Long considered the orphan child of European cycling, Great Britain has finally established itself as a leading international force thanks to the brilliant 1-2 by Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome at this year’s Tour de France, the stunning string of gold and silver medals won by the country’s track and road teams at the London Olympics, and the burgeoning status of the sport within the British media and general public.
Newcomers to cycling tend to think that the recent successes by British cyclists represents a sudden breakthrough, but it’s more as if the sport has come full circle. Britons developed the first modern bicycles (along with chain drive and pneumatic tires), won the world’s first organized bike races in the 19th century, and staged the first six-day track races and road time trials. There was a bleak period for British cycling in the first half of the 20th century, mainly due to a ban on road racing and professional cycling, but the country has since gradually shed its orphan status to re-emerge stronger than ever in this 21st century.
Countless individuals have contributed to Britain’s cycling revival over the past several decades, including all those who won world championships in the second half of the last century: Beryl Burton, Tom Simpson and Graham Webb on the road, and Reg Harris, Cyril Peacock, Hugh Porter and Tony Doyle on the track. And even before this year’s explosion of British victories, the upward path was accelerated in the past 10 years by a slew of British world champions headed by Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Wiggins on the velodrome, and Nicole Cooke and Mark Cavendish on the road.
While massive publicity was being given this year to Tour winner Wiggins and the home country’s Olympic medalists, three of the men who paved the way for them quietly passed away. Track racer Tommy Godwin died earlier this month two days short of his 92nd birthday; time trialist Ray Booty died from cancer three months ago at age 79; and road racer Brian Haskell died in March at 83.
Godwin, who won bronze medals in the kilometer time trial and 4000-meter team pursuit at the London Olympics of 1948, was honored as an ambassador and torchbearer at the 2012 London Games three months ago. He was working as an electrician when he won his two bronze medals, and he went on to own and run a bike shop for 36 years in Birmingham, England’s second largest city. During that time Godwin became his country’s first paid national coach (he was in charge when Burton and Webb won the women’s and amateur men world road titles in 1967), and he later served as president of the British Cycling Federation.
Last year, in a televised Olympic preview, the nonagenarian rode his 1948 Olympic track bike around the Herne Hill track and showed off the knitted-wool Great Britain team jersey he raced in 64 years ago. Godwin clearly remembered the enthusiasm generated by his bronze-medal rides, telling the BBC: “It was unbelievable. The crowd was fantastic. After we won the race for the bronze medal in the team pursuit, a cycling magazine reported, ‘There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
The team pursuit was the one track event that remained from that previous London Olympics, and Godwin was on hand this past August to see the British quartet annihilate the world record with their winning time of 3:51.659—which was just about a minute faster than the time set by Godwin and his British teammates when they took bronze at the 1948 Olympics!
While Godwin’s various positions made him one of the most influential people in the development of British cycling, Booty was a pure amateur cyclist who could have made as big an impact on the world scene as Wiggins had times been different. Instead, Booty did his national service in the army before becoming a chartered electrical engineer, first with Ericsson, then Westinghouse and Rolls Royce—and always riding his old race bike to work until retiring at 60.
Booty came to national prominence in August 1956 when, two years after Roger Bannister became the first athlete to run a four-minute mile, he became the first cyclist to race 100 miles in less than four hours in an out-and-back time trial. The day before his record performance in the classic Bath Road 100, to the west of London, Booty rode his bike the 100 miles from his Nottingham home. He raced the time trial on the same bike, using a fixed gear of 84 inches (50×16), to record a time of 3:58:28 and beat runner-up Stan Brittain, a British international, by almost 12 minutes.
A month later, right after his 24th birthday, Booty used a hub gear to break the point-to-point 100-mile record, taking advantage of favorable winds to set a time of 3:28:40, a record that stood for 34 years.
Booty was also an adept road racer. In 1954, he won the top British one-day event, the hilly Manx International; in 1955, he raced for the GB team at the prestigious, two-week Peace Race in eastern Europe, helping teammate Brittain finish third overall; and in 1958, on wet day in Cardiff, Wales, he rode away from a strong field at the Commonwealth Games road race to take the gold medal by some three minutes.
Brian Haskell was a contemporary of Booty and Brittain, and raced for the same cycling club in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, as Brian Robinson—who went on to become the first Brit to win a stage of the Tour de France. Haskell had similar ability, being a strong climber and stage race specialist. He twice won the Tour of Ireland, he was national hill climb champion multiple times, and he won the King of the Mountains titles at both the Peace Race and Tour of Britain.
Haskell competed as a semi-professional for the Viking Cycles team that dominated domestic racing from 1957 through 1961, and he raced another 30 years as an a amateur, winning national veterans titles in both road racing and time trialing. In 1973, he founded a precision sheet metal contracting firm that grew to employ 35 workers, and he was still working as company chairman until his death eight months ago.
Godwin, Booty and Haskell are not be names as well known as those of Hoy, Wiggins and Froome, but without their lifelong love of cycling, memorable performances and continued inspiration, Britain’s modern heroes may not have even emerged.
