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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.