PARIS – When Lance Armstrong won the last of his seven Tour de France titles back in 2005, there was not a single British rider on the starting line. The face of cycling has dramatically changed since, with Armstrong erased from the records books for doping and British cycling now ruling the Grand Tours.
Simon Yates capped a fantastic year for British riders on Sunday by winning the Spanish Vuelta, completing a clean sweep of cycling’s biggest races for the country following the successes of Chris Froome at the Giro d’Italia and Geraint Thomas at the Tour de France.
It is the first time in cycling history that each of the three titles have been held by three riders from the same nation.
“It’s astonishing really. Growing up I was so accustomed to seeing the French, Italian and Spanish riders lead the way, so for myself, Chris and Geraint to all win a Grand Tour in the same year just shows how far the sport has come in this country,” the 26-year-old Yates said. “It has not happened by accident.”
Like Thomas, Yates is a pure product of British cycling, having joined the country’s renowned academy program when he was 18 years old. At the time, Britain had already started its cycling revolution under the helm of coaches Dave Brailsford and Peter Keen, who masterminded the rise of homegrown talents, on both the track and the road.
The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona were a milestone in British cycling history. In Spain, Chris Boardman, who was coached by Keen, won the gold medal in the individual pursuit, Britain’s first cycling gold medal in 72 years. From 1997-2004, Keen was in charge of the elite performance program of the British cycling federation and developed a plan focusing on track cycling to attract funding from the National Lottery, which had just started to invest millions of dollars into British sport federations.
“Britain has invested heavily in lower ranks,” said Brailsford, who runs Team Sky. “It does not happen overnight.”
At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Jason Queally won the gold medal in the 1-kilometer time trial and the harvest of track medals expanded in Athens and Beijing under Brailsford’s leadership. But successes on the road remained scarce despite the emergence of a talented generation of riders including Mark Cavendish and Thomas, who developed their skills through the academy program run by Rod Ellingworth.
In 2009, Bradley Wiggins achieved a fourth-place finish at the Tour – he was later awarded third place after Armstrong’s disqualification – while riding for Garmin. He became an obvious choice for the newly-created Team Sky that Brailsford helped to create and then managed, and was recruited as the team’s leader. With his “marginal gains” philosophy and unmatched budget, Brailsford produced the first British Tour de France winner in 2012 with Wiggins, just a year after Cavendish became world champion at the road race championships.
Success has not stopped since.
“There were no British winners in any of the first 259 Grand Tours, yet following Yates’s victory in Madrid this weekend a British rider has now been victorious in nine of the last 20,” read a British Cycling statement after Yates won the Vuelta.
This year’s British dominance has, however, been met with skepticism outside the country after Froome returned an abnormal doping test at last year’s Vuelta. Froome was cleared to compete at the Tour de France just days before the race started but was subjected to abuse by some fans on the roads of France, repeatedly spat at and even punched.
Thomas was also booed and jeered this year because he rides for Team Sky, which has been accused by a British parliamentary committee of crossing an “ethical line” after preaching zero tolerance and is now often associated with doping. In March, the British legislators said they received evidence showing Team Sky sought a therapeutic use exemption for Wiggins to take a banned corticosteroid to enhance his performance while preparing to win the 2012 Tour.
Yates, who competes for the Mitchelton-Scott team, was suspended for four months for non-intentional doping two years ago after testing positive for a banned substance during Paris-Nice. He had been treated for asthma, but his team failed to apply for a therapeutic use exemption.