Title: The Medal Factory – British Cycling and the Cost of Gold
Author: Kenny Pryde
Publisher: Pursuit Books
Year: 2022 (paperback edition – originally published in hardback in 2020)
Pages: 291 (was originally 308)
Order: Profile Books
What it is: The paperback edition of a look-back-with-Pryde account of British cycling’s transformation in the years since Lottery funding came along
Strengths: Offers a veneer of balance
Weaknesses: Beneath its surface sheen this is a wildly unbalanced account of British cycling’s recent history, made worse by changes forced on the publisher for this paperback edition
Time was when cycling books would grow in size as they moved from their initial hardback editions to the paperback editions produced the following year for the paupers in the cheap seats too poor to shell out for a book at its inflated hardback price. Autobiographies, biographies, assorted histories, they’d get new chapters tacked on at the back as the book moved from one edition to the next. Some publishers even went so far as to try and hawk these new tacked-on chapters as books in themselves.
Rarely, if ever, did these new chapters fit with what had gone before. The original book had been shaped to come to a particular ending, only for a new ending to replace it a year later. Unlike in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where you get 15 minutes of credits scrolling before the film starts again with a new final scene, in books you can’t really put such a forced pause between chapters and the reader barely halts for breath on finishing the original ending before starting the new one.
Most of the time these new endings were, to borrow Charlie Windsor’s coinage, a carbuncle on the face of a friend.
Sometimes, these tacked-on chapters went further than just a granny flat being thrown up at the back, some books grew and grew and grew with each passing year. As time passed they began to resemble the sprawling mess of Gormenghast castle, their original design lost in the shadow of ungainly extensions, many of which were poorly planned, some of which were badly executed.
So chapeau, then, to Kenny Pryde’s The Medal Factory – British Cycling and the Cost of Gold which, two and a half years after its original hardback edition was published, has finally arrived in paperback smaller than it was before, half-a-dozen pages from the original unceremoniously demolished by bulldozers.
It’s two years since I reviewed the hardback edition of The Medal Factory. Did I like it? Not even up to a point, Lord Copper.
In that review I pointed out the imbalance in Pryde’s credited sources, that just two of the 70-something people he name-checked in the book’s acknowledgements were women, and that those two were Dave Brailsford’s personal assistant and Sky/Ineos’s former Head of Winning Behaviours. A diversity of voices it most certainly was not.
Pryde hadn’t credited Jessica Varnish, the woman he argued had brought British Cycling “to its knees” in 2016 when she called out Shane Sutton’s conduct. Pryde hadn’t credited Nicole Cooke or Victoria Pendleton, who had Varnish’s back when others sought to silence Varnish’s criticisms. Pryde hadn’t credited the likes of Emma Pooley, Rebecca Romero or Wendy Houvenaghel, all of woman had publicly criticised British Cycling during their riding days. Nor was Lizzie Deignan credited, despite her take on some of British Cycling’s more obvious failings.
Pryde couldn’t even bring himself to mentioning the name of Martha Kelner, one of the journalists to the fore in reporting the allegations of bullying being levelled at British Cycling. Kelner’s male colleagues reporting the story, they were deemed worthy of credit. But even though it was Kelner who broke the story in the first place and then went on to add new elements, she was ignored by Pryde.
It wasn’t just the critics of British Cycling Pryde dismissed by ignoring them. Shanaze Reade, Sarah Storey, Rachel Atherton, Helen Wyman, they weren’t considered worth talking to either, no matter the bangles, baubles and assorted jumpers they won for Great Britain.
There was time to talk to Dave Brailsford and there was time to talk to Brian Cookson and there was time to talk to Shane Sutton and there was time to talk to a host of other guys, 70-something other guys in fact. But just the two women could be squeezed into Pryde’s hectic schedule, Dave Brailsford’s personal assistant and Sky/Ineos’s former Head of Winning Behaviours. A diversity of critical voices? Up to a point, Lord Copper.
That wasn’t even the half of The Medal Factory’s problems. According to Pryde, the stories that made for British Cycling’s annus horriblis in 2016 “played out during a febrile summer, when various British sporting organisations were making news for the worst reasons.”
Pryde then went on to list those other stories that filled that supposedly cruel summer:
“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.”
Thing is, not a single one of these stories broke in 2016. They all broke the following year. Which is a bit unfortunate when you’re trying to suggest that the criticisms levelled at British Cycling were the product of a fever dream.
The paperback edition of The Medal Factory can’t be expected to make up for the lack of women Pryde deemed worthy of consulting when researching the book. But at least it afforded its publishers the opportunity to correct such an egregious error as trying to dismiss the accusations levelled at British Cycling in 2016 as mass hysteria. Half-a-dozen pages have, after all, been excised from the original hardback edition of this book. Changes have been made. Unfortunately, the page on which Pryde – based on a cock-up down to him not being bothered to check his facts – tried to dismiss British Cycling’s critics as delusional, that is still present and incorrect.
Just think about that for a moment. The Medal Factory’s publishers have time and money enough to cut out six pages from the original version of the book but decided to leave uncorrected an error such as that.
None of the other errors pointed out in my original review of The Medal Factory have been corrected either. Not even the very obvious typos. That’s how much respect the publishers of The Medal Factory have for you, the dumb schmucks in the cheap seats they expect to shell out good money on a bad book. They know the book they’re publishing contains errors, serious errors, they just can’t be bothered to correct them. They can’t even be bothered to add an errata slip. That’s how much respect the publishers of The Medal Factory have for you, the dumb schmucks in the cheap seats they’re asking to waste £10.99 on this mess of a book.
And then there’s the missing six pages.
Despite the silence of the publishers on this issue – there is nothing in the paperback edition to even suggest changes have been made – identifying the pages missing is not much of a challenge. All I had to do was compare a copy of the paperback with the original hardback. So what, you must be wondering by now, was so problematic in the hardback edition of The Medal Factory that it couldn’t be allowed appear in the paperback edition?
A six-page section about Nicole Cooke. A section that began as follows:
“Among the most vociferous critics of British Cycling, Sutton and Brailsford was former multiple world champion and Beijing gold medallist Nicole Cooke, with her articles and interviews as well as her written evidence to the DCMS Select Committee.”
Across six pages, Pryde laid into Cooke with a vengeance. She was “furiously, insistently critical”. When she spoke, “lots of people listened, particularly when what she was saying suited the dominant media narrative.”
Cooke’s father, Tony, was described as being “relentlessly demanding”, a man who “antagonised many inside the organisation.” Pryde turned to an anonymous source who said of Cooke that “she fell out with every team she ever rode for”. These are traits which, in riders like Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome, are championed as being signs of how driven they are, how hard they are willing to fight to win. But in someone like Cooke? Woman, know thy place?
Cooke was accused by another of Pryde’s sources (98% male) of neglecting to acknowledge the support she received from British Cycling. Pryde himself added to that with a claim that Cooke failed to acknowledge the support received in 2008 in the form of Team Halfords Bikehut, a women’s road team built on the back of £250,000 sponsorship Brailsford secured from the UK’s largest motoring parts retailer. According to Pryde, “Cooke declined to write about the team in her 2014 autobiography.”
Pryde even had Brendan Gallagher – he of the infamously shoddily researched Giro d’Italia book, Corsa Rosa, a book so bad even the satirical news magazine Private Eye talked about it – backing him up, saying how he spotted “there was no mention of the team” when reading a draft of Cooke’s book and had tried to get her to talk about it in the book but that “she absolutely refused to mention a word of it”.
When I reviewed the hardback edition of The Medal Factory I had only recently moved house and most of my cycling books were stuck in storage, lockdown delaying my retrieving them. Perhaps something similar stopped Pryde from checking his copy of The Breakaway before putting in print that accusation. Had he checked, he’d have seen he was wrong. He wouldn’t even have needed to read the book, there’s an index at the back which tells you that the Halfords team is discussed on pages 334 through 339.
Would you call it irony that six pages that Pryde said didn’t appear in Cooke’s book have resulted in six pages having to be culled from his own? Or is that karma?
Whichever it is, that is what has happened.
Pryde’s attack on Cooke went further still. He quoted Rob Hayles, who was one of two men who rode for the Team Halfords Bikehut women’s team (and to think British Cycling today is confused over how to treat trans riders), saying something Pryde describes as unprintable about Cooke (curiously, Pryde had neither the time nor the inclination to consider the impact Hayles’s close call with the anti-doping authorities had on Brailsford, who claims it pushed him to consider quitting).
Pryde also criticised Cooke for the way she rode in the 2011 Worlds, finishing ahead of Lizzie Deignan. He doesn’t mention Deignan (née Armistead) sticking it to Emma Pooley in the 2014 Commonwealth Games. What’s good for the goose is most certainly not good for the gander, not when that gander is called Cooke.
Pryde’s bout of GBH on Cooke finally ended on page 230 of the hardback edition with this: “The net result of [Cooke’s] powerful comments was to cement the idea that British Cycling was a systemically sexist organisation.” A claim that a man like Pryde is more than qualified to dispute.
All of that is now gone from The Medal Factory. For which fact the publishers of the book deserve applause. They recognised the book had a problem – well, they recognised one of the many problems plaguing Pryde’s book – and they dealt with it.
Except that the publishers were not proactive in dealing with this issue.
They had to be forced into cutting those six pages from the paperback edition of The Medal Factory.
Forced not once, but twice.
When Cooke became aware of The Medal Factory in early 2020 and read what Pryde had written about her she contacted Andrew Franklin, the managing director of Profile Books, who had published The Medal Factory under the Pursuit Books imprint. After much back and forth it was eventually agreed that the best solution was the complete removal of the six pages in which Pryde had written about Cooke. In January of 2021 – a year after the book’s original publication – Franklin wrote to Cooke apologising for the distress and upset caused. He confirmed that: any re-print of the hardback (which was deemed very unlikely) would incorporate the agreed changes; that the e-book edition would incorporate the agreed changes as soon as possible; and that any paperback edition would also incorporate the agreed changes.
Shortly after that agreement had been reached the e-book edition was updated. But instead of removing what had been written about Cooke, Pryde had re-written the section about Cooke. He didn’t have time – or was it the inclination? – to rework the other sections that contained errors, just the section Cooke had complained about and that the publishers had agreed to remove. Getting nowhere when she contacted Profile about this failure to stick to what had been agreed Cooke took the matter to the High Court. At which point Profile, having denied they were in breach of contract, suddenly accepted they had, in fact, failed to adhere to what had been agreed, made the agreed changes, and paid Cooke’s legal fees.
So that’s months of slowly being talked into doing the right thing in 2020 followed by months of being talked into sticking to their agreement in 2021 before the paperback edition of The Medal Factory could appear minus Pryde’s attack on a woman he categorised as one of British Cycling’s chief critics. Having dragged the matter out like that, it’s not applause the publishers deserve.
The Halfords story that so upset Pryde needs to be seen alongside the Vision 1 Racing story, a team Cooke herself set up in 2009 following the collapse of the Halfords squad. Vision 1 failed in part because of unfortunate timing, the sponsorship market having tanked after a bunch of bankers collapsed the global economy as they played fantasy finance with our futures. But it also suffered because of a lack of support from British Cycling.
Others have pointed out how British Cycling funnels potential sponsorship opportunities to favoured riders. Cooke was not favoured: she’d upset Brailsford by asking to be treated fairly and she’d upset Brailsford’s Head of Winning Behaviours, Fran Millar, by slagging off her brother, the saintly David. Millar, like her brother before her, may since have had a Damascene conversion, she when it comes to funding for women. Back then it was her funnelling marketing requests, it was her failing to funnel them in the direction of Cooke and her new women’s team.
But it wasn’t just not passing on potential sponsors. Cooke noted in The Breakaway that “a critical point was the news from a professional agent whose opinion was that Dave Brailsford would not recommend us to any sponsor were they to approach British Cycling”. Any potential sponsor of Vision 1 was always likely to want to talk to British Cycling before committing money to Cooke’s team. At least one potential sponsor did talk to Brailsford. And then decided not to sponsor Vision 1.
The way Cooke was mistreated while she was riding is by now a well known story and few can doubt the truth of it. But Cooke is still on the receiving end of British Cycling’s animus. At the time she appeared before the DCMS in 2017 and presented her evidence The Cycling Podcast Féminin’s Orla Chennaoui noted how Dave Brailsford often briefs on and off the record claiming that Cooke does not acknowledge the support she received via Team Halfords Bikehut. Clearly, this is something that stings Brailsford’s thin skin, even when Cooke does acknowledge the support she received via Team Halfords Bikehut.
I get that some fans do not like Nicole Cooke, have never liked Nicole Cooke. That’s the nature of the game, some fans are like that. I get that there are British cycling journalists who feel that Cooke was not grateful enough for the few times they could be bothered to write about her. That’s the nature of the game, some journalists are like that.
That some people do not like Cooke is one thing. That British Cycling has something of, at best, a blindspot and at worst is still actively downplaying her achievements is another thing. But what really takes the biscuit is Pryde being so busy crafting a false narrative – one that eerily echoes comments Brailsford has made – that he didn’t take the time to check the simple, central claim: did Cooke mention the Halfords team in her book or not?
Taken with Pryde’s incredible attempt to dismiss Varnish and the others who spoke out against British Cycling in 2016 as hysterical, you’d almost think that Pryde was a man on a mission, a mission that had no regard for the truth.
Removing Pryde’s attack on Cooke is a solution of sorts to The Medal Factory’s manifest problems. But it also all but removes Cooke from this edition of The Medal Factory, making it a poor solution to the book’s real problems, removing as it does Cooke’s contributions to the story Pryde tells of British Cycling’s success. What was really needed from the publishers was an attempt to properly address the errors and imbalances in the book. But they couldn’t be bothered to do that.
The publishers couldn’t be bothered because all the publishers are really bothered about is the £10.99 you’re being asked to hand over for a book they know contains uncorrected errors of fact, a book they know contains uncorrected typos, a book they know is simply not very good.
That’s publishing for you.
NB: The publishers did not respond when contacted on multiple occasions seeking comment on the changes made and not made in this edition of The Medal Factory. They couldn’t be bothered?