To outsiders, the Great Britain team resembles a closed shop: riders are either in or out, and most come through the performance path, starting at 16. Those who miss out have limited chances to demonstrate their potential, which is why this autumn’s experiment by Team KGF has raised eyebrows.
Charlie Tanfield, Jacob Tipper, Dan Bigham and Jonathan Wale, who are the national team pursuit champions, will start in Manchester on Friday after finishing seventh in the opening World Cup round in Poland. The World Cup is not limited to national teams – all KGF had to do was register with the UCI – but the system is most often used by national teams who want to up their presence, as GB will this weekend by fielding academy riders under the Team Breeze and 100% Me marques.
“We are a group of lads who all work full time apart from Charlie and he’s a student who’s in trouble for missing lectures,” Tipper said. “The idea is to mix it with the big boys and see how far we can get.” British Cycling lines up third chair in a year as Browning steps down after nine months.
The quartet share a house in Derby, where they train on the velodrome. “They’ve given us a lot of track time but at the start we had two sessions a week, in between the regular sessions.”
Those full-time jobs do relate to team pursuiting: Tipper is a coach, Bigham – also the national individual pursuit and kilometre champion – runs an aerodynamics business that also employs Wale. The quartet had little time to find sponsors within the deadline, having decided to race together internationally after the national championships in February. Consequently, their main backer is “the credit card”; KGF is a charitable foundation.
That seventh place in Poland was a performance that belied their budget and lack of marquee names, while demonstrating the limitations presented by a lineup who, they are happy to admit, are far from balanced. It was enough to get them past Belgium, Belarus, Spain and Ukraine in qualifying, where their three kilometre time promised a sub-four minute ride that would have put them in the medal ride-off.
“We are inexperienced, so we don’t have a call for ‘I’ve been dropped, you have to wait for me’,” Tipper said. “I’ve never been world class but we are doing world-class times; I mistimed a change late on in the second round and those guys are going so fast there was no way back.”
Wale, a kilometre specialist, had already done his stint, meaning that while Bigham and Tanfield finished together in a world-class time, the result depended on the third rider.
While Tipper admits he is mainly trying to hang on to his three team-mates, the quartet have their ambitions: “Manchester will be hard but I don’t see why we shouldn’t find what we need by the [final World Cup] round in Belarus. Those three are fast enough, we just need one guy to find 20 or 30 watts improvement.”
Bigham and Tanfield want to break into the national team and to help Great Britain qualify a second slot in the individual pursuit for next year’s world championships. Wale has ambitions to ride for Scotland at the Commonwealth Games. “GB were really helpful in Poland, they’ve been very supportive, but we are still gluing on our own tyres and booking our own flights. It’s the only way to step on to the system.”
As for Great Britain, they remain in transition following the departure of the technical director Shane Sutton in April 2016. The Australian – who is interviewed in a BBC documentary on recent events at British Cycling to be shown next weekend – has been in the velodrome this week in his new guise as an adviser to the Chinese.
Meanwhile, the performance director, Stephen Park, has yet to make an impression, having started work only in April, the month GB put in a low-key performance at the world championships in Hong Kong, with only two gold medals – Katie Archibald in the women’s omnium and Elinor Barker in the points race.
Since Rio, the track team have been largely marked by departures, culminating in recent weeks in the removal of the endurance head coach Heiko Salzwedel, which was unexpected – at least on Salzwedel’s side – but has yet to be confirmed by British Cycling, who have said he remains on the payroll.
The retirements of Joanna Rowsell-Shand, Becky James and Sir Bradley Wiggins, plus the absence of Laura and Jason Kenny, whose son Albert was born in August, means the team have looked short of senior figures and so the return of the triple team pursuit gold medallist Ed Clancy from his post-Rio break acquires greater weight.
Those absences, plus changes to the omnium mission format and the arrival of men and women’s Madison on the Olympic schedule, imply that almost every place on the GB squad could be up for grabs between here and Tokyo in 2020, which in turn is reflected by the presence of more than 30 British entrants here, including GB academy squads from Team Breeze and 100% Me