Golden age of great cycling

JONATHAN MCKEOWN
Last updated 13:00 13/08/2012
Paul Jennings
PATRICK HAMILTON/FAIRFAX NZ
SPOKES MAN: Former British cycling champion Paul Jennings with some of the bikes in his Wakapuaka garage.

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When 10-time British track and time-trial champion Paul Jennings looks at the carbon fibre bike in his Wakapuaka garage, he wonders how quick he could have been.

It's ironic that his current bike would have made a huge difference when he raced at the Barcelona Olympics in 1996 or when he took silver at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada, but now just gets the odd outing from his Todds Bush Rd home, he says.

"My current road bike is a hand-made Colnago c50 carbon frame - it's a thing of beauty, far better than I ever had when I was racing. It's 100 per cent Italian and I spend more time cleaning it and looking at it than I do riding it."

Jennings, a trustee on the Nelson Tasman Cycle Trails Trust, moved to New Zealand four years ago and chose Nelson for its sunshine hours, great mountainbiking and good beer. He spends most of his leisure time on a mountainbike these days and sees the sprawling tracks and trails as key to the region's economic and sporting future.

Jennings raced in the era of hand-made steel frames that had a "certain magic", and recalls his team-mate, 1992 Olympic gold medallist Chris Boardman, now the head of British Cycling's research and development, experimenting with a carbon bike built by car manufacturer Lotus.

The Lotus 108 was lauded as a "super bike". Compared with today's machines, "it weighed a ton". Jennings identifies technological advancement as just one of the reasons for the dawning of a golden era in British cycling, pointing to funding, coaching and a winning ethos as the tenets of triumph.

The 2012 Tour de France success of Team Sky featuring names like Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish was followed by Olympic prosperity at home. With eight gold medals and seven out of a possible 10 on the track, there is no doubt the British cycling team are leading the world, with the peloton a fair way back.

Jennings said this was because the team's mindset has shifted from one of aspiring to win to expecting it. He said the shift started when lottery funding came to the sport in 1996 and the whole cycling system changed from amateur to professional.

This coincided with the ongoing success of Boardman, "an amazing athlete" who broke the world hour record in Bordeaux while training with Jennings. His successes inspired the likes of Wiggins (who he coached to his first Olympic gold) and Cavendish to believe leading the world was possible.

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"These two things combined to start this journey we are watching now. Supporting Wiggins, Cavendish and the new generation of riders was a very well thought-out and funded cycling federation that was focused on winning."

British Cycling director Dave Brailsford's obsession with "the aggregation of marginal gains" provided the practical steps that have propelled the team, a theory which is now being applied across other sports.

"The theory is that, at Olympic level, the difference between winning and losing is minute. Most athletes are training as hard as they can, eating well, resting properly, and using the best equipment. So it's pointless looking for the one big improvement.

"What you can do, though, is break down every element of what you do and look to see if it's possible to improve each by 0.2 or 0.3 of a per cent. If you can improve 30 tiny little elements then you have found the winning edge."

Although New Zealand lacked the golden edge on the track in 2012, a bronze in the team pursuit and bronze for Simon van Velthooven in the men's keirin showed we were more than competitive at the highest level, upstaging well budgeted opponents like Canada and the Netherlands.

"Overall I think the New Zealand cycling team is one you should be very proud of, they are improving each year as well. Your cycling programme in New Zealand creates some amazing athletes for the size of population. For a nation of 4 million to have so many world-class cyclists is quite amazing."

As well as performing in the traditional events like track and road cycling, where Golden Bay's Jack Bauer finished 19th in the men's time trial and 10th in the road race, Jennings said New Zealand had "a lot of athletes on the bubble" in other bike sports. Namely the increasingly popular Olympic sports of mountainbike XC and BMX as well as the mountainbike downhill event, which has seen an avalanche of competitors come to the sport in recent years.

At a local level he says the Tasman region is producing some exciting talent with Bauer a top example along with George Bennett who rides for the high-profile RadioShack team. On the mountain, the region is well represented by Tom Filmer, Leo Sandler, Veronique Sandler and Takaka's Reece Potter - who will compete at the UCI world championships in Austria next month.

Jennings, now an avid rider on the slopes, is on the Nelson Mountain Bike Club committee. With close to 600 full members, the club is New Zealand's biggest, hosting the national cross-country and downhill mountainbike championships for four of the past six years.

Jennings said club president Chris Mildon does an incredible job of "joining the dots" between fun-seeking bikers and other stakeholders like councils, forestry companies and landowners to make sure that the trails are built are to an agreed, safe standard.

"This is really important work and means that Nelson has one of the best mountainbike trail networks in the world and from what I hear there are plenty more to come. Once Nelson gets its head around the economic benefits this can bring, I can see mountainbiking becoming as important to Nelson as it is to Rotorua."

Figures from Crown research institute Scion put the annual recreational value of mountainbikers using Rotorua's Whakarewarewa Forest at $10.2 million.

The 42 year-old has been mountainbiking for more than 20 years and thinks the progress made in the sport is remarkable. He said riding in Britain used to involve being regularly stopped by angry trampers or chased off land by farmers with guns.

"These days you can ride all year round on purpose built trails in the most idyllic places in the world. It's a great sport and one that's growing rapidly."

In his role with the Nelson Tasman Cycle Trails Trust, partnered with the Tasman District Council, Nelson City Council and New Zealand Cycle Trail project, Jennings is involved in the creation and marketing of the two Great Rides in the region - Tasman's Great Taste Trail and the Dun Mountain Trail.

"The Dun pre-existed and really just needed some attention to bring it up to Great Ride standard. Tasman's Great Taste Trail, though, is a huge project spread out over a number of years and has a lot of potential for cycling in our region."

The Great Taste Trail already links Nelson to Richmond and Brightwater as well as Mapua via Rabbit Island. The plan, which will be completed in the near future will see a purpose-built track where people can ride from Nelson Airport all the way to Kaiteriteri.

"This trail is aimed at everyone, kids, grandparents, beginners and keen cyclists alike. We are expecting a huge influx of cycle tourism in the region and the social and economic benefits of this will be huge.

"The trust has the aim of making Nelson-Tasman the heart of biking in New Zealand and I think that is entirely possible - it's an exciting project to be involved in."

Currently working for Dry Crust, a design and communications agency in Richmond, Jennings said having two other "mad keen" bikers at work made for great morning tea conversation. And while a career and young family keep him engaged, Jennings hopes one day he will be able to get more involved with up and coming cycle athletes in the region.

"My own family and commitments keep me pretty busy just now but it would be great to get a bit more involved at a mentoring level.

"Although the sport has progressed a lot over recent years it's still vital to get the fundamentals right at an early age, everything from how you sit on the bike to how you prepare mentally and physically for an event."

Yet even with the training, the mental preparation and the latest technology, speaking from experience Jennings said nothing can prepare you for an event like the Olympic Games.

"For the rest of the year you are usually in your element, you're at the top of your sport, competing in events you are most likely to win, in an environment you fully understand.

"Now for two weeks you're living in a village, trying to keep focused but knowing that at some point you'll have just four minutes, or the length of your event, to justify the last four years of effort and sacrifice.

"Surreal is the best way to explain it. You have thousands of the world's best athletes all in a very small area - and most of them are nervous as hell."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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