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Road To 2012
Tomorrow's Stars, Today - British Cycling's ODP
Posted July 29 2009
Words and Photography by Luke Webber
In part one of a brand new series documenting the route to London's 2012 Olympic dream Luke Webber introduces British Cycling's Performance Programmes and staff. Talking with Performance Manager Phil Dixon, British Cycling explains how the Olympic Development Programme operates in three different ways for three very different Junior riders.
Legacy - it is the word on everybody's lips in the run-up to Britain's biggest ever sporting spectacle. Development plans across a range of sports are being created in a race to the gold due to take place in just three years. But in mountain biking's only Olympic discipline it is a process already established and repeated, leaving cross country racing a predefined history.
Whether that legacy is a positive one however is contentious as previous incarnations of the GB Team's cross-country mountain bike programme produced only one current-day world class rider; Liam Killeen.
This void from Killeen and three-time Olympian Oli Beckingsale to current hopeful and Junior World Championship medallist David Fletcher is however one that should not be repeated with the current line of Junior riders and the man tasked with developing these young talents.
This role falls to Phil Dixon - a rider who in 2001 passed through British Cycling's original World Class Performance Plan. Dixon would professionally race road, mountain bike and cyclo-cross before turning his attention to coaching in 2006. With the vision of using first hand experience learned in the same environment within which he himself had developed as a cyclist, Dixon would take the responsibility of developing the best British cross country riders from 14 to 23 years old.
Although very unlikely to race at the Olympics the current Junior riders will be the first legacy from the London Games. In 2009 Steve James and Luke Gray have both ridden with the British Cycling team, but right now Kenta Gallagher is the only Junior men's rider on the Olympic Development Programme. Both James and Gray receive support from their local bike shops (PedalOn and Hargroves Cycles, respectively) while guesting on the British team at international events and domestic training camps with support from Dixon on training and race preparation.
Not overtly supporting the country's top three young riders may be questionable by some, but as Dixon explains circumstances at the time of selection for the ODP (which occurs every six months) resulted in only one rider making the cut.
"When we were selecting riders for the ODP in October 2008 and March 2009, Luke Gray was inconsistent and as such was not taken on to the team. Steve James was an unknown talent - he was performing at the time but we didn't know if those performances would translate into the longer term."
"People think you're on or you're off but it's not the case. Both Steve and Luke have been invited to all the races and training camps Kenta has been to, but the key difference is the funding and the weekly detailed training - although Luke and Steve can get in contact with me at any time."
Perhaps a more interesting question though would be how three very different riders have come to be at the top of British XC racing, all in their rookie Junior year.
For Luke Gray, the route to the top of the Junior ranks has been textbook. For almost ten years he has raced all kinds of bikes through the age group ranks, winning road, mountain bike and cyclo-cross events every season. His attitude is professional - interpreted as quiet and shy, but with unwavering dedication to living the clean life with no treats. He tells me that sweets are banned and his reward after winning the cyclo-cross Nationals was a glass of orange juice. Today he lays claim as the fastest paperboy in the south, studying hard at school and coming back from a virus in 2008 and facing his biggest challenge yet - to return from a broken pelvis sustained while racing the with the British team in Europe. But for all of this dedication there is another successful Junior rider who lives just an hour away from the Poole-based Gray.
Steve James is the absolute opposite of Gray - the word ‘training' didn't even enter his vocabulary until late; although he once owned a heart rate monitor only to discard it after a few rides. He is the stereotypical mountain biker - unparticular about specific training and happiest when riding flat out on the trails. And there's no shortage of those in Surrey. Just a two minute ride from Crowthorne and with the Gorrick Series within striking distance the area could be no better for mountain biking. And unsurprisingly he had no idea as to where his sudden improvement in early 2009 came from.
"Riding alongside Chris Minter in the Gorrick races was a shock - especially as it was double the distance that I was used to" James tells me, while making his way through his staple supply of sausage rolls, sandwiches and chocolate bars.
That diet was not the only unconventional trait that he held, however. At the Houffalize World Cup James was told by Helen Mortimer to "shave my legs, or go home." Whatever the case it bought no luck when guesting on the British Cycling team, as he rolled a tyre and finished way off the pace. Pouring another glass of orange juice we debated what else could have caused the poor performance and settled on the lack of a Little Chef Olympic Breakfast in Belgium.
While Kenta Gallagher could never endorse that kind of pre-race preparation (especially while on the Olympic Development Programme), he does sit somewhere between the monastic Gray and the unrefined James. Originally from Sheffield, but living in Inverness the rider described as a "habitual bike wrecker and uncontrollable downhiller" is nonetheless a triple Champion, holding Scottish titles for mountain bike, road and cyclo-cross.
Also renowned for a questionable fashion sense - if white oversocks were unfashionable then I'm unsure where yellow Mavic shoes fit in - Gallagher cites his reason for choosing XC racing over the gravity disciplines as down to the support from British Cycling rider development.
Despite their differences and varying involvement with the ODP, all the riders get on well - both on the domestic and international circuit. When travelling as a team, Luke tells me he gets the easy chores as he's the only one who can cook, while Steve and Kenta are left to wash the dishes and make good the mess. Later in the evening Kenta and Steve will sneak off to raid their stash of hidden chocolates - an area in which Luke lacks interest and that both Kenta and Steve will wish I hadn't discovered - along with coach Dixon!
With another year remaining in the Junior ranks, the three riders are sure to continue defining the development and first legacy post-Olympics; the only question being which of the three will continue with their success on the international stage, and who else might join them.
If you want to follow this story, watch the mountain biking homepage for the next instalment of Road to 2012, check out the British Mountain Bike Team page and stay tuned for the latest British Cycling Rider Diaries for the inside story from the British mountain bike scene.