Double Tour de France winner Nicole Cooke believes an innovative new team set-up can help Great Britain claim an unprecedented haul of cycling medals at the Beijing Olympics in August.
Cooke, who has yet to win an Olympic medal despite enjoying success in almost every other area of her sport, will lead the new Team GB Halfords Bikehut squad of ten women and two men.
The Welsh rider is convinced that the new ‘ProNat’ structure, jointly funded by sponsors and the national federation, will boost Team GB’s hopes of gold in Beijing.
“I won’t just be turning up for two weeks thinking ‘what’s going on?’ Cooke said. “It will be great for the riders to work together and get to know each other. That way you can work out who’s nervous and who’s not, so that people don’t do or say the wrong thing at the wrong time.”
Team GB’s Performance Director, David Brailsford believes the hybrid structure could have a broader influence on a sport that has been discredited in many people’s eyes by the widespread use of performance enchancing drugs.
If Brailsford is proven right, then one day all the teams in the Tour de France may well follow this ground-breaking structure, developed in part to stem the continuing spread of cycling’s infamous doping culture.
Brailsford, who is now seeking to take his reputation for world-beating track excellence out onto the open road, explained: “There’s always been a tension that exists between the short-term commercial needs of a sponsor and the more long-term goals of a national federation. This form of team puts an end to that.”
A key element in the appeal of the ‘ProNat’ structure is in the closer ethical control that can be exerted on athletes.
“In the past riders have been stuck in the middle between two differing philosophies,” Brailsford said. “Now with this team they will report to one coach, their national coach, and be sticking to that coach’s core values.”
Cooke, who has spent much of her career racing for sponsored teams in Europe, echoed Brailsford’s comments.
“It’s never been that a pro-team has been uncooperative but when you’re with them week after week, it’s always ‘we want a big result,'” she said.
“That’s because of their pressures, which are to keep a sponsor happy for next year, which means bigger results,” Cooke added. “That’s where they’re coming from, even though they understand there has to be down time and preparatory races. I think the focus away from that will be fantastic with the GB team.”
Brailsford has long planned to create a British-sponsored and British-led professional team capable of racing in the Tour de France and the new outfit appears to be the foundation of that grand plan.
“The train’s leaving the station,” is how he put it. “This is a long-term partnership.”
The Performance Director, who has led Team GB’s track riders from anonymity to world domination, asserted that British cycling has 13 realistic opportunities for medals at the Beijing Games and maintained that a British professional team racing on the European circuit before the time of London 2012 was another key objective.
Under the terms of the deal, the team will compete as Great Britain when racing abroad, which means that promising British talents such as Emma Pooley, who rides for Specialized, can be drafted in during the build-up to the Beijing Olympics.
But in reality this is Cooke’s team, and a rider who has in the past found herself isolated at key moments in major races such as the Olympic Games and World Championships, can now expect much stronger support.
“Having a proper team support is vital,” Cooke said. “When you look at the end of races like the World Championships and there’s two riders left from Germany, two from Holland — they have so many more options, not necessarily tactical options, but just to have a team mate there can be very reassuring. It’s good to have someone there you can count on.”
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008