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Six candidates for the British Cycling Performance Director job

Who has what it takes for the top job at the 'medal factory'?

Fancy becoming British Cycling’s new Performance Director?

It’s become one of the biggest jobs in sport, never mind cycling. The incumbent will be expected to uphold a run of success that has seen the National Cycling Centre in Manchester dubbed ‘the medal factory’.

British Cycling published the ‘candidate brief’ for the role on Wednesday, with the development of a “culture and climate that enables the Great Britain Cycling Team to achieve sustained success” listed as one of four key priorities for an individual who must offer “exemplary performance leadership”.

Who has what it takes for the top job at the ‘medal factory’? (Pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWPix.com)

Whoever succeeds interim performance director Andy Harrison will take charge of the British Cycling’s elite riders at a time of unprecedented turmoil for the federation, with allegations of sexism upheld against former technical director Shane Sutton and UK Anti-Doping investigating claims of “wrongdoing in cycling”.

In fact, British Cycling might consider replacing Harrison as the least of their concerns. The federation is also seeking a replacement for chief executive Ian Drake, who announced last month that he will leave in April.

The role of performance director, however, will remain pivotal. Who then has the skills and personality demanded by such a high-profile position? We consider six of the best contenders.

Brian Smith

The ambitious Scot has an impressive record at the highest level of men’s professional road racing. A former British champion, and most recently the general manager of Team Dimension Data, a post he left in April, Smith’s eye for talent and ability to manage athletes and complex organisations is beyond doubt.

How might he cope, however, with a role that encompasses a host of different cycling disciplines, and where success or failure will be determined almost entirely by the haul of medals from the velodrome, specifically at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in four years time? The European road calendar and its cast will seem a long way away.

Brian Smith (left) has enjoyed management success at Endura Racing and Team Dimension Data

Smith has said that he his “very interested” in the role and might call on any number of elite professionals for testimonials, up to and including Mark Cavendish, re-established as the world’s best road sprinter at Dimension Data after Smith’s coup in securing his services on departing the mighty Etixx-Quickstep.

Smith also masterminded Endura Racing’s season of domestic dominance in 2012, which concluded with Jon Tiernan-Locke’s victory at the Tour of Britain. The Devonian’s subsequent doping ban should not overshadow a season of success for a host of riders, several of whom graduated to Grand Tours and Monument Classics, among them Zak Dempster, Scott Thwaites and Erick Rowsell. All of them owe a debt of gratitude to Smith.

Sir Clive Woodward

Since steering the England rugby team to World Cup glory in 2003, Woodward has been linked with any number of top sporting positions  but, as of writing, is a columnist for the Daily Mail.

His executive style holds an irresistible allure for business columnists and the authors of the management manuals beloved of airport bookshops who see an easy parallel between commerce and sport. Indeed, before the inexorable (and recently checked) rise of Sir Dave Brailsford, Sir Clive’s methods were frequently pedaled as a panacea for any manner of commercial and societal woes, and he remains a sought after speaker on the “leadership” circuit.

Sir Clive Woodward masterminded England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup victory and was the Director of Sport at the British Olympic Association in the build-up to the London Games (Pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWPix.com)

Woodward’s disappointing tenure at Southampton football club from 2005 to 2006, firstly as Performance Director and later as director of football, exposed his limitations, although his reputation recovered much of its lustre after a successful six-year stint with the British Olympic Association as Director of Sport, one which ended after the hugely successful London Games.

Would he be successful in running a national cycling team? In managing personalities as strong as those of Lawrence Dallaglio and as complex as Jonny Wilkinson, Woodward proved that exceptional sportsmen do not phase him, but a detailed knowledge of competitive cycling is surely a “must” for the suits in Manchester.

Nicole Cooke

Intelligent, strong willed, and with a palmares to match any, former world and Olympic road race champion Nicole Cooke, twice a winner of the women’s Tour de France, would have little difficulty in commanding the respect of her athletes.

Since retiring in 2013, she has become a consultant for Deloitte UK, completed an MBA and published an acclaimed book, The Breakaway, about her experiences in elite sport. In her retirement statement, she heavily criticised a sport that had given few opportunities to female athletes, and issued a withering condemnation of dopers, male and female.

Nicole Cooke’s palmares as a rider is unquestionable and she has gained significant experience in business and management since retiring (Pic: Sirotti)

Might Cooke’s own standards mitigate against her in the role of Performance Director, however? “Uncompromising” is clearly the correct attitude when dealing with inequality and dopers, but one imagines a degree of diplomacy is required in the day-to-day business of managing a veritable host of athletes, coaches, administrators and more. Cooke may be ably equipped to do so (she has seemingly managed a transition from the peloton to Civvy Street with aplomb), but insistence is in the nature of great champions.

