Out of the Red, White and Blue

Out of the Red, White and Blue

In his latest contribution to Mondial, WorldTour directeur sportif and former Rapha-Condor pro Tom Southam takes us through Britain’s storied cycling history to remind us all just how spectacular the recent run of British Grand Tour victories has been.

05 October 2018

The new men’s world champion might hail from one of cycling’s traditional heartlands, but the last 18 months of stage racing has been dominated by a country that was a total cycling backwater just fifteen years ago.

Three Grand Tours, three different British winners. The fifth consecutive Grand Tour win for Britain. By the time the Giro comes around in May, no other country will have won one for two years.

These days British cyclists walk tall in the international peloton unburdened by doubt and unencumbered by the pressures of their past. They are the figureheads of a wealthy forward-thinking cycling nation which suddenly finds itself bursting with Grand Tour winning potential.

Truth to be told it’s all a bit out of character for a nation with no real cycling culture to speak of. Despite the fact that we tried (and believe me - I tried), for the first hundred-odd years of the sport British cyclists conspired to remain very much on the fringe of professional cycling.

The gap between Britain and mainland Europe may have been small, but it made winning the biggest bike races in the world seemingly impossible for our race of island dwellers. There was no rich seam of talent, no golden generation; we were a small largely-insignificant cycling nation that would occasionally stumble across greatness.

Tom Simpson’s light burned bright, but his legacy was as tragic as it was brilliant. Robert Millar was one of the best riders of his era, but wasn’t really all that interested in courting the media or raising his profile. Behind these two there was a consistent but small number of quality riders racing in Europe at any one time, and that was our lot. It was a lonely existence, and to make it work you needed bags of talent or to be slightly odd. Of course, having both helped immeasurably.

In the mid-nineties, things did start to change. After winning gold at the Barcelona Olympics in the individual pursuit, Chris Boardman embarked on a professional career on the road. In doing so created something of a blueprint for the future success of British cycling.

Boardman based his success on what he knew he could win (short time trials and prologues - the type of thing no one else in that era was trying to win) and from there measuredly moved forward. As unexciting as it seemed to those of us who loved the swashbuckling world of pro cycling, it worked. Boardman eschewed the European pro-life, living instead on the Wirral and refusing to be drawn into doing things that he didn’t understand just because of the prevailing mindset of this was just how things have to be done.

He may not have been as exciting a rider to follow as contemporaries like Millar or Hunt, but Boardman was key to wider success. Following his Olympic track medals came national interest, then lottery money and with that Peter Keen’s (Boardman’s coach) comprehensive plan to become one of the best cycling nations in the world via medals on the track.

Despite the fact that the hardcore road racing contingent among us (myself included) saw track and road as very different worlds, by the mid-noughties track successes started to deliver riders onto the road. In the spirit of Boardman, Britain was slowly getting there by winning what it knew it could.

By 2007 Steve Cummings, Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome were all plying their trade in European professional teams. They were a talented bunch but they didn’t seem to be anything that their predecessors hadn’t been; Cummings scored a few nice results in races like Laiguelia and the Tour of Denmark, Wiggins could win a T.T. or a short stage race, and Thomas was young and had a future.

But then something happened.

In 2008 Mark Cavendish took two stages in the Giro and four at the Tour and nothing would be the same again.

We were still accustomed to short and fleeting burst of success or near misses; Robert Millar’s stolen Vuelta, Boardman’s stints in the yellow jersey, Hammond’s Roubaix podium… Cavendish won big and kept on doing so. Week after week the British were on top, and they became accustomed to it. His winning character inspiring the best out of his contemporaries whilst also lifting the game even of the riders of the generation before him.

British Cycling with its lottery millions, raised levels of public interest and its group of talented riders who were galvanised by their time in the track program, just needed a spark to light the fire. In Cavendish they had their spark.

It is not possible to overstate the effect that having a consistent British winner on the world’s highest stage had on British cycling. While Cavendish was winning other British riders found the legs to win. Just like the Danish ‘coffee-club’ of the nineties, German cycling in the wake of Jan Ullrich, and Colombian cycling has following the success of Quintana, Uran and co.

Cummings started to convert near misses into wins, taking out the Italian semi-classic Coppa Bernocchi late that summer. Bradley Wiggins woke up left the track behind to try to turn himself into a Grand Tour contender. Hunt, Millar and Hammond all raised their collective games in what were their later years, while young riders like Ian Stannard, Adam Blythe and Ben Swift were on the cusp of breaking through. Meanwhile, a little-known Kenyan called Chris Froome decided he was better off as a Brit than a Kenyan.

For the next few years, the momentum continued with the number and quality of British professionals steadily rising. For the first time in history, British riders were in favour, the next step was their own team.

In 2010 Team Sky was born, which ultimately gave riders such as Thomas and Stannard a place that they could develop in their own time in an environment they knew and trusted. The stage for the talented riders of the next generation had been set.

Unlike other nations who recently enjoyed Tour de France success, cycling in the U.K. wouldn’t come and go with one winner. British riders became hungry for their own success and they also had a formula for it, and they’ve kept on winning.

Whether or not Britain can find another generation of Tour winners is yet to be seen, as the French will tell you they don’t grow on trees, however, for now at least, the disparate days of the lonely British pro seem to be over, and that can’t be bad.

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