Title: The Medal Factory – British Cycling and the Cost of Gold
Author: Kenny Pryde
Publisher: Pursuit Books
Order: Profile Books
What it is: A look at British cycling and its transformation in the years since Lottery funding came along
Strengths: Pryde appears to offer a balanced look at British cycling’s bumpy recent history, acknowledging the criticisms levelled at the national federation, the funding body, coaches, and riders
Weaknesses: Pryde is dismissive of most all criticism but only reinforces many of the complaints in the manner of his argument
“Was ever a sport so fulsomely praised before being brought to its knees as rapidly as British cycling? Gleefully celebrated in the national media as a medal factory then pilloried as a den of cheating sexist bullies in the space of a few weeks, British cycling and riders were subjected to a forensic public interrogation. Having worked its way to the top of world cycling after almost twenty years of struggle, British cycling’s coaches, riders and reputation were all but destroyed in a six-month horrow [sic] show of grotesque headlines and allegations. How did it happen, to come so far and to fail so fast?”
Like the apocryphal hotel porter who asked George Best where did it all go wrong, Kenny Pryde’s The Medal Factory – British Cycling and the Cost of Gold asks the same question of British Cycling and its still-mounting haul of bangles, baubles and assorted jumpers. The tally to-date is worth recalling: “over fifty world champions on track and road,” says Pryde, “three Tour de France winners, six Tours de France, two Vueltas, one Giro, a brace of one day classics, a world time trial championship, three world titles (Cooke, Cavendish, Armitstead), four Hour Records and knighthoods for Sir Wiggo, Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Dave B.”
Some will recall that the story of British cycling’s dizzying ascent has already been told in part by Richard Moore, twelve years ago in the half-good/half-rotten Heroes, Villains & Velodromes – Chris Hoy and Britain’s Track Cycling Revolution, with its superior sequel-of-sorts Sky’s The Limit – British Cycling’s Quest To Conquer The Tour de France picking up the story three years later as the show went on the road. The story of the rise and rise and rise of British cycling has also been touched upon in the many instantly forgettable ‘Great British Bike Story’ books from the likes of Chris Sidwells, Ellis Bacon, Robert Dineen, Ned Boulting and more. And, of course, there’s the two dozen or so chamoirs telling parts of the inside story.
With the story of the Rise having already been told so many times, The Medal Factory’s USP must therefore be how it tells the story of the Fall, right? Time to recall that dizzying descent.
In the same way that the traditional cycling season begins with the Race to the Sun and ends with the Race of the Falling Leaves, there is an element of symmetry in the story of British cycling’s Rise and Fall: both parts begin in the Palace of Westminster, with questions asked in Parliament about the federation in 1996 (Pryde tells us it was 1995) and the heads of British Cycling and Team Sky appearing before a Commons Select Committee in 2016. Like Moore in Heroes, Villains and Velodromes, the background to those parliamentary questions in 1996 – the coup that ended Tony Doyle’s brief reign and resulted in the rise to power of Peter King, Brian Cookson, and Peter Keen – is somewhat glossed over by Pryde (regrettably, as Doyle’s tenure is one hell of a story, and some of the problems highlighted then are also alleged to have been happening two decades later). The 2016 problems, of course, are key to the story Pryde has to tell.
The Fall, Pryde tells us, began with Jess Varnish and a “seemingly minor outburst from a frustrated rider” at the March 2016 World Track Championships in London. As the media “followed up and amplified her criticisms”, Pryde tells us, “social media buzzed with indignation and support.” In April Varnish was dropped from British Cycling’s Olympic Podium programme and “just two days after her deselection became public knowledge, a back-page lead story on Varnish appeared in the Daily Mail highlighting accusations of sexism and bullying that would, in the end, cost [Shane] Sutton his job.” Varnish, Pryde tells us, had “opted to go out swinging, with a bang rather than a whimper.” In a theme that runs throughout The Medal Factory, Pryde tells us that “social media feeds blazed with conspiracy theories and outrage, while the story was widely shared.”
Within days, Varnish’s allegations were followed by fresh allegations of bullying, from Paralympian cyclist Darren Kenny and a couple of anonymous insiders who spoke to the Mail’s Martha Kelner (a journalist who broke several of the stories recounted by Pryde but who, unlike her male colleagues, Pryde feels no need to credit). In addition, Pryde tells us, Nicole Cooke had already “added her voice to the chorus of high-profile critics”, as had Victoria Pendleton. Before April was out Sutton had resigned, after having been put on gardening leave pending an investigation into Varnish’s allegations.
Around the same time as all this was happening, it was revealed that Simon Yates was facing time on the naughty step for the wrong use of an asthma inhaler. Some authors would use this to foreshadow the drama to come with Chris Froome but not Pryde, for whom the incident isn’t even worthy of comment.
May, June, and July passed without major incident. Then came the Armitstead affaire, when “the media revealed that Britain’s reigning world road race champion Lizzie Armitstead had been charged with an anti-doping violation following three infractions in a year.” When the CAS ruled that one of Armitstead’s whereabouts failures wasn’t her fault, she was cleared to compete in the Rio Olympics but, Pryde tells us, once again “British riders were in the news for the worst reasons.”
If this was really British Cycling’s annus horribilis – and Pryde tells us it was – that initial fall was followed by a spectacular dead cat bounce, with Chris Froome adding another maillot jaune to his collection before the Armitstead affaire became public knowledge and the UK’s Olympians bringing home a dozen medals from the Rio Olympics, six of them gold, while the Paralympians collected twenty-one, a dozen golden hued.
Things took a turn for the worse come September, after Russian hackers broke into WADA’s database system and released information relating to TUEs obtained by a number of Olympic athletes. “The Fancy Bears’ conflation of TUE-regulated use of ‘medicines’ with the State-sanctioned administering and covering up of erythropoietin (EPO) and anabolic steroid use was risible,” Pryde tells us, although it’s not made clear where the hackers made such claims. The initial release of data covered high-profile athletes Simone Biles and Serena and Venus Williams. Subsequent releases put the spotlight on cyclists including Emma Johansson, Fabian Cancellara, Jacob Fuglsang, and Stephen Cummings, Jack Bobridge and Laura Trott, and Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins. Of all the athletes named – cyclists and non-cyclists alike – only one suffered any lasting reputational damage: Wiggins. One could ask why this is so but Pryde doesn’t.
Then came the Jiffy bag:
“Someone nursing a grudge – or with little sense of what would ultimately be unleashed – contacted the Daily Mail journalist and serial British cycling tormentor Matt Lawton and suggested to him that he should ask questions and find out what was in a Jiffy bag that had been delivered to Wiggins and Team Sky at the French Critérium du Dauphiné stage race. […] If Varnish’s story had been a relatively localised affair – women’s racing inside British cycling – the Jiffy bag imbroglio explicitly tied British Cycling to Team Sky, as medical staff, records, storage and transportation crossed unhindered and apparently unrecorded between the two entities.”
Who could this anonymous source with a grudge possibly be? Pryde has absolutely no interest in revealing his identity, even though by now most all of us know his name: Shane Sutton.
Adding insult to injury, the Mail went on to reveal that Wiggins had had a Whereabouts violation before the Rio Olympics and reminded readers of comments he had made criticising Armitstead just one month earlier. Pryde chooses not to mention this incident in The Medal Factory.
Pryde does tell us that “these stories all played out during a febrile summer, when various British sporting organisations were making news for the worst reasons. An elite GB Canoeing coach was under investigation for sexual impropriety with athletes, as was a coach from the UK Sport-funded Archery GB. Around the same time, the GB Bobsleigh team was being investigated for racism, its funding administered directly by UK Sport rather than its national federation. And, speaking of racism, the English women’s national football manager was accused of the same, and lost his job.” Unfortunately for Pryde – and whoever edited this book – none of these stories broke until the following year, leaving open to question just how fevered the atmosphere at the time really was and whether it’s fair to insinuate – as Pryde seeks to do – that the allegations levelled at British Cycling and British cyclists were the product of some form of fever-induced mass hysteria.
Pryde goes on to tell us that “such was the torrent of bad news throughout 2016 – principally for cycling and athletics – that the select committee of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) decided an inquiry was required.” This is another claim that is not quite faithful to reality and the DCMS Committee’s doping inquiry actually commenced in 2015 with its initial focus being revelations made by the Sunday Times and ARD concerning the IAAF. British Cycling only got swept up into the investigation following the TUEs and the Jiffy bag stories.
In December Shane Sutton and Dave Brailsford both appeared before the Committee to give evidence, along with British Cycling’s Robert Howden. This followed appearances in 2015 by UKAD’s Nicole Sapstead and David Kenworthy, WADA’s David Howman, the IAAF’s Sebastian Coe, and earlier in 2016 UK Athletics’s Ed Warner, among others. Pryde tells us that the Committee’s televised evidence-gathering sessions “made for grisly viewing in which various figures were quizzed and found wanting by a collection of politicians intent, at the very least, on talking tough to people who mostly appeared underprepared.”
In March 2017 came more bad news when it was revealed that a consignment of Testogel sachets had been delivered to the British Cycling and Team Sky doctor Richard Freeman at the Manchester velodrome. Freeman had already become something of an embarrassment for British Cycling and Team Sky, first when he skipped out of a scheduled DCMS Committee appearance and then when when his poor record-keeping and stolen laptop were revealed. While those stories could be shrugged off, the news that he had been in receipt of a delivery of testosterone was a serious charge.
As if all this and its on-going fallout over subsequent months wasn’t enough to be dealing with, in December 2017 – a year after Brailsford and Sutton’s DCMS appearances, during which time Sky had added another Tour de France victory to their haul, as well as a win in the Vuelta a España, the first Grand Tour double since 2008 – it was revealed that Chris Froome was fighting an anti-doping charge.
The events above make up the first chapter of The Medal Factory, with Pryde frequently forgetting that, so early in the book, he should really just be setting out his stall and instead leaping in feet first to litigate the allegations made, leaving the reader bogged down early in detail and so blinded by the trees it becomes hard to see the forest. We then fall back in time twenty years to the story of where it all began, with the by-now familiar story of how Keen, King, Cookson and co rebuilt the Federation and how Dave Brailsford came to be its public face. After that there’s a by-the-numbers chronological walk-through of some of the medals won until, two hundred pages later, we finally get back to what should be the book’s meat and two veg, the fall from grace.
Does Pryde bring much hindsight to the retelling of British Cycling’s renaissance? Not really. He certainly doesn’t question where the culture that Varnish and others complained of came from, whether it was baked-in from the start or developed later. Certainly there is evidence it was baked-in. Graeme Obree’s autobiography contains passages suggesting that, even before the advent of Lottery funding, British Cycling put success ahead of athlete welfare. Or there’s the case of Wendy Everson who – like Varnish more than a decade later – took the federation to an employment tribunal. Pryde does mention this case, but only to suggest lessons weren’t learned about the employment status of riders (who, throughout, Pryde refers to as employees of British Cycling). What Pryde neglects to tell the reader is that Everson’s case had more in common with Varnish’s than just the question of employment status. It also included allegations of bullying.
Overall, Pryde has little or no time for such allegations. In his reading “Sutton had been a divisive and abrasive character” but there was an almost unanimous belief “that he had been harshly treated by riders whom he had helped enormously.” In fact, according to Pryde, Sutton was more sinned against than a sinner and it’s his critics who really need to be put under the spotlight.
Cooke, she can’t be trusted because she didn’t talk about the Halfords women’s road team in her autobiography, the same women’s road team that Tom Southam and Rob Hayles were members of. (And no, before you ask, Hayles’ elevated haematocrit episode a few weeks after the Halfords team was launched isn’t mentioned by Pryde, even though it was serious enough to make Brailsford consider quitting. And yes, Hayles is one of Pryde’s sources). Pendleton, she can’t be trusted because she didn’t talk about Sutton decorating her flat for her, which act of kindliness is taken to mean that Sutton can’t really be a bully. Here’s a thing about bullying that Pryde either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about: if you really want to make a success of it, get the other person to need you, personally as well as professionally. Be their friend even as you torment them. Pryde, he’s more interested in turning the tables and telling us that it was actually Pendleton who was the bully.
If Pryde had been even-handed in his treatment of Cooke and Pendleton perhaps his criticisms would carry some weight. But he’s not. Pryde quotes this criticism of Cooke from an anonymous British Cycling insider:
“The thing that people seem to forget is that Nicole fell out with every team she ever rode for – she changed teams just about every season. There’s no doubt that she could have been better managed, but there are too many people ready to judge what happened a decade ago by today’s standards.”
Falling out with just about every team they rode for is also true of Bradley Wiggins, who drifted through a succession of road teams without ever seeming to find himself at home. But does Wiggins get the same treatment as Cooke? When Chris Boardman and Simon Jones have to arrest Wiggins’s post-Athens alcohol problem (or “a booze-fuelled bender” as Pryde calls it) is that seen as problematic? No it is not. When Wiggins again goes off the rails at the end of 2010 and has to be wet-nursed by Sutton is that seen as problematic? No it is not. Instead we get ‘Wiggy Stardust’ as a chapter title, “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive” as an epigraph, and enough smoke blown up the arse of the Kid from Kilburn to give him lung cancer. Why? “In spite of the stories that started to seep out about Wiggins being difficult to deal with when things weren’t going his way,” Pryde informs us, “Wiggins still ‘connected’ with British cycling fans; he somehow transmitted a sense in which he was still ‘one of them’.”
That Wiggins’s primary connection with the fans was through the media somehow seems lost on Pryde, a veteran of the British cycling media – he’s a former editor of Winning magazine (also the alma mater of Rupert Guinness) and Cycle Sport (which counts among its graduates William Fotheringham) – and has been around the sport long enough to know much of the story he tells in The Medal Factory without having to waste his time checking facts in archives, or carrying out new interviews.
That connection with the fans seems to be what matters most to Pryde and The Medal Factory certainly doesn’t feel designed to rock the boat by delivering uncomfortable truths. Pryde offers the appearance of balance by acknowledging criticisms levelled at British Cycling but is so dismissive of those making the criticisms that he renders them mute. Rather than a nuanced look at the story, Pryde is simply leaning in to the criticisms made before batting them away dismissively.
Whose story is Pryde actually telling us in The Medal Factory? Some 70-something people who spoke to the author are listed in the book’s Acknowledgements. Unlike road.cc’s esteemed literary critic Richard Peploe, for whom a cycling book worth less than four out of five stars is a rare thing and who wrote of The Medal Factory (4.5 stars) that he “struggled to think of many worthwhile interviewees who are missing – with the exception of Bradley Wiggins”, my mind was abuzz with all the voices silenced by Pryde. Take, for instance, Steve Peters, the monkey spanking specialist. who, along with Brailsford and Sutton, is seen as a cornerstone of British Cycling’s success. Ahead of The Medal Factory’s publication he gave evidence at Richard Freeman’s MPTS tribunal hearing that not only painted quite a negative picture of Sutton but also called into question the diligence of those who completed the UK Sport inquiry into Varnish’s bullying allegations when he noted that he was not interviewed in connection with it, despite being the man Sutton reported to, and to whom British Cycling riders and staff complained about him.
Other silenced voices are more jarring when you consider the gender disparity within Pryde’s sources. Would it surprise you to learn that all bar two of the 70-something people thanked are men? If asked to guess the women who would you name? Varnish, Cooke, Pendleton? Emma Pooley? Rebecca Romero or Wendy Houvenaghel? All six of these have publicly discussed British Cycling’s shortcomings. All six were overlooked by Pryde when he selected those he needed to talk to when researching The Medal Factory. The only women he thought to turn to were Debra Brown and Fran Millar. Millar is the now former Team Ineos CEO, Brown has been Brailsford’s PA since his British Cycling years. Neither is known for asking critical questions of the price paid for the bangles, baubles and jumpers collected by British Cycling and Team Sky/Ineos over the last two decades.
Go back to that tally of medals and jerseys won over the last 20 years. Where are the major women’s road races in that list? Where are the time trial World Championships won by women? Where are any of the medals won in MTB, BMX, ‘cross? Where are the Paralympians? All of these Pryde tells us in The Medal Factory have been overlooked by British Cycling. But how well served are these disciplines by The Medal Factory itself? Shanaze Reade isn’t interviewed. Sarah Storey isn’t interviewed. Rachel Atherton isn’t interviewed. Helen Wyman isn’t interviewed. You’ll struggle to find their achievements in BMX, the Paralympics, mountain biking and cyclo cross even acknowledged by Pryde. He’s very, very good at demonstrating the problem by being the problem: the failures of the Manchester medal factory are writ large in the very way Pryde tells its story in The Medal Factory.
In Pryde’s audit of the cost of gold – and let’s remember, the cost of gold is part of the book’s full title – does he take the time to actually look at the athletes as human beings and consider the toll all those bangles and baubles and jumpers have taken on their lives? Does he discuss Pendleton’s mental health issues and how British Cycling did or did not deal with them? Or how about Joanna Rowsell Shand? Or what about Wiggins? No, he does not. Because Pryde – despite his book’s sub-title – clearly isn’t actually interested in questioning the cost of success. He simply wants to retell time-worn stories of glory. Stories we’ve heard dozens of times before. And will doubtlessly hear dozens of times again.
Meanwhile, the story Varnish fired the starting pistol on is still growing, with British Gymnastics the latest sporting body to find itself having to face reality and answer questions about the true cost of gold. This is a story that can’t be easily dismissed, despite the best efforts of people like Pryde.