Then there is the Armitstead conundrum. Cooke’s successor as Great Britain’s queen of the road made little secret of her disgust at losing out to the Welshwoman at the 2011 world championships, when the Great Britain team had been sent out to ride for Armitstead (the Otley rider was caught up in a crash late in the race, and Cooke rode on to claim fourth). Might old wounds be reopened with Cooke installed as Armitstead’s de facto boss for the annual world championships?

All things considered (notably the MBA and a collection of yellow, pink, rainbow and Olympic jerseys), Cooke would seem to have the necessary balance of cycling knowledge and business acumen. Whether she would seek such a role remains to be seen.

Darren Tudor

Arguably the most qualified of our candidates, Darren Tudor has instituted a quiet revolution as  Head Coach of Welsh Cycling, producing one world class athlete after another, on road and track.

From Luke Rowe to Elinor Barker, Becky James to Owain Doull, and the blossoming talents of what might described as a second wave – the likes of Sam Harrison and Scott Davies – Tudor’s skill in identifying and developing talent cannot be denied.

Darren Tudor has been key to the rise of Welsh cyclists (Pic: Welsh Cycling)

Is he ready for such a high-profile role? Tudor’s success in unearthing Welsh diamonds to be polished in Manchester does not by itself suggest a suitability for a more overarching role. Might there be something of the ‘Peter Principle’ [LINK] in promoting someone so eminently qualified for their current post?

Tudor’s success should not mitigate against him, however. Welsh Cycling’s loss would unquestionably British Cycling’s gain, and the last Welshman to sit in the performance director’s chair delivered more than his fair share of medals to Manchester. The new Brailsford? British Cycling might dream of making such an appointment. Tudor might be happy to be judged on his achievements thus far.

Stephen Park

British Cycling (and, by extension, Peter Keen, Sir Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton) have few rivals for the unofficial title of medal provider to a grateful nation, but the Royal Yachting Association might levy a still greater claim. While Team GB’s cyclists have topped the medal table at three Olympic Games, the sailors have done so four times. Park, the RYA’s Team Manager, and who joined the organisation in a full-time capacity nearly 20 years ago, has clearly been instrumental to such sustained success.

By heading a sporting organisation comprised of 80 athletes competing in 13 different boat classes, Park is well used to the day-to-day demands of managing elite performance at a large and complex sporting federation. He will also be vastly experienced in the management of the behind-the-scenes staff: the coaches and nutritionists, psychologists and physiotherapists who are instrumental to sporting success at the highest level.

British sailors topped the medal table at the 2016 Olympic Games under the guidance of Stephen Park (Pic: Richard Gladwell/SWPix.com

Appointing someone with no experience of cycling, however, no matter how successful in another field, would represent a risk on British Cycling’s part, though the candidate brief for the role lists experience in cycling as “desirable” rather than “essential”.

Besides, Park played down his interest in the role. Hugely competitive and with an interest in motor racing, he might find greater satisfaction in a move to Formula One. For now, he insists he is focused on leading Britain’s elite sailors to the Tokyo Games in 2020.

Sara Symington

Sara Symington is among the favourites to become British Cycling’s new performance director. She is new neither to cycling, nor to such a senior coaching role, as a former British circuit race champion and the current performance director at the England Netball federation.

Twice a former Olympian and a Loughborough University graduate, with a career path that has led from the police to the world of business and various sports federations, there appears to be little in the way of experience that Symington lacks: a former top class rider with a wealth of experience from the wider world.

Sara Symington is one of the favourites for the job and appears to tick all the boxes (Pic: Dame Kelly Holmes Trust)

Like all of our contenders, however, Symington offers no guarantee of success in a role where success is expected. British Cycling is in turmoil. Her role as Performance Director will involve her coping with the current challenges, rather than resolving them (this unenviable task awaits Drake’s successor). How might she cope?

The answer is no-one knows. Equally, we might say that Symington has as good a chance as any of our contenders. A vast knowledge of cycling from the inside, a track record leading other sports, and significant experience in the wider world, will leave her as well prepared as any.

Heiko Salzwedel

The expression ‘track record’ might almost have been coined for Salzwedel, a man who has brought to success to every cycling federation he has worked with, most notably with British Cycling, and most recently at Rio 2016, where he led the men’s endurance programme. No less a source than Sir Bradley Wiggins has paid handsome tribute to the German’s influence.

Heiko Salzwedel is in charge of British Cycling’s men’s endurance programme (Pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)

Salzwedel announced himself on the international cycling stage by founding the Australian Institute of Sport and discovering the likes of 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans and the three-time winner of the Tour’s green jersey competition, Robbie McEwen. He has worked for British Cycling on three occasions (in 2001 and 2008, before returning in 2014 to prepare the likes of Cavendish, Clancy, Wiggins et al for Rio), and in between times transformed the fortunes of Russian and Danish cyclists.

A shoo-in for the performance director role? History and other sports tell us that promoting an able performer in a less senior role to the top job rarely works. Football is littered with such examples, most notably Steve McLaren, an able assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and a dismal failure as manager almost everywhere else.

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