YOUR GUIDE: BC Olympic Academy riders
DISTANCE: 50 miles (80km)
MAIN CLIMB: Plenty in Tuscan hills
TOTAL CLIMB: Easy to put together 1,000 metres of climbing
ACHTUNG!: Fast descents on twisty descents
When Cycling Weekly visited British Cycling’s Olympic Academy in Tuscany this May, not everything was going according to plan. A few in-house arguments and some slack time-keeping were among the problems that led coach Rod Ellingworth to initiate a clampdown. “I’ll be turning the screw a bit from tomorrow,” he told us as we set off in the British team car behind the riders on a training route around the hills of Tuscany.
Ellingworth tells it how it is. He’s not afraid to point out a rider’s shortcomings, but he balances this out with equal frankness about his own mistakes. As we leave the village of Quarrata on the busy, broken and badly patched-up roads, he takes full responsibility for the relaxed attitude that has slipped into the Academy’s day-to-day life. “We’ve focused so much on performance that we’ve forgotten the rest,” he said. “But we have to let them go down that path a bit so we can then bring them back.”
And that’s exactly what he did. From that week in early May, Ellingworth introduced three ‘foundation stones’ for each rider. First up was their time-keeping. They had to leave for training rides at 9am or 10am on the dot (9am for a big training day, 10am for an easier training day). Secondly, they had to keep their training diaries accurate and constantly up to date. Thirdly, they had to complete their prescribed training sessions no matter what. Fail to meet any of these and a rider will be put on the first plane back to the UK.
The riders also had to take care of their own bikes. After it was discovered that one rider wasn’t able to adjust his gears or brakes, the BC mechanic (who lives in Quarrata just down the road from the riders) was banned from working on the bikes and was only allowed to ‘oversee’ them as they re-cabled their Trek Madones after their ride.
One month later, and the clampdown had worked. At the Thuringen Rundfahrt stage race in Germany, Ian Stannard finished fourth, with Ellingworth saying: “That was the best all-round performance from the team so far this year.” Then in July, Ben Swift, Steven Burke and Jonny Bellis (along with junior Peter Kennaugh) won team pursuit gold at the European Championships in dominant fashion.
To help them transfer their road fitness to track souplesse, Ellingworth had his riders on the rollers before breakfast, doing road-work before lunch followed by team time trial efforts in the afternoon; the first one at 60 per cent, the second at 90 per cent.
It’s this sort of training that saw Mark Cavendish and Geraint Thomas get the results that earned them their contracts at T-Mobile and Barloworld respectively last year, and to prove that was no one-off, Stannard and Swift have followed in their footsteps with stagiaire rides with those teams this year.
It’s a conveyer belt which should churn out a couple of new young British pros every year, although Ellingworth admits there will never be a time when every rider in the Academy signs a professional contract. However, he is adamant that members of the British track team will have to be full-time riders. “The minimum [for the team pursuit] will be a 3.55min at the next Olympics, and to do that they are going to have to be in a big amateur team in Italy, at the very least,” he said.
With some riders also falling short on their riding skills, Ellingworth has been in regular contact with Olympic Development coach Darren Tudor, letting him know what the riders need to concentrate on, and it’s often the basics. “We’re starting to identify the problems,” Ellingworth said, “but we’re learning a lot of different things from each group. We’ve got to home in on ‘what does that kid need?’
“There are three types of riders we get: the super-skilful, like Cav and Ben Swift. The massive engines, like [Ed] Clancy and [Paul] Manning, and those who have both, like [Bradley] Wiggins, [Geraint] Thomas and [Rob] Hayles.
“They’re working well and it’s only the second year of being in Italy. I said when we started that it would be three years until we were settled and performing, but we’re already performing.”
The plan is to develop a seamless pathway for British cyclists, from Talent Team, to Olympic Development Programme to Olympic Academy, before signing for a pro team.
This is the second summer that BC’s under-23 riders have spent in Tuscany, and despite the problems that naturally come when a group of 18-19 year-olds live together, the riders have made excellent progress. By the end of this year, the programme is likely to have produced its fourth and fifth pro riders, in Stannard and Swift, and they seem to be making a smooth transition to Tuscan life. “We’re making friends in the town here, giving jerseys out and getting to know the locals,” Ellingworth said.
Even the local police now look out for the Brits. When one of the vehicles was illegally parked, the local police rang Max Sciandri, BC’s pro liaison officer who comes from Quarrata, so he could warn the team.
“People are starting to get to know them. No one could believe it when Swifty won the final stage [of the Giro delle Regioni] while wearing the climber’s jersey. They were really confused, but that’s because they have a preconceived notion that people can only be one type of rider. We always set out to get a jersey from every race, it gives them something to race for.”
After the switchback climb to Casore del Monte — taken at a steady pace — the riders stop for a well-earned coffee in Serravalle Pistoiese, and we make our way back to Quarrata.
YOUR GUIDES: BC OLYMPIC ACADEMY
This year’s Academy riders:
Ben Swift, Sheffield
Ian Stannard, Essex
Steven Burke, Burnley
Jonathan Bellis, Isle of Man
Andy Tennant, Wolverhampton
Russell Hampton, Essex
Alex Dowsett, Essex
A popular tourist destination for years, Tuscany couldn’t be easier to get to. It’s a two-hour flight from most British airports to Pisa, on Tuscany’s west coast. British Airways fly to Pisa from Gatwick, Glasgow and Manchester. Ryanair fly to Pisa from Stansted and Liverpool, while Easyjet fly there from Gatwick and Bristol. All airlines carry bikes, although there is a standard charge for sporting equipment.