Sunday, 12 June 2011

If the sky's the limit, what's next?

June has seen a deluge of new cycling books in time for the Tour de France. I was going to save some of them for my flight to New Zealand, but that plan has failed. After "Slaying the Badger" and "Racing through the Dark", next through the letterbox was Richard Moore’s sequel to “Heroes, Villains and Velodromes” entitled “Sky’s the Limit”. Both these books offer an historical account of the rapid change in fortunes in British Cycling. So if this is cycling’s golden era, then in 20 years these books may prove an invaluable reminder of that time.

This latest book differs from the first in that in concentrates on the creation of the Sky pro cycling team. There have only been two other British professional cycling teams – ANC Halfords and Linda McCartney – and accounts of those (by Jeff Connor and John Deering) read like a Shakesperean farce. If ANC Halfords was the British Leyland of cycling teams, then Sky truly is the Toyota, driven by managerial logic, continuous improvement and innovation – Kaizen as the Japanese say. This then is a book about British Cycling's Performance Director Dave Brailsford’s appliance of science to road cycling following his success in the velodrome. But this is no Clive Woodwardesque book for business managers seeking ideas to improve themselves. Instead, the book works on a number of levels. Firstly, for those unfamiliar with the Sky story, then this book provides the complete background. Secondly, for those more familiar with it, then Moore provides a range of interesting anecdotes and back stories – from James Murdoch’s encounter with Bernard Hinault at Paris Roubaix, conversations in the team car, and the breakdown in relations with Scott Sunderland. Some of the most interesting parts of the book are when Moore is mixing with the background staff on the team bus with the riders, coaches and support staff. Who would have thought that Wiggin’s coach was a professional footballer? There’s tragedy, jealousy, doping and tactics: enough that hasn’t been published elsewhere to keep the ardent cycling fan happy.

But where the book works most for me is in opening up the question of how can you apply scientific rationality to road cycling: is it possible? This forms part of the narrative running through the book, but Moore leaves it up to you to think about the answer. His voice is silent on this: there is no ramming his opinions down your throat, which is perhaps the best option. As Moore describes Brailsford seems convinced of this, seeking to apply MBA lessons to the world of professional cycling: measuring and quantifying everything. In doing so, Brailsford seems to forget that a key lesson of management guru W.E. Deming is that the most important things cannot be measured. Or as Einstein put it: “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted”.

By attempting to measure everything, Brailsford makes failures (of sorts) inevitable. The more complicated you make a system, as Charles Perrow might say, the more likely it is to fail. The real surprise is that Brailsford’s epiphany comes so late. Moore doesn’t take this further to reflect on the real meaning of British Cycling’s mantra of “marginal gains”, but then this is not a book on the philosophy of knowledge. There doesn’t seem to be any definition of what is meant by a marginal gain, but it seems an odd phrase. Surely any gain is a gain and worth pursuing rather than wrapping up in a pseudo scientific discourse? Instead, a marginal gain either seems to be something which makes sense but for which there is no conclusive evidence, or a risk, a gamble – like deciding to send Wiggins off early in the Tour prologue. What the rhetoric of ‘marginal gains’ seems to do then is disguise how unproven knowledge – what we might call intuition or experiential knowledge – can sit easily alongside other scientific approaches. This is interesting, it reflects other sports scientists’ approaches, such as Paul Kochli as featured in Moore’s other recent book, ‘Slaying the Badger’. But in making this accommodation, the discourse of marginal gains privileges and maintains the air of rationalism in which Brailsford surrounds himself. It is interesting to think about how and why the idea of marginal gains survives these failures.

Overall then a good read, but one wonders what Moore's next book might be. Here's an idea: as much as Sky and the National Lottery have contributed to the success of British Cycling, the riders who have come through that system were helped and encouraged by a number of volunteers and enthusiasts. Youth racing in the late 1990s really was amazing. Telling their story probably wouldnt fly with the publishers, but the people that made that happen deserve the upmost credit.

