Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish won today’s bunch sprint on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and the team sponsored by a part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire also celebrated the top two podium places in the 99th staging of the Tour de France, with team leader Bradley Wiggins winning the famous yellow jersey, making him the first Briton ever to win the world’s biggest annual sporting event.
ITV’s studio analyst Chris Boardman – the man who, in 1992, started Britain’s track cycling renaissance by winning the individual pursuit gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics – told an ITV1 audience of 3.6 million that the dominance of Team Sky at this year’s Tour de France would be a catalyst for change in the UK, and not just for sport cycling:
"It’s going to change cycling in Britain, and it will spin out to transport cycling too," said Boardman.
And this has always been the plan. Right from the start of Sky’s sponsorship of cycling, which began in 2008 with money pumped into London’s Freewheel, a mass participation ride, the goal was to increase cycling participation in Great Britain. This was the carrot dangled in front of Jeremy Darroch, CEO of Sky, by Dave Brailsford CBE, British Cycling’s performance director, and mastermind of Beijing’s gold rush. Darroch, with the blessing and support of his then boss James Murdoch, son of the Australian media mogul, signed up to sponsor the professional road race team in a deal thought to be worth more than £30m over four years.
Additional money was also pumped into grass-roots cycling. The London Freewheel became the London Skyride, with 50,000 participants taking over the streets of London. Later on other city and town centres were closed to cars to create other Skyrides. Sky is also a key sponsor of British Cycling’s other participation programmes, such as Go-Ride, the youth coaching sessions run by local clubs all over the UK.
Getting more people on bikes has long been the target of British Cycling, which now has a record number of members. And giving the British public a sporting hero to look up to was also in Brailsford’s plan from the start.
British Cycling’s plan for world domination in Olympic track cycling was funded by the UK lottery, and much of yesterday’s success was due to this generous funding, which started in 2007 when Peter Keen was British Cycling’s performance director.
However, away from the Olympics programme, Brailsford – appointed as performance director in 2004 – knew he would need an external sponsor to create a professional road team. Persil was once a sponsor of British Cycling’s track stars, and Go Ride programme, but Brailsford needed to find a commercial partner with deep pockets and which could spot the potential of being associated with Team GB in 2012. Sky was that partner.
Team Sky was founded in February 2009. In a press release from the time, it was promised that the new, well-funded team would "create the first British winner of the Tour de France, within five years." That promise was delivered two years early.
Another promise was to "inspire people of all ages and abilities to get on their bikes, through the team’s positive profile, attitude and success."
Whether this promise is seen through won’t be known for some years but, for the past week, the British mainstream media has – finally – woken up to the face we have a sports person capable of taking on the best in the world, and winning.
In an editorial in today’s Sun newspaper (part of the Murdoch empire), readers were told: "Our football flops couldn’t do it. Andy Murray couldn’t quite do it. But one thing’s for certain: Bradley Wiggins has done it! Huge congrats to Britain’s first ever Tour de France champion."
The partnership between British Cycling and Sky has been a key factor in cycling’s recent success story, said British Cycling’s chief executive Ian Drake, earlier this year.
“The growth of our sport over the past four years has been amazing. Not only have our Olympic and Paralympic riders continued to deliver on the world stage, but we’ve also seen the emergence of Team Sky as a force on the road scene," said Drake.
"Being a world leading cycling nation isn’t just about winning medals – it’s also about inspiring everyone to get on a bike, from the playground right through to the podium. That’s exactly what initiatives like Sky Ride have achieved and we’re well on track to reaching our target of getting one million more people cycling by 2013.”
As part of its support for encouraging more people to cycle, within its own business Sky is encouraging more of its staff to cycle through a variety of cycling events and facilities including a cycling club, buddy system, bike hire and an on-site cycle shop and mechanic. 30 percent of Sky employees cycle regularly.
Wiggo’s victory in the Tour de France could help kick-start a revolution in cycling as a whole, inspiring more people to ride recreationally, more people to cycle to work, more kids wanting to cycle to school. Success breeds success.
Sport and Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson was in Paris today and said Bradley Wiggins’ victory was one of the finest moments in the nation’s sporting history, a belief echoed later in the evening by Prime Minister David Cameron.
Cycle advocates said it’s now up to ministers in the Department for Transport to use this sporting success as a springboard for creating better conditions on the roads for all cyclists. If that happens the Department of Health could celebrate having a fitter, healthier nation.
Matt Hemsley, a PR officer at Sustrans, said:
"There’s no doubt that Wiggins, Froome and Cavendish are inspirational, getting more people, especially youngsters, interested in getting out on their bike.
"But it should also be a lesson to our politicians nationally and locally. Team Sky’s success has not come about by chance, it came about because of a vision, a goal and proper funding covering all aspects of professional cycling.
"We often speak enviously of the set up in cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Cycling is the normal way to get around. It’s safe, you can wear the clothes you’re wearing to work or on your night out, it’s what everyone does.
"When Team Sky started their journey we all wondered just how achievable it was. Well, they’ve made it happen. And two years early to boot. So why can’t that be the same for everyday cycling here in the UK, why can’t we seek to emulate cities in Europe where cycling is the most sensible way to get around?
"To get more people cycling for everyday journeys in the UK, we need to do the same. We need a plan, and clear investment to follow: in new traffic-free routes, a safer road network, slower speed limits, cycle training for young and old, information on how to get around, marketing and promotions showing how easy and healthy it is to get around by bike. No corners cut and no passing the buck. Our politicians should take a lead from Team Sky and have a plan to make us the envy of mainland Europe, not accept it will always be the other way around.
"The race we really need to win is the culture change that makes cycling the preferred choice for local journeys."
Sally Hinchcliffe of advocacy group the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, said:
"What better opportunity will there be for the country’s politicians to announce that they will be greeting our returning heroes with a policy that puts cycling right at the heart of the UK’s infrastructure? Not just as a sport – on closed roads, or velodrome tracks – but designing cycling into every street and every junction.
"We’d hate to see all those shiny new bikes soon gathering dust in the nation’s sheds once our aspiring Wigginses taste the reality of cycling on our roads. Let’s seize the moment and make Britain’s roads fit for all its cycling heroes, be they as fast as the Manx missile, or just pottering down to the shops."
Dave Brailsford has a system for creating success:’performance by the aggregation of marginal gains.’
He has said: "It means taking the 1 percent from everything you do; finding a 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards."
Perhaps Wiggins’ Tour de France victory will be one of the things that helps improve cycling for all in the UK? A Brit winning the yellow jersey could help bring about a small difference in motorists’ attitudes to cyclists. And highway authorities may give a little bit more attention to safer roads for cyclists. And a whole host of other small improvements, over time, could start to make a big difference to cycling as a whole.
Gil Scott-Heron’s famous 1970 poem that said "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" was given a twist in 1999 by bike shop Edinburgh Bicycle which adopted the slogan: "The Revolution Will Not Be Motorised". Long live the revolution!