PALMA DE MALLORCA, Spain (Reuters) - It is not often that a British team comes home from a world championships having topped the medals table and left rival nations looking on with a mixture of admiration and envy.
That is exactly what the British cycling team did at the world track cycling championships in Palma, Mallorca, which ended on Sunday.
The team completed the sort of gold rush that other British sports can only dream of, finishing the championships on top of the podium in seven of the 17 disciplines and collecting a total of 11 medals.
There were world-class performances from Victoria Pendleton, Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins and the men’s pursuit team. The 18-year-old BMX rider Shanaze Reade won gold in her first track worlds, while former Olympic rowing silver medallist Rebecca Romero earned a silver less than a year after taking up the sport.
“That was the best ever performance by a British team by a large margin, not just in terms of quantity of medals but also quality,” chief coach and former Olympic gold medallist Chris Boardman told Reuters.
“The great thing is that the younger riders who came through here are really driving things on. We’ve also left junior riders at home in events like the team pursuit who have done times that could have got them medals here.
“It’s pretty scary really. We need to stand back a bit and take it all in because we may never see anything like this again.
“One of the problems we now have is that we’ve raised the bar ahead of next year’s worlds in Manchester and the Olympic Games.
“No one will accept second place now, but that’s a fantastic problem to have.”
Wiggins, who won golds in the individual and team pursuit, believes other sports should take a look at cycling if they want to emulate its success.
“Great Britain cycling is the model team for any team,” he said. “English rugby, cricket, football, they should all take a look at the British cycling team because we are doing something right. I can’t express how good the backroom staff really are.”
While reluctant to make comparisons with any other sport, performance director Dave Brailsford believes the team is reaping the reward for the professional, lottery-funded set-up British cycling has put in place.
“We are a medal-or-nothing programme,” he told Reuters. “We don’t work with athletes that we think will make four to eight. It’s either you are good enough to make a medal or you’re not for us.
“We work on logic not emotion, that is very important but very difficult to do.
“We have a four-tier programme in place. We have a team who actively seek out talent both from within the sport and from outside. We also have a fast-track programme too.
“In the short term we are prepared to look outside but in the longer term we want organic growth from inside the sport.”
The system may be elitist but it is also highly supportive and athlete-centred.
“We work with the carrot, not the stick,” said Brailsford. “The riders are kings and queens in our system, we’re the minions and that is quite different to how a lot of coaches approach sport. They like to think that they are the ones wearing the crown.
“We’re not going to wag the finger in front of riders and scream and shout at them if things go wrong. What we need to do is sit down and analyse how and why did that happen and to avoid it happening again and that is our approach with all our riders.
“It is not soft, though. When we have to make tough decisions we will make them, but we make them compassionately, we are not malicious.”
As well as a bank of expert coaches and advisors such as Boardman, the team have a full-time psychiatrist who Brailsford believes has played a vital role in making Britain a winning outfit.
“We have a psychiatrist rather than a psychologist and he has used his medical rather than purely academic background to help us develop our thinking and he has given us the confidence to roll out our ideas on how do humans perform to the best of their ability.
“We don’t believe that you’ll whip anyone on to a podium and so you need to feel confident, well supported and prepared to do the job in hand and that’s what we have done.”
“To win a world championships in cycling you have to have a thoroughbred. We can’t make thoroughbreds out of donkeys, but once we get a thoroughbred I think we are pretty good at supporting them so that they become the best they can be.”