There’s one story dominating British Cycling at the moment and it relates to several people with strong personalities. At the centre of the storm is Australian Shane Sutton.
Sutton has resigned from his position as technical director and he now won’t be working with athletes as they prepare for the Olympics in Rio which begin on 4 August. “I believe it is in the best interests of British Cycling for me to step down from my position as technical director,” he said in a statement.
The issue relates to his treatment of several female cyclists who have worked with him over the years. The open letter by Jess Varnish has been littered throughout the media in recent days and the commentary extends well beyond the cycling community.
Others have joined in the discussion and many opinions are being offered.
One thing is clear to anyone who has known Sutton: he has a propensity for the use of foul language, it’s something not even he would ever deny.
The 58-year-old who was born and raised in Moree, NSW, has employed his unique methodology to achieve considerable success as a coach and, according to some involved in British Cycling, he will be missed. Others are pleased to see him go.
Sir Dave Brailsford recently told The Daily Mail: “Shane is one of the best tactical and technical coaches I have worked with. His contribution to the success of British cycling has been immense.
“His sole focus has always been the athletes, and so it’s understandable that if he feels this has become a distraction to their preparation for Rio he has put the interests of the team first and decided to stand down.
“Any team would miss a coach of his calibre…”
Varnish herself is upset at missing out on the opportunity to further her career and she has expressed herself clearly, concisely and honestly in her letter.
“With regards to my contract not being renewed on performance grounds, I find this very hard to accept. Prior to the 2016 world championships I was not once told that I was underperforming. We have monthly reviews and at no stage was I put under review.”
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We caught up with a coach from British Cycling, Heiko Salzwedel, to find out how this furore is affecting others in the program and, importantly, the end goal: the quest for medals in Rio.
The coach was in Manchester, preparing for another training session at the velodrome when we spoke via Skype…
Click the Soundcloud file to listen to the interview with Salzwedel and/or read the transcript below…
RIDE: I’m talking with Heiko Salzwedel and it’s a day after Shane Sutton has resigned… because of some comments he made to Jess Varnish. He is a key player in the British cycling scene but you’re not working terribly closely with him, or you weren’t, is that correct?
Heiko Salzwedel: “I have to say beforehand that Shane was 50 percent of the reason why I rejoined British Cycling in 2014. So, from that point of view, it’s a pretty [big] shock for me and for everybody else.”
But you have a fair degree of autonomy from him in the broader scheme of things, is that right?
“Yeah, that’s for sure. I mean, emotionally – just to reflect on the relationship between Shane and me – we are old mates for many, many years and so from that point of view, of course, it’s a big surprise for me that in Great Britain political correctness is getting really… it’s important.
“Everybody who knows Shane, knows that he’s a straightshooter who speaks his mind – and sometimes he just has his funny Australian humour, which probably some people in Great Britain don’t understand.”
He has a tendency for colourful language. And there’s many an anecdote of his language. Have you seen him in action at the track to a point where you’ve found it offensive and asked him to tone it down or anything like that?
“Not really. No.
“We are pretty much alike actually and from that point of view Shane probably got away with that in the last years in Great Britain because he was not on the top of the leader’s board. As a coach, probably you get away with such things but when you’re the technical director of British Cycling – when you’re the spearhead of British Cycling – and when you’re leading the process, of course this is a different level and every word will be counted against you if you don’t do everything politically correct.”
I know he’s been on the Queen’s [New Year’s] honours list and he’s received some accolades [an OBE] from Her Majesty… are you surprised that it’s turned into this mudslinging that we see at the moment?
“Yeah. It also got a bit [blown] out of proportion here.
“Don’t get me wrong when I’m saying that, some of these claims I can really imagine could be true but Shane denied these allegations so I’m stuck in the middle here.”
I don’t expect you to get embroiled into any controversy but I just wonder if you can explain how this has affected, for example, the preparation for the Olympics for one of your key goals which is the team pursuit with Bradley Wiggins and co.
“I wouldn’t say that it will have a big impact on this. That’s one of the good things: with Shane, he sticks to his word and he’s reliable – you know what you get and you know what you’re up to.
“We had an agreement when I joined British Cycling in 2014 that he would give me full autonomy and give me full [support], everything what is needed. He said, ‘All that I do care [about] is that you do bring home this medal in Rio, everything else I will support you as good as I can…’ which he did.
“From that point of view, we had full autonomy with the men’s endurance squad. There was no interference from Shane at all.
“Actually I wish that he would interfere a little bit more.
“Having said this, now I have to work for the next 100 days without him, I don’t think the preparation for the Olympic Games will be affected at all for the men’s endurance squad.”
On that topic, we saw a fantastic race between Australia and Great Britain at the world championships and only a fraction of a second really separated the two teams with Australia first. What’s the progression like since the race in London?
“We’re doing our job. The world championships in London [showed] that we are on the right track, that the new training principles and methodology I have introduced with the riders, they are well adapted, that the riders are really positive about this and we’ll just continue our way.”
I guess, with 100 days to go it’s still too far away to nominate the final four for the team pursuit – which is a blue riband event for cycling, really – but are you getting a short list together?
“No. We’re still working with eight riders here at the moment and, having said this, it’s a good thing about British Cycling: we have a good depth of talent here and especially in these times when we also have a lot of injuries.
“So, at the moment, some riders are struggling like Jon Dibben broke his elbow, Owain Doull is out with knee problems and other riders as well.”
Are you working with the women’s team at all?
“I’m overseeing the women’s program but Paul Manning is also fully in charge of this program.”
So it wouldn’t be appropriate to talk about their progression at the moment with you?
“No. I know what they’re up to. They just came back from a training camp in Valencia and they are doing really well.”
Two of your biggest superstars feature on the cover of the current issue of RIDE Cycling Review and that’s Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish. Are they both in your group of eight or not?
“Yes, of course. They are the most substantial part of this group. Mark is just coming over today for a double training block today and tomorrow, before he’s coming me and the British national team to Big Bear for a training camp prior to the Tour of California.
“So we are working quite close together.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold