With 14 out of our 48 medals won on two wheels, why is Britain so good at cycling?

Looking behind Team GB's impressive Olympic performance.

How did we get so good at cycling? Pick a Team GB medal winner at random, and there’s a good chance they rode to the podium on two wheels. At the time of writing, 14 of Britain’s 48 medals have involved cycling – either track, road or in the triathlon.

Cyclists are our national sweethearts. When Mark Cavendish failed to fulfil hopes of a win in the road race, there were a few rumblings that Bradley Wiggins’s triumphant performance in the Tour de France had bred some British overconfidence, but Wiggo’s time trials gold soon rectified such fears, and made him the only person to have won both the Tour and an Olympic gold in the same year.

Chris Hoy’s golds in the team sprint and keirin have made him Britain’s most successful Olympian; Victoria Pendleton’s heartbreaking disqualification in her last competitive race means she leaves 2012 with one gold and one silver, but also a huge swell of goodwill from those who’ve followed her career. And as current greats peak, new stars have come into view: Lizzie Armitstead kicked off an overdue debate about the standing of women’s sport after winning silver in the cycling, while Laura Trott’s Olympic double gold (in the team pursuit and omnium) seems even more impressive when you realise that she also holds double gold in the World and European championships.

The signs of British cycling dominance were first obvious in 2008 at Beijing, where Team GB’s cyclists hauled 14 of the total medals (with the BMX events still to come at 2012, we may beat that yet this year). But it was a success built on long-term planning, ambition and lots of money. Coaches Peter Keen and David Brailsford saw Chris Boardman’s gold at the 1992 games in Barcelona as the starting point for a sustained and focused campaign by British Cycling (the governing body of cycle sport in the UK), aimed at winning the medals that could attract the funding that could make Britain’s cyclists into the colossi they have become.

Lottery funding and backing from Sport England (to promote grassroots cycling) and UK Sport (to support elite athletes) have all been critical in this process. But the breakthrough – at least in terms of the Tour de France – has been Team Sky, formed in 2009 and currently providing training, support and financial backing to Wiggins, Froome and Cavendish. Team Sky’s priorities have been criticised: although Pendleton features heavily in promotion for Sky-backed cycling events, there is no women’s Team Sky. Hopefully, the undeniable success and popularity of the women’s sport in this Olympics will change that in the next season.

Where Sky has got it right, however, is in promoting cycling as a universal activity and not just an elite sport. The Skyride events (which started when Sky sponsored the London Freewheel in 2009 and have since gone national) turn whole cities into motor-vehicle-free zones, to be enjoyed by thousands of amateurs of all abilities. For some, it’s their first opportunity to enjoy urban cycling without the menace of HGVs, and the start of a breakthrough into regular riding. And one of the qualities helping to fuel Britain’s cycling boom is that there does seem to be a genuine relationship between elite success and amateur enthusiasm.

Wiggins has a very endearing story about himself aged 12: after watching Boardman take gold in Barcelona, he immediately went out on his own bike and pretended he was Boardman, commentating on himself all the way. Without ascending to Wiggo-ish heights, my family picked up some of the same buzz after watched the velodrome events in 2008, hiring bikes the next day and setting off on a wildly over-ambitious trek that was the beginning of a regular riding habit. It’s not just me: British Cycling membership has doubled to 50,000 since 2008, and Halfords reported an 18% increase in sales of bikes and kit following this year’s road cycling victories.

And while Olympic success feeds mass cycling’s popularity, mass cycling in turn helps produce the elite of the future. British Cycling has astutely established scouting projects in various age groups to locate the amateur individuals with potential to be tomorrow’s champions. (Armitstead is one of the fruits of that outreach.)

The controversy that briefly flared after Bradley Wiggins was quoted as saying helmet-wearing should be compulsory for British cyclists shows that there’s still some way to go before Britain truly becomes a nation of cyclists, as do the arrests of the Critical Mass cycling activists during the opening ceremony. But the pressure for the infrastructure changes needed may become irresistible if cycling’s rise continues, and this Olympic showing gives us no reason to expect anything else.

Sarah Ditum is a freelance writer. She tweets: @sarahditum

Dave Brailsford (centre) poses with British Cycling coaching staff. Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Getty
Show Hide image

A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear