Continuing from the altogether too long discussion of Kenyan running that took all of Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 3, today I want to switch gears (ha ha, this joke will make sense in a second) and look at an example of another group that jumped from relative anonymity to dominance in what is a fairly niche sport in a relatively short period of time. The sport is track cycling and the ‘country’ is the United Kingdom (technically this includes NORTHERN Ireland, Scotland and Great Britain). And this discussion will only be marginally too long.
As with the Kenyan runners, I’ll look a bit at the sport and then try to examine what the UK did to achieve dominance (and more importantly how they went from doing nothing on the world stage to kicking absolute ass in a relatively short time period), to see if there are any commonalities or what have you.
Again, I don’t intend to spend nearly the time ton this as I did on Kenyan runners. I’d just end up typing the same stuff over and over again and it’ll get a lot less detailed as I go. And while this is a bit longer than I’d have liked, some of that was my attempt to break up the blocks of dense text with videos.
I’m also going to move to 4X/weekly updates, otherwise this is literally going to take me like 6 weeks to cover because I keep adding stuff to it.
What in the Hell is Track Cycling?
Track cycling is another one of those weird little niche sports (not unlike Olympic lifting) where the folks involved in it are passionate to the point of psychosis and the folks who aren’t haven’t even heard of it, can’t understand it and don’t give an ounce of a damn (much to the lament of those who are passionate about it). Unless they are watching Youtube videos of the absolutely awesome crashes that occur such as this one; then it’s pretty cool. Jump to about 20 seconds in to see the carnage in slow motion.
Track cycling developed back in the early part of the 20th century and rapidly developed into something called 6-day races, literally races where cyclists were expected to keep going for 6 days straight often in a smoky closed area where folks would drink and gamble while the cyclists tried not to die. And it’s any wonder that cyclists started doping about 12 minutes after the first race was organized. They needed drugs just to survive.
Since then it’s become a bit more civilized. Racing is done on a velodrome, a banked track that ranges in length from around 130 to to 500m or so events range from all out sprints to individual and team time trials (such as the 1km and 4km), the Madison (a 2 rider event where riders sling each other into the race as they trade off who’s racing). There are also longer distance events on the track which I imagine are boring as hell to do and to watch. Yayy, 100 times around a track. Then again, America does love NASCAR.
One odd event is the Keirin where riders start riding behind a small motorcycle called a Derney which pulls them up to speed (riders have to maintain their position in the pack until the Derny pulls off) before letting the riders sprint for the win. It’s one of, if not the, largest source of gambling in Japan and Keirin schools exist simply to train riders to race. Isn’t that weird?
Track cycling is done on specialized bikes with one gear (single speeds, like the hipster kids ride) and no brakes. The racing ranges from boring as hell (time trials) to confusing (the match sprint where you’ll see cyclists track standing in place for minutes at a time and it’s this weird chess match) to exciting to everything in-between. Crashes happen often enough and tend to be pretty horrific as shown above. Skin gets torn as guys slide down the wood and broken collarbones or worse are common as guys cream one another at 70 km/h.
Like road cycling, track cycling is a sport with a nearly 100 year history. And yes, it existed in the US in the early part of the 20th century although it’s never really been a big sport here. Until recently, cycling has never been monstrous in the US (although never small either) and track cycling was rarely more than a niche interest.
However, overseas that’s far from the case. First and foremost, cycling is absolutely monstrous as a sport. The countries are built for it, everyone cycles, there are long-standing traditions in the sport and endless heroes for kids growing up (who aren’t drawn to soccer or cricket) to emulate.
The hard men of Belgium and Flanders, the French tradition (remember they created the Tour De France), the Classics, the smaller tours, the TOUR DE FRANCE; over in Europeland cycling is huge as hell and people will camp out for weeks on the Tour de France’s course to watch the cyclists come by for 15 seconds. For recreation, for fitness and for sport cycling is life over there. That alone gives the sport an incredible base of participants to begin with.
Track cycling, at least in certain locations, has an equally large tradition. One of the stranger records in the sport is the hour record with the goal being to cover the further distance possible in one hour. And it’s done on a velodrome. Imagine going to your local 400m track and running as hard as you could for an hour straight and the measuring the distance you covered; that’s the hour record.
Without exception the records have been held by Europeans with some of the best cyclists ever ranging from Eddie Merckx to Miguel Indurain (both of them won the Tour De France as well) to Chris Boardman (whose name you will see again) to a crazed Scotsman named Graeme Obree (who rode the hour twice in two days, setting the record on the second try and did so on a handmade bike including parts from his washing machine). Obree would also invent two different ‘new’ riding positions on the track that would be later banned by the UCI. Merckx famously said that setting the hour record was the hardest thing he’d ever done and that the effort took years off his life.
My point being that both cycling in general and track cycling in specific have had a fairly large base of folks involved in it for various reasons. Tradition, history and, believe it or not money. Especially in road cycling. Because while people in the US tend to think of cycling as a hobby for rich white guys, overseas it’s about as blue collar as it gets. Becoming even a decent cyclist there is a way to a better life and more money than you could make otherwise.
Let me put this in perspective, Lance Armstrong, before he even became dominant was hired by a French team in 1996 for an annual salary of $1 million (he was only paid $675,000 of it when he got cancer). It’s not the kind of stupid level incomes that you see in football, baskeball or baseball in the US but it’s better than working in the pub for someone growing up in some shithole town in NORTHERN Ireland. It’s like a kid in Waco pursuing football in Texas.
Even a domestique/helper on a team makes more money then they’d make working a normal job and this is major motivation for people to go suffer on the bike and try to reach the highest levels of the sport. Or at least a high enough level to get hired on a team. For this reason, along with the others, thousands work to become top cyclists because it’s better than any of the other options. And in countries with big track traditions, that means that some will pursue the track. So what’s required for success?
The Physiology of Track Cycling
So let’s talk about track cycling, a sport I imagine most of my readers aren’t terribly familiar with. First, I’d divide the track events into the endurance events (including the 4km individual time trial, 4km pursuit, Madison, points race and maybe one or two others) and the sprints (match sprint, 1km individual time trial, 1km sprint, Keirin).
Endurance trackies typically come from the road, the same basic physiological requirements are present and necessary including low body weight/body fat, a huge aerobic engine, all that sort of thing. And it’s not as if the UK lacks for road cyclists. Here’s an example of the 4km team time trial, you can see how riders take alternating pulls at the front and it will give you some idea of how they use the banking of the velodrome to both slow and accelerate (to rejoin the ‘string’ of riders).
The sprints are a bit different with track sprinters being on the taller and heavier side comparatively speaking (males may average 80-85kg+ compared to 70kg for an endurance trackie; some road climbers may weigh 60kg). Do realize that the only track sprint that is even close to a true sprint is the match sprint. But even there it’s not like the 100m in track and field.
Rather, it’s 3 laps long with the first 2.5 being done at a walking pace as the cyclists jockey for position (often they will stop in place on the track for minutes at a time trying to force their opponent to lead them out) and all that matters is the final 200m (which takes 10 secondsish for the top guys) and who crosses first; best 2 out of 3 wins. This is a typical match sprint and apparently Thunderstruck by AC/DC is a universal sports song. Weird, huh.
The team sprint is 3 laps of the track with each rider taking a single pull before pulling off the line; the time is set by the final rider crossing the line. The first rider needs the best start and acceleration to get everyone up to speed, the second guy needs more endurance since he has to ride the first and second lap and maintain speed and the third guy (who needs to ride all three laps) the most endurance of all since he rides all three laps and tries to keep up the top speed against fatigue. Again, it’s speed plus endurance. This is a team sprint.
The 1km individual time trial is similar, it takes about a minute 5 so it’s on the short end of anaerobic glycolysis, you need speed plus endurance and the ability to hurt when acidosis is trying to shut you down. But it’s not as specialized as either a pure sprint (i.e. West African dominance in the 100/200m) or pure endurance events (i.e. East African dominance). It’s in that same weird place as the 400m/800m in track running.
Of far more relevance to the sprint events is this: the bikes only have a single gear and this has huge implications for the physical demands.
Like I said, track bikes are fixed gear (the back wheel doesn’t spin freely, if it’s moving so are you legs) have no brakes and only one gear. And the single gear means that track cyclists have to strike a shocking balance between a gear big enough to let them go fast (they may hit pedal cadences of 150-160 RPMs) but not be so big that they can’t get it moving from a standing start or accelerate it up to speed.
This video should give you an idea of the effort involved in a standing start. It’s nuts and the instantaneous power outputs that are measured are absurd, topping 2000 watts for the men (an average untrained 70kg man might hit 700 watts to put this in perspective).
If the above isn’t clear, imagine driving your car for example and having only one gear. What would you choose? If you chose 1st gear, it would be easy to get going but you’d rev out the engine and your top speed would be limited. If you chose 5th gear, it would be impossible to get moving (you’d stall the engine) but you’d have a high top speed so long as you could get to it. If you’ve ridden geared bikes you may understand this better: in too big a gear you can’t get the pedals moving, in too small a gear you spin out. So you start in a small gear and increase as you start going faster. You can’t do that on a track bike.
They make this choice based on their own strengths, weaknesses, the events, conditions, etc. Junior riders are actually limited in the size gear they can run so that they don’t ruin their knees pushing too big a gear when they are young. But track cyclists ultimately need everything from low cadence near limit strength to extremely high speed movements (like a track sprinter). Most track sprinters spend an enormous amount of time in the weight room for this reason (enduros don’t hit the same top speeds and don’t have to push the same monster gears so most of their work is still endurance based).
A track sprinter has to have the instantaneous power to turn over this huge assed gear from a standing start, accelerate it to speed and ultimately be able to keep putting pressure on the pedals at 160rpms once they get there. All while holding their line on the track to minimize the distance covered. Even being able to spin the pedals that fast smoothly takes a tremendous amount of coordination and practice. Like this:
But ultimately the demands of track sprinting are strength, explosive power, speed/acceleration and some endurance. Again, endurance races on the track are mainly about endurance (top speed is of course important but not to nearly the same degree as for the sprinters). Which means that you might not expect a single ethnic group to be dominant (in the way the running events have been dominated): the demands are too varied and somewhat non-specialized.
Or you might expect there to be a broader cross-section of folks who could be potentially good at it because the demands are not quite so specialized. That is, to be a great distance runner requires a very specific set of characteristics; if you don’t have them you can not reach the top. This just isn’t the case for something like track cycling because of the broad range of characteristics required.
Tangentially, the same is true for road cycling because of the nature of the sport. Many don’t realize that road cycling is actually a team sport at the highest levels and most teams will have guys ranging from their star (the one who can actually win the race and tends to be at least good in all disciplines) to climbers to sprinters to what are called domestiques (effectively grunts whose job is to support someone else). If you can fill one of those roles, you can be a top level road cyclist even if you don’t have the all around talent to win races. And they all get paid.
But because of all of the above you wouldn’t necessarily expect a given ethnic group to dominate the sport, certainly not one that had evolved/developed a very specialized set of physiological characteristics that would predispose them to dominating in one sport (cf. Kenyan runners). Even East Africans with their endurance advantages aren’t built to do well in distance cycling or something like swimming; they are too small and don’t have the physical strength or body type to be good at it. In many ways, it would be less surprising to see 100 or 200m track sprinters doing well in some of the track cycling events.
It is interesting to ask why there haven’t been more black track cyclists (one notable one was Nelson Vails in the 1980s’) especially in the shorter events given the propensity for strength/power performance in that ethic group. But this is probably social/cultural or economic as much as it is anything else.
Track cycling is a niche sport to begin with and most of the countries that are big in track cycling such as Germany don’t have large black populations and even the countries in Europe that do don’t have much of a cycling tradition in the black communities that do exist. So it’s a pretty lilly white sport for the most part.
In any case, those are some of the requirements for track cycling success in a physical sense and I tried to touch on the issue of whether you might expect genetic dominance in the sport as has happened in running (the answer would appear to be no). Now I can start getting to the meat of the issue: UK Track cycling.
Location, Location, Location
It is interesting to note that even countries with fairly miserable weather still produce a lot of road cyclists (I bring this up since I mentioned the altitude and overall weather of Kenya in Part 1-3). How do they deal with the weather? Simply…they deal. There’s a reason that you hear about the hard men of Flanders and Belgium, they ride regardless because of the history and incentives inherent to the sport. Rain doesn’t stop them and neither does anything else. And strictly speaking you can ride a bike anywhere there are roads. Sometimes that doesn’t even stop folks, Paris-Roubaix is famously held on cobblestones and at least one road race seems to be run through a dirt track.
For the track, it’s a bit different. Bad weather shuts down tracks, the material the velo is made out of the nature of the wheels means that snow and rain shut down training. Especially given that early velodromes were typically open air (just like football and baseball stadiums in the United States). In modern times, most velos are fully enclosed, so long as a country has one of those, trackies can train year round the weather be damned.
But that brings us to the next issue: the presence of velodromes. Being fairly specialized (and expensive as hell to build) they aren’t found universally. Some countries have lots, some have a handful (the US has maybe a half dozen, 2 in Texas, several in California, at least one in Florida, one in Colorado Springs), some have none or the ones that they do have are old and delapidated or open to the elements making year round training impossible. Oddly, there is a high-altitude track in La Paz, Bolivia where many world records have been set. It’s not the best track but it’s at super high altitude and since wind resistance provides much of the slowing, this is a benefit. The drawback: no air.
And this becomes a limiter for people wanting to pursue the sport. Especially in the sprints where you simply must train on the track to get to the top level (enduros can and usually do a lot if not most of their training on the roads). No facilities means no success no matter what else is in place. As you’d expect, many of the dominant countries not only have the tradition and history in the sport but also the facilities that allow folks to pursue it.
So Who’s the Best?
It’s a sport where international dominance seems to shift quite a bit, the Australians were dominant in the sprints for a while (using about the simplest training program you’ve ever seen), the French have traditionally been strong, I’ve mentioned the German 4k team time trial when I’ve talked about Methods of Endurance Training. The Canadians have rarely done much (with one recent exception, a female track rider who took gold at the age of 38), same with US track riders.
One country that has traditionally not been a force in track cycling is the United Kingdom (again, here I’m referring to Great Britian, Scotland and NORTHERN Ireland as a whole). There were always riders but they never did much. And like I said above, it’s not as if cycling isn’t monstrous overseas, there are zillions of cyclists (give or take a billion) in the country. And the UK just couldn’t produce on the track. They were hampered by a lack of tradition, a lack of facilities, a lack of a lot of things.
And about 1996, they decided to change that. By 2001 they started winning and within about a decade they were considered the dominant force in the sport. For example, they won 9 of the 18 gold medals at the 2008 Championships. In Beijing they won 14 total medals including 8 of the possible 18 gold medals. They did it in the sprints, in the distances and both their men and women riders were successful. And they got there in about a decade.
And the reason that I’m talking about this at all is that how they went about generating this monstrous change is what’s really interesting since it basically provides a framework for how you go from zero to top of the heap in a relatively short period of time. Because effectively it all changed when the UK Cycling federation simply decided that they were going to dominate track cycling. They had a lot of hurdles to jump but it all started with that conscious decision. But first, an important question.
Why Track Cycling?
The question being asked here is why the UK would choose to focus on a sport that is not only fairly niche but would certainly seem to pale in comparison to targeting something like the Tour De France or even the Olympic road events (why they focused on cycling in the first place I don’t have an answer to). And the reasons, of course, are numerous. As I mentioned, cycling has a huge tradition on the continent, that alone was probably one of their motivations to pursue cycling.
But why the track rather than say the Olympic road race or the Tour De France, both of which are arguably more well known and more prestigious? One reason is that road cycling is much less controllable than what goes on the track. Road cycling revolves not only around physiology but team tactics and a whole bunch of other variables that are difficult to control; the strongest guy doesn’t necessarily win on any given day and all kinds of strange things can happen that change the results. For reasons you’ll see in a second, UK Cycling had to produce winners and there were too few guarantees in road racing.
As, well at the Olympic level (the biggest stage in the world for all sports) there are only a couple of road medals available. Coupled with the unpredictability of the events and it just wasn’t a risk worth taking to focus on them. In track cycling, the potential medal haul is much larger because of the larger number of total events. You’ll see this idea come up again when I talk about the German sports machine later on.
This is especially true given the overlap in the events in terms of physiology. A guy strong in the match sprint (relying on explosive speed and some endurance along with tactics) can do well in the team sprint (put him with two other good guys) and can probably be trained to kick ass in the kilo (an event taking under a minute) with a bit of speed endurance work.
The same holds for the endurance events, a top enduro rider (and they invariably come from road cycling) can do well in the Madison with a good teammate, the 4km individual time trial, the 4km team trial and the points race. When you find and develop a monster talent in one of those events, their potential to win in the others is that much higher meaning more potential medals. And without the massive unpredictability of racing on the road.
Keep in mind that this was all happening in the mid- to late-90’s when all of the drug issues were really coming to a head (before cycling tried to clean things up) and they just didn’t want to touch the drug issue (or risk being associated with a sport with such a deeply rooted culture of doping). Either track cycling doesn’t have the same ingrained culture of doping or the UK folks felt that they could produce on the track without drugs.
So that’s the background. They decided to target cycling and track cycling specifically and to become a force at the world level. What did they do? Perhaps more importantly, what gave them the ability to even try in the first place?
This Week’s Lotto Jackpot: 4 Billion Pounds or Euros or Something
It all started with lottery money. For reasons I’m not entirely clear on, UK cycling was given a huge chunk of the UK lottery money to throw at track cycling to do what they wanted to do. First and foremost this meant giving the potential riders the support necessary to actually train full time. Suddenly cyclists could focus on training and recovering rather than on, you know, making enough money to have food to eat. This also allowed them to deal with the equipment end of things. Velos in the UK ranged from dismal to depressing where they existed at all and the UK would build a state of the art velodrome giving it’s athletes a place to train year round.
They poured a lot of money into equipment development; small improvements in things like bike weight and aerodynamics pay huge dividends on the track and you don’t generate good results riding on crap bikes. Chris Boardman who I mentioned above, was the head of the cycling skunkworks, developing top secret equipment to allow the athletes to get the most out of what they had. Supposedly they destroy their skinsuits after each race so that nobody can reverse engineer whatever they’ve done.
To avoid having to reinvent the wheel, they brought in experienced coaches from Australia and elsewhere to set up the training programs (this is what I actually will have the least to say anything about; the information isn’t available). A huge amount of physiological testing was done. Strength and conditioning specialists handled that as was diet, supplements, etc. One of the sources I’ll provide in the next part talks about a sports psychologist brought in a bit later in the program to help with the final piece of the puzzle.
Basically they made sure that no potential improvement to performance went unexamined. They focused on what they called ‘the aggregation of small benefits’ or something roughly to that effect. They tried to get an extra 1% here and 1% there and 1% another place by optimizing training, and diet and equipment and…. This is a sport where first and second place can be decided by hundreths or thousandths of seconds. Finding a 3% advantage pays dividends like you wouldn’t believe.
Flying Scotsman : Cycling to Triumph Through My Darkest Hours by Graeme Obree. A fascinating look at a fascinating indivdual, an amateur road cyclist from Scotland who decided to attempt the world record. And briefly held it. There is also a movie of the same name but it garbles many of the facts.
The Crooked Path to Victory: Drugs and Cheating in Professional Bicycle Racing by Les Woodland. A look at the culture of cheating/doping within cycling, I’m mainly sourcing this for a history of track cycling for anybody who really cares.
And that’s where I’ll cut this today. You’ve got the basics of track cycling as a sport, the cultural background, the physiological demands of the sport along with a teaser on how a country went from zero to hero in about a decade with an infusion of lottery money. They had the desire, the drive and they created the facilities and support; the numbers were more or less there. But now they needed something more important. Talent. And that’s where I’ll pick up next.