Learning from the success of British Cycling – perspectives on developing excellence in practice

Great Britain Coaches in a Pre-Olympic Session
Great Britain Coaches in a Pre-Olympic Session

This week’s blog is a bit of a cheat. It’s an article that Dr’s Hopker, Jobson and I did for another publication, The Sport and Exercise Scientist (Issue 35, Spring 2013). Fortunately, copyright allows me to reproduce it here. 

Whilst I’m mentioning Hopker & Jobson, I’ll plug their recent book: Performance Cycling- The Science of Success, especially if you’ve got an interest in sports science. In my humble opinion, it’s the best cycling reference book out there at the moment and has some world class contributors (I don’t count as I only wrote one page). Well worth a few quid! I’ve got a review planned once I’ve read it fully myself. 

Performance Cycling: The Science of Success
Performance Cycling: The Science of Success

Learning from the success of British  Cycling – perspectives on developing  excellence in practice

(Kirkland, Hopker and Jobson)

Dr Andy Kirkland, a Coaching and Education Officer at British Cycling, and Drs James Hopker and Simon Jobson, the editors of Performance Cycling: The Science of Success, reflect on the success of British Cycling and provide recommendations on what sport and exercise science practitioners might learn from such a successful year.

Aim of the article

What lessons can sports science practitioners learn from the success of British Cycling? Even though most of us look from the outside at the success of British Cycling and are not privy to their ‘secrets of success’, much information is available in the public domain. Here we pick out some key aspects of their approach and consider what can be used to enhance work in applied sports

Achievements of British Cycling in 2012

What a marvellous year 2012 was for British Cycling; eight gold medals at London 2012, matching the Beijing tally of 4 years earlier. This is despite a number of key events being dropped from the London schedule with only one rider being allowed per event. The Paralympics squad medalled in all 15 events they entered, winning five gold, seven silver and three bronze. British Cycling staff also contributed to the success of the professional outfit Team Sky. In the world’s biggest annual sporting event, The Tour de France, team members Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome finished first and second overall, whilst the World Champion Mark Cavendish won three stages. Wiggins was the first British winner in the event’s 109-year history and went on to be named 2012 BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Success for British Cycling did not occur overnight. Rather the catalyst for success came in 1996 with the development of the World Class Performance Programme by Performance Director Peter Keen. Implementation of the programme required a clear vision and strategic planning from Keen, importantly supported by the newly available National Lottery funding. Building on Keen’s early success, Dave Brailsford took over the programme in 2004, leading British Cycling from mediocrity to become one of the most feared but well-respected cycling nations in the world. Having a centralised programme at the National Cycling Centre and strong leadership from Brailsford, team psychologist Dr Steve Peters and Head Coach, Shane Sutton, certainly contributed to the team’s success.


Getting the basics right and the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’

Brailsford’s implementation of the lauded ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ philosophy has been instrumental to the success of the Great Britain Cycling Team. Simply, every factor likely to make a difference to performance is considered and then improved upon, even if only by a fraction of a percent. Attention is given to every detail from the development of clothing to reduce the forces acting to slow the rider down to the development of ultra-low friction wheel bearings. However, in contrast to the ‘magic wheels’ headlines, what is very clear is that Brailsford and his team at British Cycling have an incredible ability to get the basics right: training, nutrition, psychology, pre-race preparation, etc. It is not until the basics of cycling performance are addressed that the ‘marginal gains’ will have their effect. For example, there is no point spending thousands of pounds developing an extra stiff carbon bike frame that might save tenths of a second if the cyclist has a sub-optimal pre-race preparation routine, or if they are not in prime physiological condition. ‘Marginal gains’ might make the difference between winning and losing, but the cyclist has to be in the right position to make use of such gains. There is an important message here for the sport science support domain. High cost technologies (BodPod body composition analysis, etc.) might provide information that facilitates athlete development, but getting the basics right (e.g., race day logistics, sleep quality) should always be the first priority.

