You only need to try to cross a road in London to know how deeply the cycling bug has bitten Britain. Look right and left then right again.
On a more exalted level, to be present in the sealed air of the Olympic velodrome during another gold-kissed night on the Siberian pine is to know what the Games are truly about: human endeavour, in cycling’s case aided by technological brilliance, in pursuit of perfection. Tension, competition and reward conjoin.
All of which makes the revelations of the last few days feel like modern sport’s answer to the fall of Rome.
Great Britain’s Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott, Jess Varnish and Sir Chris Hoy take to the podium to receive the World cup games team prize at the 2012 Olympic Games in London
Shane Sutton (right), pictured with Sir Dave Brailsford, has stepped down as British Cycling technical director
Sutton, seen here with Trott, is accused of making sexist and discriminatory remarks towards leading riders
It was the empire that Sir Dave Brailsford built. On those dizzying pinnacles Laura Trott, with two gold medals already at the age of 24, will compete for the bullion that will make her the most successful female British Olympian.
She will, if the recent implosion of technical director Shane Sutton’s departure does not intervene, be the poster girl for the British team’s leading sport. For cycling has represented the gold standard of the Lottery-funded era: fabulous coaches, iconic riders, scientific progress.
It all comes at a mighty cost, namely £30.5million in the build-up to the Rio Games, which start on August 5, but so what if it delivers success?
Alas, that philosophy is at the root of Sutton’s demise. He survived for as long as he did because gold medals excused any barbaric phrase, even if it involved calling disabled cyclists ‘gimps’ and ‘wobblies’. Rudeness was dressed up as a motivational device. Just look at the bottom line, eight gold medals at London, and move on.
Thankfully, that is no longer good enough. No doubt, Sutton is a brilliant coach. On the second page of his autobiography Sir Bradley Wiggins says this: ‘Shane Sutton — mentor, coach and general inspiration to me and many others at Team GB — one of my closest friends in cycling and just about the soundest guy I have ever known. A bloke you would want in the trenches with you.’
Others, including Sir Chris Hoy — and indeed Trott — have said that his stick was as good as a carrot.
There is no quibbling here with that aspect of Sutton’s credo. Being a tough taskmaster is part of the coach’s alchemist art (ask Sir Alex Ferguson). But there is a clear line. Sexism, discrimination, bullying lie the other side of it. That is why he is the former technical director today.
To employ the excuse that he is a 58-year-old Australian is an insult to a number of his brothers on the other end of the world. A bully is a bully, and he is a ‘narcissistic’ one in Wendy Houvenaghel’s most damning word.
Darren Kenny, one of Britain’s best paralympic riders, said Sutton called disabled people ‘gimps’
Olympic champion Victoria Pendleton said she ‘wholeheartedly believed’ the sexism claims about Sutton
Yes, several of his winners have spoken up for him. But not all of them, Victoria Pendleton included, which reveals that the allegations are not exclusively the refrain of the nearly-women.
There is no squeamishness among those of us who have grown up in sport, working as cub reporters at lower-league football clubs, to the use of industrial language. It is often the lingua franca of hard competition.
But as a reference point I spoke to Tom James, a reigning double gold medallist in rowing and now a management consultant. He would have no reason to dissemble when he tells me that the dialect Sutton used to disparage para-cyclists is not remotely in the vocabulary of able-bodied rowers who share their Caversham base with Paralympians, as the cyclists do in the Manchester velodrome. The two groups, he said, coexisted in perfect harmony and would speak to each other as ‘grown-ups’.
James has worked with another tough coach from the Olympic world, Jurgen Grobler, architect of gold-medal winning crews in every Olympics since 1972. ‘Jurgen is ruthless,’ said James. ‘But he would not speak about a group of people in a dismissive way. For one thing, it would undermine the respect he is held in.’
Varnish (left) said that Sutton told her to ‘have a baby’ after she was omitted from the Olympic team
That is a truth the abrasive Sutton did not realise until hard reality bit this week.
What of cycling now with Rio little more than three months away? The scale of funding has undoubtedly bred egos and a bloated 270-strong staff. When Brailsford was there — a perfectionist who stroked fluff off his trousers and lined up the coffee cups symmetrically as he conducted an interview — there was a reassuring air of professionalism to offset Sutton’s brusqueness. Steve Peters, the hailed psychiatrist, administered balm, which is much-missed.
Leadership, post Sutton, has passed to Andy Harrison, the programmes director, who has spoken to his cyclists this week to iron out difficulties. And ‘Room X’, dedicated to the technological development of bikes, helmets, shoes and skinsuits, remains under the sure direction of Cambridge professor Tony Purnell. As one very senior figure told me last night, ‘the die is cast’.
A system is firmly in place and another gold medal avalanche in Rio is hardly to be discounted. But, sadly, something more precious than even gold has been lost.
TIMELINE: HOW THE SUTTON SCANDAL UNFOLDED
Jess Varnish dropped from the Great Britain Olympic cycling team after failing to qualify in the two-woman, two-lap team sprint.
Shane Sutton says: ‘Jess had not made the necessary gains in performance compared to the rest of the world.’
Varnish claims to Sportsmail that Sutton made sexist comments towards her after shattering her Olympic dream. He is reported to have told the 25-year-old she was ‘too old’, should ‘move on and get on with having a baby’ and that her ‘ass’ was too big.
UK Sport welcome an investigation into allegations by Varnish in the interview. British Cycling and Sutton fervently deny any wrongdoing.
Victoria Pendleton backs up Varnish’s claims about Sutton, saying her experiences at British Cycling were very similar. Pendleton says she ‘wholeheartedly believed’ Varnish, saying she never felt she had the same respect as her male team-mates. Sutton is suspended by British Cycling following the allegations.
Sutton is alleged to have referred to para-cyclists as ‘gimps’ and ‘wobblies’. The allegation comes from Darren Kenny, one of Britain’s most decorated para-cyclists. Sutton then claims he supported Pendleton when she ‘capitulated’ on the track during her career. He says he was ‘hurt’ by her allegations.
He also insists that Varnish was dropped solely on the basis of her performance on the track, calling her ‘a wonderful girl and a beautiful person’.
Later, he resigns as technical director of British Cycling.
- Arsenal’s David Luiz opens up on his emotional Chelsea exit
- Man arrested, heard shouting ‘this is for Syria,’ in stabbing attack in London tube station
- Barcelona’s woes mount as de Jong ruled out following Cadiz draw, but fans single one player out for special praise
- Greece OKs $402.5M offer from China’s Cosco for port stake
- Israel expands Gaza offensive after two soldiers killed by Hamas
- Everything You Need to Know About Installment Loans