SHANE SUTTON: THE BIG INTERVIEW
Shane Sutton is the 51-year-old British Cycling coach who swapped the territory of his birth, New South Wales, for his adopted home of South Wales.
A gold medallist in the team pursuit at the Commonwealth Games in 1978, he moved to Britain in the early 1980s and raced as a professional for a clutch of domestic teams, including PMS and Banana-Falcon. In 1987 he rode a couple of weeks of the Tour de France for ANC-Halfords. His biggest win was the 1990 Milk Race.
As a coach he worked with the Welsh Cycling Federation, and has become an integral part of British Cycling’s coaching set-up. He now calls Wales home and admits that his children are more British than Aussie, and even goes as far as to say he’s a Welsh supporter when it comes to rugby. However, he says there’s one thing he’ll never do, and that’s back England at cricket. That would just be a step too far.
CW: Now the post-Olympic excitement has died down, are you able to pinpoint any one particular highlight?
SS: Every day was a highlight. The whole experience was special. But, if you really put me to the sword, the one thing that got to me more than anything else was seeing Vicky [Pendleton] win. We’ve been to hell and back in the past, Vic and I.
There’s been some hard days when she wanted to walk away from the sport, so to see her win really got to me. I don’t get emotional that often, but you’ve got to remember she had only one chance to win and her event was at the end of the track programme after all that success. That makes what she did phenomenal. OK, so it wasn’t me holding her up on the track but it’s been quite a journey for me and Vic.
Back in Australia you got a fair bit of stick from a pair of radio DJs for helping the Poms win all those gold medals. What was all that about?
SS: Yeah, I heard about that. They wanted me extradited and executed! I must have been doing something right, then. I was Aussie born, but I’ve been here 25 years. My kids are British. They can say what they like, but I have a lot of admiration for the Aussies and without them we wouldn’t be where we are today.
When we first looked at the Academy set-up, we looked at what the Aussies were doing. Their coach Shane Bannan was instrumental in how we did that. Five or six years ago, the Australians dominated on the track. They raised the bar and it was there to be jumped. They set the standard; now we’re setting the standard.
What’s the secret to the success, then?
SS: Everyone is looking for one thing that we do, but there isn’t one thing. At the end of the day, it’s about having a generation of extraordinarily talented athletes available, and putting the support and coaching system around them.
One thing no one has picked up on yet is that in our coaching set-up we tend to pair a sports scientist with a talented bike rider. For example, you’ve got Iain Dyer, the sprint coach, who knows more about sports science than the rest of us put together, and then you’ve got Jan Van Eijden, one of the world’s best sprinters in his day. You’ve got Matt Parker, a great coach, and Simon Cope, who was a good bike rider. You’ve got Darren Tudor and you’ve got Rod Ellingworth, who I believe will become one of the world’s greatest endurance coaches.
After Athens we said to Rod, “We want you to bring through two athletes in time for Beijing.” Well, when we got to Beijing, he’d given us six. It’s crazy what he’s done. I’ve probably been one of his harshest critics at times, but Rod is an amazing coach.
Sutton encourages Steven Burke during the 2008 Olympic Games individual pursuit
Now Heiko Salzwedel is coming back, too.
SS: I am really, really excited about that. I have as much respect for him as I have for anyone in the world. You prove the worth of someone or something with evidence, and Heiko has proved he’s one of the best in the world with all his work with the Aussies.
There’s that great generation of the McEwens and the Matty Whites and the Vogels, and of late he’s done a remarkable job with the Danes. In some ways, he’s got a lot of unfinished business here. There’s no real job title at the moment, but he’ll be a key part of the coaching set-up. He’ll help me look after the World Cups this winter and then we’ll sit down and work out exactly what role he’ll take.
What’s your new role going to be?
SS: My job is changing. You know, the Games were a pretty stressful place to be and I could have done a little better coping with stress. I am going to spend the next year working on a management programme with Steve Peters [British Cycling’s psychiatrist] so that we can develop a method of coaching that will enable us to get our message across in a more relaxed manner.
You know, Dan Hunt, Matt Parker, Rod Ellingworth, all these guys have such passion, but it’s important we can keep in control and deliver the message in a clear fashion. I am going to buy into that management style so that we can all feel calm under pressure. It has to be carrot, not stick. If we can become better people, we can provide a better programme.
Keeping cool under pressure, is that something you have struggled with in your coaching?
SS: I’ve found that at times. I have been a little bit harsh. That’s not to say it didn’t work. That method works in some areas and perhaps disheartens others. Perhaps I didn’t get my message across as well as I could have done.
Do you have to tailor your approach according to the rider you’re dealing with?
SS: Some need an arm round them, others respond to a bit of a talking to. But what you’ve got to remember is that they are all under immense pressure. When you are training for four years for one shot at Olympic gold, can you imagine what that is like? People talk about the way Bradley Wiggins acts once in a while. They read that he liked a drink or what have you, but has anyone put themselves in Bradley Wiggins’s shoes and lived a couple of days in his life? Or Chris Hoy? Or Victoria Pendleton?
Chris can’t buy a sandwich these days without it taking him 20 minutes, and you’ll never meet a finer gentleman, but he’s living under a lot of pressure. There are going to be difficult moments at times, but it’s about how we deal with them and help them. I know I wouldn’t last two days under the pressure Bradley and some of these guys are under. Steve Peters is the hub of the wheel at British Cycling, no doubt about it, and he does some remarkable work with the athletes, but as coaches, we need to be able to help them deal with the pressures too. Steve says we’re a family, from the top right down to the canteen staff, the accountants, the receptionists.
A couple of years ago, you led the British Cycling trip to the Etape du Tour. We understand you’ll be playing the role of chief motivator again next year.
SS: That was great fun. We took Chris Hoy and Jason Queally and some of the coaches. If we’re doing this pro team it’d be great to take our future sponsors out there to experience a little bit of what it’s all about. As I say, until you’ve done it, you don’t know what it’s all about.
Dave B sent me a text the other day saying he was going to kick my arse in the Etape. I replied, “You’ve always been a dreamer.” It energises a lot of us because it can be a bit of fun. The pressure someone like Dave is under is unbelievable, so if he can focus on his own training it is good for him.
Sutton named Coach of the Year
ANC-Halfords retro: Shane Sutton