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.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.