riders than others. The whole British Cycling system has put a lot of guys forward and raised the standard of national racing. Racing in the UK is better and more and more riders will come to Europe as a result.”

James Shaw (left) finished fifth at the under-23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege riding for the Lotto-Soudal development team (Pic: Bede Geoghegan Hart)

Shaw thing

James Shaw and Alex Braybrooke are following a similar path to McLay: both Rayner-funded riders who’ve secured berths on the Lotto-Soudal under-23 team and accommodation close to the WorldTour team’s HQ in Herentals.

Shaw is on a high when we speak to him, having finished fifth days earlier at the Liège-Bastogne-Liège Espoirs, a version of the Monument Classic for under-23s. It is some achievement, arguably Shaw’s finest performance since winning the junior Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2014.

Upping sticks and moving to Belgium was once the only way for a young British rider to advance his career in Continental circles, but the advent of British Cycling’s Academy has made it a choice, rather than a sole option.

Shaw, however, believes the path followed by Hammond and Cope, among others, and latterly by McLay, creates a more mature person.

“I enjoy it massively,” he says of his life in Belgium. “It’s almost your apprenticeship: you’ve moved out of home at a young age to ride your bike.

“There are so many different aspects, especially last year, my first over here, living was the biggest challenge: to eat healthily, and do all the things other people do. And you’re doing it on a budget.

“It’s definitely increased the speed at which I’ve grown up. It’s taken me from being a teenaged boy to being a mature and more rounded person; generally being more organised and more on the ball with what I do in my spare time.”

Still only 19, Shaw hopes to be part of a wave that might follow the likes of the Yates twins into the pro ranks. His performance in Liège, and in his service to Dibben at Flanders, is likely to have placed him on radars beyond that of Lotto-Soudal.

“Definitely, being on a foreign team, you get a view of how British riders are perceived, from the outside,” he says. “The Belgians worship Team Sky. They are looking [at Sky], thinking, ‘Wow’. British Cycling has really put its mark on the Continental and world scenes, and they’re really showing what this little island can do.”

Shaw says Sky have “raised the bar”, and that he, indirectly, has benefited from a perception abroad that British riders deliver high standards.

“People look at riders coming out of Britain now and think, ‘Wow’. When people see a British hopeful, if the rider has talent, it might help them out,” he explains.

His ambition is to contribute to that reputation, laying a path to follow for riders even younger than he is.

Onwards and upwards

The foundations for success, laid by Brailsford a decade ago, are now being built upon by a new generation of riders, with the extraordinary development of the 23-year-old Yates twins (Orica-GreenEDGE), perhaps the keenest example.

Opportunities for young and talented British riders now abound, where even in recent memory, the only option was to move to the Continent and slog it out alone (read Charly Wegelius’ excellent Domestique for an insight on how tough things were).

Now, the British Cycling Academy provides an assured, if track-focused pathway to the top, and Team Wiggins offers, as Cope says, “a second bite of the cherry” to those whose talent is better suited to the road. The work of the Dave Rayner Fund continues to be of vital importance to those who do not fit the national federation’s exacting criteria.

McLay is right to highlight the increasing standard of domestic racing, and well-funded and organised teams like Madison Genesis and JLT Condor offer another route to success. Carthy tasted his first international success with John Herety’s squad, winning the 2014 Tour de Korea as a 19-year-old before joining the Pro Continental ranks with his current Caja Rural team.

Hugh Carthy first tasted success with Rapha-Condor JLT in Britain, and now rides on the ProContinental circuit with Caja Rural (Pic: Sirotti)

Shaw speaks of the increasing reputation of British riders abroad, and for riders like him, pursuing a career with a development team directly associated with a WorldTour squad, the future also looks bright, though he acknowledges the Belgian team’s preference for Belgians.

Even riders who seek to develop their careers beyond the structures of the national federation, such as Geoghegan-Hart, the door to racing in GB colours is always open. Geoghegan-Hart is another Rayner-funded athlete and rode for a Great Britain team at both the 2014 and 2015 Tours of Britain. Dan Pearson, now with Wiggins, but who had developed his talent with Italy’s revered Zalf, perhaps professional cycling’s ultimate feeder team, is yet another rider who has forged his own path.

Performances like that of Stannard, who joined Team Sky as an Academy graduate in 2010, at Roubaix are now the norm, rather than an isolated performance from an exceptionally talented rider, as was the case with Hammond. British riders now have the structure to succeed at the high level of the sport, whether its through the Academy or on an independent path.

There is a real sense of momentum now behind British cycle sport; one that looks set to continue regardless of results in Rio this September. The recent success of young riders from the home nations is one of talent harnessed. Long may it continue.

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