The Berlin Velodrom was the setting for Team Great Britain’s worst performance at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in an Olympic year for two decades this weekend. Team GB could only bring back four medals from Deutschland, with just one gold.
With just under five months until Tokyo 2020 is due to commence, it doesn’t bode well for Great Britain’s attempts to continue that momentous success they’ve experienced in the sport over the past few years.
In 2016 at the same Championships (hosted in London), Team GB reaped nine medals, topping the medal chart, including five golds, before continuing on that haul in Rio with twelve, far and away their most successful sport. The two most successful Olympians in Team GB history are both track cyclists; Sir Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny, having won six golds apiece. In total, British cycling has been rewarded with 43 Olympic medals.
"It's not a time to panic but, at the same time, there has to be a significant change to get where they want to be in Tokyo," said Hoy (via BBC Sport) after the disappointment in Berlin. "At the moment, the odds are that Britain are not going to dominate in the way they have."
Elinor Barker won Team GB’s only gold in the German capital. The 25-year-old made up for her disappointment in the Madison (in which partner Neah Evans suffered a crash) by winning the women’s points race with a winning tally of 50.
Barker is proving to be the one true shining light for Team GB in the current climate, having won the rainbow jersey in the scratch last year as the only gold medallist in Pruszkow, Poland in 2018. Right before the close of February, four-time Olympic champion Laura Kenny was part of a five-rider crash in the Women’s Omnium, which left her with a nasty-looking cut above her right eye, and GB without a single medal on day three. “It just wasn’t my day,” was her simple explanation.
"The world has moved on, that is the bottom line," added Hoy. "Every generation raises the bar. Every generation learns from the previous one and the times get faster and faster."
Should Team GB's poor performance in Berlin be a measure for how they will perform at Tokyo 2020? Kenny Pryde, author of ‘The Medal Factory: British Cycling And The Cost Of Gold’, believes there is a cause for concern, particularly on how Hoy, of whom there is "no better observer of the dynamics and psychology inside British Cycling's track programme" has been so vocal.
“Historically, the World Championships prior to the Games have always been used as a springboard by GB - you only have to look at the results in 2008, 2012 and 2016 - to see how things have panned out,” Pryde told The Sportsman, “Having said that, it's not impossible that GB will improve in Tokyo, but the lack of momentum and the batterning morale will have taken in Berlin is a worry.
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A huge track cycling medal haul for Team GB at Rio 2016 â more of the same at the Track Worlds in Berlin this week?
“There's no getting away from the fact the medal haul - if not all the actual performances - were the worst in 20 years. The line from British Cycling to explain away contra-performances at the World track championships has always been - 'It's only in Olympic year that we step up.' Well, this time when Team GB stepped up it discovered that everyone else had stepped up higher still.
“To some extent the decline is predictable, it's hard to maintain a run of dominance through four Olympic cycles, from 2008 onwards, given rider churn and decline. Having said that, the coaching staff in place had managed to maintain standards for 12 years, so questions have to be asked about senior management that was brought in in the wake of [former Technical Director] Shane Sutton's dismissal in 2016.
“Sporting success, especially in the various mens and womens track disciplines, is a complex, multifactorial business. But in previous years, the riders, coaches, strength and conditioning teams, the nutritionists, the technical staff, mechanics and medical staff have all somehow united and gelled. It's a cliche that 'winning is a habit' but there's truth in it, and British Cycling managed to maintain that habit for years.
“Once you lose your winning momentum and mentality, it takes some effort and brilliant leadership to get it back again.”
If performances are indeed dropping, there is now less than six months for the Team GB programme to get back on track, though the status of being the powerhouse on the global stage in cycling may have already waned.
“The aura of invincibility around GB, its riders and boffins has vanished, lots of nations have caught up and are applying the same techniques with their best riders that Team GB did in the past,” adds Pryde.
“If you lose confidence and nobody is there to build it up again, it's hard to see how results in Tokyo will be much better than we saw in Berlin at the World Track Championships. If results don't improve in Tokyo, performance director Stephen Park is going to be under a lot of pressure, as is CEO Julie Harrington.
“They came in to herald a new era in British Cycling and, at the moment, we appear to have gone into steep decline.”