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Why track cycling is reaping reward for huge investment

Ten years ago, the average man in the street barely knew what a velodrome was.

British Cycling is now the envy of all other so-called minority sports. Picture: Nick Ponty
British Cycling is now the envy of all other so-called minority sports. Picture: Nick Ponty

Now, you've got to fight tooth and nail to get a ticket for one of the meetings. This weekend's UCI Track World Cup cycling event at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow is a sell-out. All the key sessions having sold out within 25 minutes, it's a sign of how far cycling's popularity has risen.

At the time of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, track cycling was languishing in the backwaters of British sport, just as many minority sports do. Since then, the sport has exploded into the public's consciousness in a manner never seen before. Make no mistake about it: cycling is no longer a minority sport.

The GB cycling programme is now the envy of every other sport in the UK, particularly Olympic sports which must rely on external funding because of their inability to be self-sufficient. Clearly, the success of the GB team at the Beijing and London Olympics has worked wonders in raising the public profile of the sport. So how has cycling managed to transform itself so successfully when so many other minority sports have failed?

Where cycling stands out in comparison to most other sports is the strength in depth throughout the team when it comes to winning medals. When I compare this to badminton, a sport which has had a degree of success when it comes to winning medals on the world stage, cycling's medal winners are distributed throughout the team whereas badminton has consistently relied on a couple of top performers to deliver.

At this summer's Olympic Games, the only member of the GB track cycling team to come home empty-handed was Jessica Varnish who, along with Victoria Pendleton, was disqualified from the team sprint. In Beijing, at the 2008 Olympic Games, only Mark Cavendish failed to return with a medal. It's pretty impressive statistics.

So, what's the secret of their success? In the late 1990s, the National Lottery funding programme was established. It was a system which would provide money for minority sports to implement a training and competition programme on the firm understanding that a return was expected on their investment in the form of medals.

Cycling bought into this philosophy in a way that no other sport has. Their performance director, Dave Brailsford, has been an integral part of their progress and has masterminded a system which demands success. Anyone who is not delivering will be removed from the programme. Brailsford runs British Cycling with an intensity that is above the norm. When questioned about his iron-fisted governance, Brailsford said: "You've got times when you need to push people hard, to push people out of the comfort zone. I know from different personal experiences that, unless I'm frightened or scared or really concerned about something - if I am, then I work really, really hard."

It must make for a stressful training environment. I know that I would have felt pretty intimidated being part of such a cut-throat system, but it is clearly working for them. Brailsford has managed to get the nigh-on impossible balance between being a hard-nosed dictator and an almost father-like figure to his riders. Few others have managed this. You rarely, if ever, hear Brailsord being criticised publicly by one of his athletes.

A huge part of cycling's success is down to the fact that once they identify which athletes have the talent, work ethic and mental fortitude to succeed, there is huge financial backing in place to ensure that they will fulfil their potential.

The GB cycling programme receives just over £26m in funding from UK Sport, but this in no way guarantees success. They do, though, spend their money wisely. No team in the world goes into that velodrome better prepared than the British team. Their 'hot-pants' which the riders wore at the London Olympics ensured that, during their warm-up, their muscles maintained the optimal temperature for performance. It is technology such as this, and collaborations with NASA, McLaren Group and adidas, among others, which have enabled Britain to become the best track cycling nation in the world.

British Cycling has gone from being an irrelevance in the world of sport to having created a dynasty. Every other minority sport in the country should take Brailsford's blueprint and apply it to their own sport. If other sports could muster even 10% of British cycling's success, they wouldn't be doing too badly.

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