Title: Project Rainbow - How British Cycling Reached the Top of the World
Author: Rod Ellingworth (with William Fotheringham)
Publisher: Faber & Faber
What it is: Rod Ellingworth's account of the establishment of the British Cycling academy and of the project to help Mark Cavendish win the 2011 World Championships and the 2012 Olympics road race.
Strengths: One of the best coaching manuals - for cycling coaches - that you're likely to read and also likely to find favour as a general management book.
Weaknesses: Legacy issues are left unaddressed: we don't know how the academy functioned after Ellingworth handed over the reins, or - beyond one rainbow jersey - whether the four year plan to win the worlds produced any lasting gains.
Two books from Richard Moore best tell the story of British cycling's rise from rags to riches: his 2008 Heroes, Villains & Velodromes and his 2011 Sky's the Limit. Through those two books you get the story behind the successes of British riders in recent years, on both the track and the road. Central to the stories Moore tells are five men: Doug Dailey, Peter Keen, Dave Brailsford, Rod Ellingworth and Tim Kerrison. While many of the riders who have brought home the bacon for Queen and country over the last decade or so have produced their own versions of how their glory was achieved - and while many people have told the story from the outside looking in - no one from the backroom staff has yet told their version of the story. Until, that is, Rod Ellingworth's Project Rainbow, the first behind-the-scenes account of British cycling's change in fortunes. That alone makes Project Rainbow a should-read for people who want to see how accurately his part of the story has been reported by others.
Ellingworth's roles in the British Cycling set-up have been those of coach, creator of the British Cycling academy and the man with the plan behind success at the 2011 Copenhagen World Championships and 2012 London Games. The 2011 Worlds are what gives the book its title, project rainbow having been a four year plan to put Mark Cavendish into the rainbow jersey in Denmark. And while that is the story that will hook most readers, the real treasure of Project Rainbow is Ellingworth's account of how he created the academy and helped shape the careers of the riders who passed through its doors. Some of the story here is about the riders themselves - anecdotes about Mark Cavendish and the other riders - but the core of the story is how Ellingworth did what he did. Project Rainbow is not just yet another British Cycling and My Part in its Rise to Glory story (though it is one of those and I'll refer you to reviews passim in case you've forgotten just how many of those there are): Ellingworth's account of how he did what he did makes Project Rainbow a brilliant how-to guide for aspiring coaches.
Born into a cycling family in the 1970s, Ellingworth was there that day in Goodwood when Mandy Jones won a rainbow jersey fro Great Britain, and he was there when Giuseppe Saronni won one for Italy. In 1988 Doug Dailey selected him for the national juniors team, on both track and road. He served his time on the British domestic scene and tried his hand on the continent, before - at the turn of the millennium - moving into a coaching role with the British cycling federation. After starting out with regional Talent Teams he became the assistant national endurance training coach and from what he saw there developed the idea for a British Cycling academy, where young riders could be allowed develop their talents away from the senior riders and prepare themselves for life as pro cyclists.
Core to Ellingworth's vision for the academy was the belief that young riders were simply getting as far as a GB jersey and not pushing on as hard or as fast as they could. In his own career he'd had to push for everything, but - the way he saw it - the young riders who got as far as national selection were easing off the pedals too much. The academy vision he came up with was a cycling boot camp which would mirror, in some ways, army life:
"I like the ethos of the Russian system or the army - that hardness, being a unit. When you think about it, when you go to a bike race it's similar to going to war. You've got to do as you're told. [...] My goal was to produce a crack squadron of riders, mentally drilled, trained like the SAS."
Six riders formed the academy's first intake: Matt Brammeier, Mark Cavendish, Ed Clancy, Bruce Edgar, Christian Varley and Tom White. Using Lottery funding, the goal had to be Olympic selection and Ellingworth set a target of getting two riders into the Beijing squad. In the background though, unexplained to the Lottery paymasters, was Peter Keen's 1997 plan to have British cyclists the best in the world by 2012, with the implicit acceptance that this meant getting them to perform not just on the track, but also on the road. And with Cavendish the academy hit gold in its first year.
Taking a raw talent such as Cavendish's and helping him achieve his full potential is not straightforward. Ellingworth acknowledges that Cavendish would probably have made it on his own, that he was driven to succeed and would have got there. But that modesty notwithstanding, it's hard to see Cavendish getting there as quickly without the support he received from his coach. This side of the story - the relationship between one coach and one rider - is central to Project Rainbow, the thread that joins Ellingworth's role in developing the academy and in putting together a plan to win the World Championships and Olympic road race. Fans of Cavendish will want to read the book to see what Ellingworth has to say about the Manx man.
But the other story that comes out of this relationship - and out of the way Ellingworth worked with the other riders - is that of how a coach works. And this is what makes Project Rainbow a fantastic coaching manual. How this works is that Ellingworth doesn't just tell you what he did, he tells you why he did it. Take, as an example, the issue of discipline. Dealing with a group of young riders is - obviously - difficult. You might want them to eat, sleep and live cycling, but they are also young adults and need room to develop as such. How you set the boundaries and how you deal with them when they cross those boundaries is a key issue. And in this area Ellingworth was able to call on assistance from Steve Peters:
"The most important principle that Steve and I established was this: rules and consequences. We felt that you've got to make your standards clear with young people: these are the rules, and if you break them, there are consequences. We talked a lot about what I had to do. I would need to be consistent. Steve taught me to start by getting everybody into a room, and I would say, 'Right, guys, what are the rules that we have to have?' I knew what I wanted, but what Steve had taught me was that you've got to have open-ended questions, so that the lads would be the ones who arrived at the answers. Each year you would say, 'OK, these are the rules from last year. Are there any new ones?' We had house rules, on-race rules, rules about how we would operate, how I would behave as a coach toward them, how they would behave as athletes toward me. What it amounted to was that the riders wrote their own rules, with my guidance, and agreed on the consequences of failing to follow them."
Ellingworth's punishments are some of the funnier aspects of Project Rainbow. Early on, the riders were racing down in Cornwall and a break got away in the first couple of kilometres without any GB jerseys in it. The guys worked to bring the break back and their work ethic after the break had gone wasn't the problem, it was that they'd been lazy before the break went, in the opening kilometres of the race: "What I'd noticed was that the lads had gone off the start at the back of the bunch, as if they thought they were the big hitters." At the end of the race, in the car park in front of all the other riders, Ellingworth gave them a bollocking and then the silent treatment all the way back up to Manchester. And then had them come in for a five hour session on the track early the next morning. "The point was simply this: 'If you miss a break, I will make you do something you don't like doing.'"
Such things seem pretty obvious, common sense, but many people get them wrong. And they're not always as easy to implement as they seem. Anyone can give their riders a bollocking, anyone can bring them in early the next morning and make them sweat, but key to that actually working is having the riders' buy-in in the first place, having them accept their punishment and learn from it.
Shouting at people will only get you so far, even if you have their input in setting the rules. You also have to be able to listen. Particularly with Cavendish, Ellingworth explains times when he had to ease off and work out what was going wrong with the rider, and fix that problem, rather than just piling on more pressure. Cavendish himself has, I think, told this story himself, about one day being dropped on a hill when out training with the group and Ellingworth coming back and encouraging him to go on. Finding the right balance between the two sides of the game - being a hard task master and being a friend who can throw his arm around your shoulders - is where coaching becomes difficult. Ellingworth's explanation of his own experiences should help many work out how to do something similar themselves.
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The original academy was based in Manchester and then moved on to Quarrata, Italy, where eventually Ellingworth handed over control to Max Sciandri ("we never really got on from a coaching point of view, which in turn made it a little but difficult with the riders."). Judging the long-term value of the academy that Ellingworth built is one of the areas where, I think, Project Rainbow is a little but weak. Perhaps that is understandable. Once the plans for Team Sky began to be formalised, Ellingworth was moved from one to the other - he was already thinking about moving on, and had an offer on the table from Bob Stapleton to go and work at Colombia-High Road - but had no input into what happened with the academy:
"I was massively disappointed that I was never really involved in deciding who took over. We'd build something pretty big, but I was told to stay out of it. Once I did leave, I wasn't given the opportunity to consult on it or help mould it. Max [Sciandri] didn't want anything to do with me; he said he didn't want me living in the town because the lads would keep turning to me. That was a massive gut-wrencher."
Thereafter in Project Rainbow I don't recall Ellingworth having anything else to say about how the academy project has worked out since. Without a doubt Ellingworth achieved something with what he did - look at the riders he brought through - but for the academy to have really worked it would have to be able to survive under different management. I can understand Ellingworth not having more to say on the subject, but reading the book and identifying the academy as one of its key strands, it would have been nice to know how it worked out in the long term.
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Through 2007 Ellingworth's focus began to shift away from the academy and on to a new idea: Project Rainbow:
"The pro Worlds wasn't my role - my brief was the under-23s - but part of my job was to work with Mark [Cavendish], and this was a goal for him. In Stuttgart [at the 2007 Worlds], I was starting to think about how the other nations built up to the race. The Italians, for example, have a whole myth around what they call la squadra, and I thought to myself we could create something along those lines."
Having a rider like Cavendish who'd already set himself the target of winning the rainbow jersey obviously helped Ellingworth turn such thoughts into a plan of action. And that plan was given a focus when a sprinter-friendly course was selected for the 2011 Worlds. But those two ingredients alone weren't enough. The riders who would make up the team needed to be identified and they needed to buy-in to the project. The steps necessary to qualifying as many riders as possible for the Worlds needed to be identified and completed. And the steps necessary to get Cavendish ready to win the Worlds also needed to be worked out.
One such step was victory in Milan-Sanremo with his trade team. This straddling of two worlds, depending upon your point of view, is either resolved or only further complicated once Team Sky came along, when Ellingworth was being paid by both the British federation and the trade team. Some of what Ellingworth has to say on that matter will doubtlessly be of interest to people who are curious about that side of the British Cycling/Sky set-up.
In one regard, Team GB didn't have the problem the likes of Italy, Spain, Belgium and the rest face at the Worlds, of having a history of riders working against one and other, rather than with one and other. But it did have the problem of riders not really targeting the World's for a performance. So Ellingworth had to come up with a plan for how to bring a group of riders together, give them a focus and have them prepared for the race. Mendrisio in 2009 and Melbourne in 2010 were part of developing that plan, stepping stones toward Copenhagen.
As with the development of the academy and the way Ellingworth managed his young cohort of riders, dealing with the senior riders who would ultimately make up the Worlds squad was obviously critical, and as with the young riders Ellingworth talks the reader through the things he did and why he did them:
"Talking to the riders so early on in the process was absolutely invaluable. It was clear there were fundamental things we would have to do to get people involved. We would have to get the selection right. We had to get the communication right. [...] The selection process was going to start in June 2009. They were going to write the rules about how they would get selected. I gave them all the dates, plus all the travel dates for the Worlds, all the basic details, early on in 2009, but I said the heart of it - the selection criteria - was something they were going to have to work out in June."
That it all worked out right in the end is well known by now, but how it worked out makes for an interesting read.
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As with the academy, one criticism I would offer here is we don't really know how well the structures put in place to win the Worlds have worked out long term. To be fair to Ellingworth here, it's pretty early to be making judgements. Given that the Olympic road race got rolled into Project Rainbow it's probably fair to not have expected much from the 2012 Worlds, and obviously the book has been written before there were any lessons to be drawn from 2013's performance. But for me, as a non-British reader, I find a four-year plan to win one one-day road race a bit of overkill and want to know whether it produced lasting benefits. Project Rainbow II is being built around Richmond in 2015 and Qatar in 2016, with the Rio Olympics in 2016 coming in between. I guess it is only after them that we can really judge the long-term - and not just the short-term - value of all the effort.
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The third strand of Project Rainbow is Ellingworth's role in Team Sky and here he is pretty blunt in his assessment of some of the things that went wrong in their first year:
"We underestimated how big a deal setting up Team Sky was, and how much it was going to take out of everybody. Part of the trouble we encountered that year stemmed from the fact that we were entering the final two years before the Olympics. London was such a big deal, and Dave [Brailsford] was trying to concentrate on getting Team Sky up and running while at the same time keeping his eye on the Olympic programme."
Ellingworth is blunt in his telling of what went on - and makes clear that not everyone gets on with everyone else - but the reader here has to bear in mind the all-important caveat that he is still working in that environment and cannot speak as freely as someone who has distance. Some criticisms have, clearly, been held back.
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Having at this stage read so many other accounts of British cycling's rise from zero to heroes it is difficult for me to say how much you'll learn from Project Rainbow if it's the only book on this subject that you read. You will learn a lot about those three areas of the academy, the Worlds and the creation of Team Sky, but you will only learn what Ellingworth witnessed. In this regard where I found the book interesting was in the manner it validates the story as told by others - particularly Moore's accounts - and complements those accounts with the insider's take on the story. While it works as a stand-alone books Project Rainbow also serves as additional insight into some of the other books written on this subject.
But really, for me, the most valuable insights to be gained from Project Rainbow are into the life of a coach and how a good coach can go about getting the best out of the riders he has to work with. That, I think, is the key purpose of Ellingworth's story. This is not tittle-tattle from an insider, an anecdote-laden account of working with stars like Mark Cavendish: it's a manual for aspiring coaches (and - it must also be admitted - also a book for Team Sky's legion of fans in the business world who are tired of Sun Tzu and the likes of Who Moved My Cheese and want a management manual that draws lessons from cycling).
Project Rainbow is, ultimately, a book that is about learning "how to respond to a young athlete in the formative stage of his career [who] comes up to you and says he or she wants to be a world champion." Every young rider should want to be a world champion and every coach who has to deal with such a rider will gain something from Ellingworth's account of how he helped Mark Cavendish realise his ambition.