Friday, 10 June 2011

The Maindy Flyers 10 years on

Its now exactly 10 years since Debbie Wharton left the Maindy Flyers to go to work for British Cycling in Loughborough. A lot has changed since then, but her legacy remains. Here are some pictures from her leaving party:

Monday, 6 June 2011

Slaying the Badger in the Dark

In Richard Moore's excellent account of the 1986 Tour de France, Paul Kochli - the cycling coach is quoted as saying that cycling isnt an endurance sport - its a game. According to Kochli, we need to "play cycling". Arguably (and perhaps ironically for Kochli) professional cyclists have forgotten about that amongst its increasing specialisation and rationalisation. For a sports scientist to say that cycling is all about tactics and intuition, and being 'ahead' of the race (the analogy he uses is of a surfer anticipating the break of the wave) seems incongruous. Its not something you'd have heard Peter Keen or Dave Brailsford saying.

Yet it seems to make perfect sense, expoing LeMond's shortcomings and Hinault's brilliance. The implication is that LeMond is a bit of a wheelsucker, which is hard to argue against in the portrayal of the race. The other disconcerting fact about LeMond was that he always sleeps with a pillow between his legs - Moore never asks why, and perhaps its left best unasked! But I dont want to run down LeMond. He was my hero: I rode around the north Devon countryside in full Z kit and yellow Giroin the early 90s.

Really its Paul Kochli who's the star of the book, along with Andy Hampsten who provides some incredible insights and anecdotes. The best of these is when he attacks at the foot of a climb to set up LeMond. What Kochli shouts to Hampsten as he drives alongside him is incredible but ultimately unsurprising for Hampsten is surfing the wave. Hampsten looks like a rich but untapped mine of cycling anecdotes - his story should be told in more depth.

The book raises some other issues relating to current debates on race radios. Despite Kochli's insistence on learning to feel the race and be impulsive, in the mountains he seems to be constantly alongside his riders in his car giving instructions - just like Guimard and the other DS's. Why this seems to be OK in the mountains, but race radios are not OK for controlling flat stages is an interesting question. But that's not what the book is about - its about reliving the drama of the '86 Tour and it does that in style.

David Millar's autobiography on the other hand is much darker and complex. It raises so many questions that go answered, but in retelling his story to a wider audience I'm sure he'll be rewarded at sportswriters awards - that sort of masochistic writing seems to go down well. The book is not out until June 16th, but they were selling copies at the Hay Festival so I bought one and read it other the weekend. For those familiar with cycling there's probably not much new here: the account of a young pro getting on a plane to a race 'allume' - lit up by amphetimines is startling though.

In a systemic doping culture, Millar seems to have the emotional characteristics that will inevitably drag him under - thats not a criticism of him, but the reasons why he succumbs and others don't could be explored more fully. Millar, with the help of Steve Peters - the British Cycling psychologist, who curiously also has a new book out - explains it all in relation to his family background. The moment he describes taking EPO appears incredibly straightforward, there's even little sense of decision making other than to say it seemed easier to take it than not to take it.

My main criticism though is in the anonymity he gives Massimiliano Lelli - known as "l'equipier". It was quite easy to work this out with a quick Google search, but who "le Boss" is remains a mystery. Its perplexing because Lelli's identity is already known, whilst Jesus Losa the sports Doctor who supplies Millar with much more EPO is named without hesitation. Its also perplexing given that the book is an attack on omerta. Maybe there was a reason for this, but for me the effect was to almost conjure up a mystical but stereotypical dark side - an underworld complete with the usual shadowy characters ("Le Boss"). In fact, the systemic doping problem Millar describes seems far from that, far from secretive in which those that are 'prepared' apologise to those that werent when they beat them. Everybody knows whats going on, even the anti-doping officers.

There were some other things I was a little disatisfed with - there is no real account of why his tax problems emerged. Others will criticise his attitude towards Lance Armstrong and lack of discussion about the doping issues surrouding Contador. But there are interesting issues here: the simple fact that anti-doping officers had never even spoken to a doper before is an eye-opener for example.