Developing a culture of excellence: Long term rider development

Before Lottery funding, only a few British riders every decade progressed to the top level and even then success was uncommon. However, new riders capable of winning on the world stage are now emerging every year. As is common in sport, only those at the top end tend to receive the plaudits. However, this continuity of excellence requires effective coaching structures from grass-roots level up. Excellence in coach education is part of the foundations to this success. Identifying and promoting good practice in coaching requires consultation with coaches and riders at every level, sports coach UK and academics from sports coaching, sport pedagogy and the sports sciences. Therefore, working within the British Cycling Coaching and Education team gives broad perspective and insight into the success of the sport.

A Skills Session
A Skills Session

The British Cycling Olympic Talent Programme is also an important foundation as it acts as a conduit between clubs and the Olympic Development Programme. Good practice, consistent with long-term athlete development models, is used to support young rider development to give them the best chance of success. Tim Buckle, a coach on the Olympic Talent Programme, describes how riders are developed using an analogy of a Snickers Bar. Skill (nuts), speed/neuro-muscular activation (nougat), technical and tactical knowledge (chocolate), bravery (caramel) and work-ethic (wrapper) are recognised as the constituent components that a rider needs to develop prior to them reaching the junior category at age 16. Whilst competition is not neglected, learning is the main focus of the programmes, with coaches, riders and parents encouraged to focus on the learning process rather than the outcome of competition. Physical development and winning come later. The Snickers Bar analogy works for the riders because it is easy to understand and it makes clear what they need to consistently work on in training. An important message that could be transferred into the sport science support domain is that methods must be simple, practical, relevant and effective. This is because grass-roots coaches must be able to implement them with riders (or, in the case of sport science support, the client(s)).

Delivering valued support

Using a particular method related to our own discipline or area of expertise is appealing when delivering support. Our own biases, perceptions and beliefs may help us justify its use. However, are we really being client-centred? In some instances, if the client does not have a complete ‘Snicker Bar’, is intervention required? Strong foundations are required before a marginal gains approach is justifiable.

Practitioners must also clearly understand how a test or intervention is likely to impact on performance/behaviour and be able to communicate findings or suggested interventions to the client. Coaches must lead on, have a clear understanding of and value the support being delivered. Of course, it is essential for practitioners to have an excellent underpinning knowledge of their area. However, they must be able to apply that in the delivery context and have sufficiently developed soft-skills to provide a worthwhile and valued service. Less experienced practitioners can have a tendency to intervene and expect results immediately. However, many practices and behaviours in sport are ingrained in the culture of a sport or the beliefs of an individual. Trying to influence behavioural change, as in the work of Dr Steve Peters, often takes many months or years. Therefore, promising results in the short-term should be resisted unless there is clear rationale and justification for doing so. Finally, when looking for solutions to problems, a recognition that the sports sciences are still in their infancy is required. Some of our questions have been answered by others and looking beyond the sports science domain may offer more immediate solutions.

Reflections by Dr Andy Kirkland

Although my role does not involve working directly with the Great Britain Cycling Team, I feel part of their success. The contact I have with coaches and riders at every level of the sport helps me to understand how each contributes to the overall success of the sport. Using this understanding assists me in developing coach education resources that not only support grass roots cycling but that also promotes the development of the type of riders that coach Shane Sutton wants on the Excellence programmes. This has taught me that it is essential to not only understand a client’s needs, but also to understand where the client and my own role fits into the ‘big-
picture’. Whilst, the cutting-edge of sport or research is exciting, I rarely focus on it. Rather, I concentrate on developing strong foundations, getting the basics right, not over complicating things and avoiding practices that do not contribute to the goals of a project.


Dr Andy Kirkland
Andy is a Coach and Education Officer at British Cycling. He is a BASES accredited sport and
exercise scientist and a British Cycling Level 3 coach.

Dr James Hopker
James is a Lecturer at The University of Kent and co-editor of Performance
Cycling: The Science of Success.

Dr Simon Jobson

Simon is a Reader at The University of Winchester and co-editor of Performance Cycling: The Science of Success. He is a BASES accredited sport and exercise scientist.


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