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For most of the past century, the Olympic Games weren’t a big deal in the cycling world. Only amateur bike racers could compete and they regarded the Games as a small stepping-stone toward the professional ranks. That began to change at Atlanta in 1996. Pro racers took part for the first time and their superior level of fitness was demonstrated by four Frenchmen, who’d just finished the Tour de France, getting together to win the track team pursuit. And the pros, led by Swiss champ Pascal Richard, swept all the medals in the men’s road race.
Since then, the prestige of winning Olympic gold medals in cycling was raised progressively by high-profile road race winners Jan Ullrich (Sydney 2000), Paolo Bettini (Athens 2004) and Samuel Sanchez (Beijing 2008). Our sport’s high profile has become personified by two multi-Olympic champions, British sprinter Sir Chris Hoy and French mountain biker Julien Absalon, who are household names in their respective countries.
Even the road time trial, started in 1996, has grown in stature thanks to its defending champion Fabian Cancellara. The Swiss superstar has again targeted the Olympic TT as a major goal, the same as Germany’s world TT champion Tony Martin. And their likely challengers include multi-time world pursuit champs Brad Wiggins and Taylor Phinney, now that their favored track discipline has been eliminated from the Olympic program.
A mark of the status held by cycling with the International Olympic Committee is the fact that the whole Games’ event schedule, for the third time, is being kicked off with the elite men’s road race. After the Athens circuit around the Parthenon, and the Beijing course to the Great Wall of China, London will see a start-finish outside the Queen’s Buckingham Palace with a route south to the Surrey Hills and nine laps of a scenic loop over and around Box Hill.
The race will not only showcase many of London’s most historic and beautiful sites, but also feature the very best classics riders in pro cycling. So, even though many of them are building up to what promises to be a fascinating Tour de France, they are looking beyond racing for yellow jerseys in Paris to shooting for gold in London. And the media hype has stepped up considerably since national federations announced their long teams for all the Olympic cycling events last week.
The focus to date has been on Britain’s home team of medal contenders, headed by world champ Mark Cavendish for the road race and Wiggins for the time trial. The two Team Sky leaders, like their team manager Dave Brailsford, believe that the road to Olympic gold is via the Tour—as do potential medal contenders such as Australia’s Matt Goss, Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert, Germany’s André Greipel, Norway’s Eddy Boasson Hagen, Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, Spain’s Sanchez, Switzerland’s Cancellara and Tyler Farrar of the United States. Those not risking the Tour’s potential perils to focus totally on July 28’s Olympic road race include sprinters Tom Boonen of Belgium, Daniele Bennati of Italy and Thor Hushovd of Norway.
Selecting teams for London has been tricky because the strongest nations can field only five riders, as opposed to eight for regular one-day classics; and one of each country’s selection also has to start the time trial four days’ later. Ideally, a team will have a leader who can sprint well at the end of the tough 250-kilometer road race, along with support riders who can chase down breaks that will inevitably form on the many narrow, twisty back roads that precede and follow the nine laps of the hilly 15.5-kilometer circuit at the heart of the London course.
For the United States, much has been made of the fact that veterans George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie separately contacted USA Cycling this summer, saying they did not want to be considered for the Olympic road team. But with Farrar already the designated leader since he became the first American sprinter to win a Tour stage last year, and with all four of the veterans being stage-race specialists, there was no compelling reason to select them. For instance, Hincapie hasn’t raced the worlds for the past four years (and he was only 39th in the Beijing Olympics), Leipheimer hasn’t started a worlds road race for eight years, and Vande Velde and Zabriskie last rode the worlds in 2010 (placing 79th and DNF respectively).
It has been speculated that the four riders recused themselves because they may be witnesses in the USADA-alleged doping conspiracy at the U.S. Postal Service team during Lance Armstrong’s Tour-winning years. But neither Leipheimer nor Zabriskie raced for Postal at those Tours. And though Leipheimer did race with Armstrong at the 2009 and 2010 Tours (on the Astana and RadioShack teams), which USADA alleges were also “suspicious” years, among his teammates was Chris Horner, who has been selected for the London Olympics.
In any case, Horner’s credentials for the 2012 Olympic team are far stronger than those of the four other veterans. Horner is one of the few Americans to have placed top 10 at one-day races as diverse as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour of Lombardy and the worlds’ road race, and he will be an invaluable aid to Farrar and the three younger members of the London Olympics squad: Tim Duggan, Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen.
As for these three, Duggan has proven himself this year as a powerful domestique for the Liquigas-Cannondale team (and he also happened to win the recent U.S. national road title!); Phinney was an excellent 17th in his first Paris-Roubaix in April (Hincapie finished 43rd); and Van Garderen will be helping his BMC Racing team leader Cadel Evans defend his Tour title next month, and he has finished the toughest Ardennes classics in each of the past two years.
Van Garderen can also be a strong back-up rider for the time trial should Phinney get injured or sick, while Phinney’s winning time trial at last month’s Giro d’Italia (besides his past world track titles) made him as good if not better candidate for the Olympic TT than the veteran Zabriskie. So the U.S. national team for London is solid in every respect, whatever may be speculated in the media. It will be fascinating to see how they perform at London in what has become one of cycling’s most sought-after prizes.
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International