Millar seems still to divide opinion in the cycling world, which seems strange if you accept doping is a systemic cultural problem. The wider public may appreciate the wider message of the book. But there is an important message here for all cyclists, an important reminder about a terrible era in cycling, one that must not be forgotten: as Millar reminds us, its only be realising what the past held, that its possible to move forward. Putting personality before substance is the wrong approach: we ignore the message at our peril.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Millar at Hay

David Millar was at the Hay Festival talking about his new book last Friday. You can listen to what he said here (quality not excellent, but passable)

David Millar at the Hay Festival

sport + equality = loose talk

I heard this the other day: “sport has to be run by sport for sport”. Fantastic rhetoric. But what does it mean? Shouldn’t sport be run for society given the amount of government funding it receives? Hasn’t sport got obligations to ensure equality and other public goods? Hasn’t the government got obligations to ensure “full accountability and transparency”. Or is it all talk?

Talk of equality, transparency and accountability in sport is meaningless, it appears to be deluded, a facade in which government funders seek to maintain an air of equality lest they be embarrassed by reality.

I give you this recent example:

Imagine someone – female – highly successful in what she does. She’s turned around how an organisation runs itself – how it identifies and nurtures talent. This brings rewards: prizes from the government, but also offers of new employment in another country. She takes the job but really wants to contribute her expertise to her own country. Nevertheless, she leaves and does a good job, working to develop new coaching and development structures. The new organisation values her and her skills. So, when she has a baby the organisation treats her superbly, as you would expect. Then an opportunity arises to return to home. This is where it starts to go wrong. Back home things aren’t as they seem. The new organisation is well meaning – most of them, but some not. There’s bullying. It continues whilst she is pregnant. People stand by, government officials stand by and do nothing. But she gets on with the job, bringing in much needed investment, new equipment, trying to turn things around. But it’s not until someone from her previous organisation pays a visit that the problems are dealt with…for the time being.

First day back after maternity leave a new boss demands she sign a new contract, signing away pay, rights and working conditions. There is no discussion. It becomes clear that the new boss doesn’t think she should be working there. A ‘re-organisation’ is planned and she is asked to re-apply for her job. The government official whose job it is to keep an eye on the organisation stands by watching, refusing to speak to her: emails, phone calls go unanswered. The interview comes: her experience means the questions are easy to respond to in detail. But it was a set-up: the job goes to the colleague who’d covered her maternity leave. Even he knows his experience is limited and apologises. No thank yous are offered. The government official sat in the interview refuses to provide any feedback, any explanation. The organisation tells her she hadn’t made a significant contribution to its goals.

Meetings with solicitors follow. There’s a clear case of sexual discrimination and wrongful dismissal they say. A tribunal hearing follows. Its very stressful. The judge urges settlement. Eventually one is hammered out but it does no-one much favour: its scant justice seeing your work derided. The organisation agrees to make a statement about the value of her work but changes its mind. They repeat the line that she didn’t make any contribution. They refuse to write a reference. The financial compensation such that is provides no justice. It means that the organisation teeters on the edge of bankruptcy; but for her, it is the end of the line – unless she moves away again, her career is finished. Her career is finished. The government look on and do nothing. There is no going back: she is ignored by former colleagues and friends. There is no enjoyment looking for justice.

A while later a meeting follows. A request to speak to the head of the government organisation that oversees her former employer is granted. She retells her story. The government sympathises: equality is their top priority they say, but won’t intervene in these cases. So much for their commitment to equality. There’s no apology, no punishment for the organisation, just words: we’re hoping this won’t happen again they say. And what about the victim she thinks? Just empty words and hollow promises.

Months later and more news. The organisation is awarded more money by the government. Something of a surprise: how does this fit with commitments to equality? Two new members of staff are appointed. Higher salaries. Males. Discrimination and performance related pay do mix it seems. But maybe this is an ironic apology: its good to know that it takes two men to do the job she did by herself.