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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Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue