Project Rainbow: How British Cycling Reached the Top of the World by Rod Ellingworth
You’ll know Mark Cavendish won the 2011 World Championships road race in Copenhagen. The book’s cover features a graphic of Cavendish in the rainbow jersey and the book opens with an account of being in the team car at the worlds. So why read a book with such an obvious literary spoiler?
Because the book is so much more than the road to Copenhagen, the rainbow jersey and one superstar rider. Instead it’s about the systems in place, the ways of working and an unsung hero behind all the processes and performances.
Structure and discipline: take some good riders, put them in a system and some will come out at the other end with gold medals. If it sounds simple, it’s not and Ellingworth is here to tell the tale, from his experience of a rat-infested dwelling in Belgium to Team GB and their private jet. Ellingworth’s career has matched British Cycling’s rise and this book tells the part he’s played. Early on Ellingworth identifies that a team is much more than just showing up for a race, pedalling and then going home.
I knew what I wanted: a crack squad of lads who behaved themselves, knew where the line was, had a good time and loved their sport but respected the people around them.
When it came to discipline, I wanted to go straight in – whack… …I like the ethos of the Russian system or the army – that hardness, being a unit.
Forming young men into a cohesive unit starts at the dawn of military history. It’s not unique in cycling either, Dutchman Peter Post ran TI-Raleigh with an iron fist, “Charlie” Walsh and Shane Bannan cracked the whip on the Australian track programme. Team Sky DS Nicolas Portal can tell Ellingworth about his time as an U-23 with Michel Puntous, a coach nicknamed “The Russian” for his sado-militarism.
Every team want this cohesion, even a good group ride needs it. By now we know the five Ws of the British success story: who, what, when, where and why. But this is the “how” section. How can you take young riders and improve them? How can you innovate in pro cycling? There’s even a short section for amateurs to illustrate these techniques towards riding the Etape du Tour.
It turns out you need a stationery cupboard before you fill a trophy cabinet. Behind every gold medal is a pile of paperwork, a stack of laminated cards and today, a Dropbox account. Perhaps the book is self-selecting but there are early pen-to-paper moments which appear defining. Early on Ellingworth is writing a letter to the local townhall to request some funds so he can take part in more events. Later he’s hand-writing job applications, advising neo-pro “Cav” to write to his T-Mobile team managers to give him a spot in the Tour de France. Today a week ahead of a race Sky’s riders are emailed sheets detailing the team’s expectations of them and their duties ahead during the race.
Marginal gains and tech play their part but they’re the visible element, what probably makes a much bigger difference is managerialism and the simple act of writing things down, whether house rules for a group of U-23 riders or specific tasks for pros to complete during the worlds, for example “pull from X km to Y km”.
This isn’t the definitive guide to British success. Right from the start money matters as Ellingworth pens letters asking for tiny sums from his school but the six-figure sums needed later on are barely mentioned. There are several times when Ellingworth tells boss Dave Brailsford that he needs to do something new, like a in-house training scheme for young riders or to set up an Italian base for the British U-23 team and the answer is always yes, presumably because the money is there. Big spending thanks to lottery money has been a necessary but not sufficient part of the British Cycling story only in this book there’s barely a reference to the prodigious resources available and the advantages these bring.
The book invites you think about what is not written down. Riders join the British Academy full-time and their only education during the process appears cycling-related: bike mechanics, French and cookery. Ellingworth writes perhaps Ed Clancy could have gone to university but it wasn’t going to help with cycling, implying it would be a waste. It’s certainly a contrast to the system in France where a rider can complete a degree course whilst racing at elite U-23 level. Perhaps the British system is superior in forming a rider but for every rider who makes it as a pro there must be many are dropped without an education. This is not their story.
Ode to Cav
The book cleverly introduces Mark Cavendish as the classic rough diamond – revving across a car park in a gold car with “007 Goldfinger” written across the top – who has talent but does not look the part. If anything his personality and ambition stand out more than leg speed or tactical sense. The book’s cover suggests the coaching tale of Mark Cavendish but it’s much more although presumably the celebrity factor of Cavendish is needed to promote the book to a wider audience. By the time Cavendish appears he’s only one rider amongst others and this is really the story of British Cycling’s U-18 and U-23 teams and the systems and structures behind them. Nevertheless Cavendish comes out of the book well.
The pro road team should be the crowning achievement but there’s a wistful tone. Ellingworth sees his techniques and structures in place but others are in charge. He’s got his criticisms, a difference in approach with Scott Sunderland, apparent tensions with Brailsford, the working relationship with Bradley Wiggins doesn’t work out and even Cavendish comes in for a year only to leave. You sense he’s got to bite his tongue but the tone is noticeable.
It’s hard to know if Ellingworth and his colleagues are visionaries or doing the obvious; sometimes they are just copying what others have done, for example aping the Australian cycling system but also looking for success elsewhere in sport like the English rugby team. Decisions aren’t imposed instead an athlete will decide for themselves. Ellingworth, with advice from psychologist Steve Peters drops hints, a trail of mental breadcrumbs but it is for the rider to “buy in” when they’re ready. It’s obvious given they have to do the training and take the risks on the banking or a descent, they need confidence and commitment.
It might sound obvious but sport is different from other domains. Pro cycling is full of ex-pros and this means riders who won 25 years ago are in management today. Consequently team policies are built on empiricism and tradition, a fancy way of describing the culture of “this worked for me in 1980-something, so it’ll work for you”. Nowhere is this more obvious than in French and Italian teams – bonjour sirop in your bottle; ciao the same hotel for a training camp as 25 years ago. But Ellingworth and the Brits are outside this and so come with a fresh approach. Then again the likes of Cyrille Guimard and Manolo Saiz have been there before. But look at many teams today and plenty could do with hiring an Ellingworth.
It’s an easy read thanks to journalist William Fotheringham’s writing. It’s often an exploration of managerial issues but never a textbook as it doesn’t stray far cycling. It is a book the non-cyclist in search of managerial tips could enjoy too as it’s not jargon-loaded. There’s an index at the back, ideal if you want to look up an anecdote or an idea again.
You might know the end result but it’s the journey that’s the story. It’s not who is on the team or the races they won but the how and why. Rod Ellingworth isn’t a big name in the sport so his tale and that of British Cycling’s coaching structures has to be told through the rise of Mark Cavendish. But it works given Ellingworth’s association from the early days and even when Ellingworth is working with Team Sky he is coaching Cavendish at HTC-Columbia, the sprinter is a constant presence.
This is much more than “my part in Cav’s success”, it is the tale of a system rather than the fluke discovery of one gifted rider. The rainbow jersey is won thanks to a team effort and it’s here we learn plenty as Ellingworth explains how he learns about teamwork, puts things into practice and helps people achieve their goals. It should be compulsory reading for other team managers.
Note: this copy was sent free for review. It is published by Faber and Faber and available in hardcover and e-book
A list of previous book reviews is available here.