London 2012

One and lonely?

Solitary-rider rule may harm Olympic cycling, says Richard

Last Updated: 12/04/12 11:36am

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Hoy: could miss out on an Olympic berth

Hoy: could miss out on an Olympic berth

It was tempting, after marvelling at the outstanding performances and overall standard of competition at last week's World Track Cycling Championships in Melbourne, to conclude that the sport is in rude health.

"The big worry is that the UCI stymie the sport in the only countries - Britain and Australia in particular - where it is actually flourishing. "
Richard Moore Quotes of the week

Tempting, but perhaps misguided.

The standard is certainly higher across the board, with no single country dominating, as Britain did in Manchester four years ago. And yet the future for track cycling may not be as bright as the picture in Melbourne suggests.

In the immediate future, many of the best events and riders will be missing from the sport's showpiece, the Olympics.

The points race, scratch race, individual pursuit, kilometre, madison: none will feature in London. And, as everybody now knows, the new one rider-per-nation rule will deprive the Games of so many top riders that the chances of a repeat of Melbourne are depressingly slim.

Cycling's world governing body, the UCI, argues that its various initiatives are designed with global development in mind. The big worry, though, is that they stymie the sport in the only countries - Britain and Australia in particular - where it is actually flourishing.

And as for the chances of the sport taking off in countries with no tradition in track cycling, well...

Doldrums

For track racing to prosper, you need velodromes, which cost a lot of money, and you need time.

Twenty years ago Britain had no indoor facilities, and the sport was in the doldrums. Then the Manchester track opened. Then there was Newport, now there is London, and when the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome opens in Glasgow later this year, we will have four indoor tracks.

The Manchester facility has been vital in the transformation from also-rans to world-beaters. Equally important was the lottery funding introduced in 1997, which, in the case of British cycling, diverted almost exclusively to the track programme. The only other country in the world to pour so much of its funding and resources into track cycling was - guess where? - Australia.

No surprise that these two countries have dominated the last two Olympics: Australia in Athens, Britain in Beijing. And now the two countries look pretty equal going into London.

True, the sport is not all about Australia and GB. Germany, France, Russia and New Zealand all have strong riders and decent track programmes. But it is difficult to escape the idea that, without GB and Australia, the sport would look pretty threadbare.

This is an impression heightened by the UCI's own flagship series, the World Cup. It began as a six-event series in 1995 and, over the 2011/12 season, comprised four events in Astana, Cali, Beijing and London.

Again, 'globalisation' - the UCI mantra - is the aim. But the World Cups in Kazakhstan and China were hardly roaring successes, and now it is rumoured that, for the 2012/13 season, there is a dearth of venues even willing to host a World Cup. Indeed, Britain might end up with two.

Long-term health

The one inescapable fact about track cycling is the absolute importance of the Olympics. Forget the World Championships or World Cup: it is the Olympics that makes stars. And this is why the lack of events and riders at London and future Games constitutes such a risk to the long-term health of the sport.

The paucity of opportunities is bound to have a negative effect on track cycling in Britain. The Manchester Velodrome has been a factory of talent, producing 20 Olympic medals over the last three Games.

Success has rubbed off on the place, and kept the conveyor belt going. How many youngsters go to Manchester to give track cycling a go because of the thrill of riding on the same boards as Hoy or Victoria Pendleton?

But if you are an aspiring young cyclist, do you gamble four years of your life, or more, on the remote possibility of making the Olympic track team? Or do you go off and do something else instead - road cycling, maybe, or swimming (there are 32 medal opportunities in the pool, 10 in the velodrome)?

These questions raise others: can the Manchester factory go on producing, or will the conveyor belt grind to a halt? And will it even get started in London or Glasgow?

One sure way to kill anything - an animal, a government, even, eventually, the Lernaean Hydra - is to cut the head off. This is why the UCI initiatives seem so flawed. Whether or not they succeed in 'globalising' the sport, some of the new rules seem likely to harm track cycling in the very places where it has been thriving.

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