From the pages of Velo: The State of the Nations

Over the last decade, a global shift has changed the power structure in elite cycling

Editor’s note: The following story appeared in the March 2012 issue of Velo Magazine, The Nations Issue. With Simon Gerrans’ win at Milan-San Remo on Saturday, and Bradley Wiggins’ Paris-Nice triumph, Australia and Great Britain continued to tick their way up the power structure of global cycling. Pick up a copy of the April 2012 edition of Velo, featuring our international season preview, now.

Cycling has gone global — but which nations have benefited most?

There was no instance in 2011 that better defined the shift in global cycling that has occurred in the past decade than the closing kilometers of the elite men’s world road championships in Copenhagen. The two teams that controlled the peloton and set up the mass gallop were Great Britain and Australia, whose sprinters Mark Cavendish and Matt Goss finished first and second, respectively. The two nations also claimed four of the top seven spots in the elite men’s time trial, with Great Britain’s Bradley Wiggins taking silver.

In 2011, Australians won major events such as Milan-San Remo (Goss) and the Tour de France (Cadel Evans), while Wiggins won the Critérium du Dauphiné and finished on the podium at both Paris-Nice and the Vuelta a España. And though longtime cycling superpowers Spain, Belgium and

Italy finished first through third on the UCI’s WorldTour nations rankings, Australia finished the season ranked fourth, with Great Britain fifth — well ahead of old-world countries with much deeper cycling histories such as Germany, France and Switzerland. A decade earlier, Australia placed ninth in the UCI’s elite men’s nation rankings, with Great Britain positioned 17th.

Trending in the opposite direction, France was ranked fourth in 2001 and 11th in 2011. Even with the emergence of the Russian Global Cycling Project and the Katusha pro team, Russia dropped from 10th to 22nd over the same 10-year span. For comparison, Russia has a population of roughly 143 million; Australia a population of roughly 23 million. The reasons behind these trends are both sociological and economical.

Pro cycling’s popularity in France, birthplace of the sport’s biggest event, has been on the wane since the Festina Affair of the 1998 Tour de France, blowing a massive hole in the sport’s development of new riders. France’s most prolific champion over the past decade was mountain biker Julien Absalon, with four consecutive world titles and two Olympic gold medals, while the USA, birthplace of mountain biking, has not earned a medal in elite men’s world championship mountain biking since Tinker Juarez in 1994 — yet dominated the Tour de France with Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service team during the first half of the last decade.

And though it’s only dropped from third to sixth over the past decade, Germany has faced similar problems following doping controversies involving star riders such as Jan Ullrich, Andreas Klöden and Stefan Schumacher. Gone are German sponsors Telekom and Gerolsteiner. Germany has not had a WorldTour team since 2008; its top-ranked team in 2011 was NetApp, ranked 29th in the UCI Europe Tour. While top riders like world TT champs Tony Martin and Judith Arndt prop up Germany’s UCI points, the former powerhouse suffers from a lack of depth that will follow it into the next decade.

Meanwhile, over the same span of time, both British and Australian cycling have largely steered clear of doping scandals while their governments have invested heavily in development: Australia through its national Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), which began in the 1980s, after Australia failed to medal at the 1976 Olympic Games; and Great Britain through its national lottery funding of all sports, which began in 1997.

Also contributing to Australia and Great Britain’s respective emergence as top cycling countries are high-profile national tours; the Tour Down Under kicked off in 1999, while the Tour of Britain returned to the sport in 2004. The culmination in these national gains has been the development of WorldTour teams run by the federations themselves — Britain’s Team Sky, which launched in 2010, and Australia’s GreenEdge, which debuted in January.

“I’ve been most impressed with both Australia and Great Britain,” said Jim Miller, vice president of athletics for USA Cycling, when asked about cycling nations that have made the biggest global strides in the past decade.

“Australia had a 10-year head start on the U.S., with the AIS program (set up by Heiko Salzwedel, an East German) that developed riders like Stuart O’Grady, Mick Rogers and Cadel Evans, and exposed them to high performance early on. Great Britain started with its track program, which began through national lottery funding efforts. They’ve done a really good job with sport science, and with their staff retention. They don’t have a lot of staff turnover, so it’s not being mined out of their circle; they retain a lot of their own knowledge, it doesn’t get dispersed around the world.”

In recent years, the geographical divide that once made entering the European ranks so difficult for outsiders has actually helped, by forcing the establishment of permanent development bases. Just as USA Cycling has an under-23 men’s house in Izegem, Belgium, and a new elite women’s base in Lucca, Italy, British Cycling has an Italian base, in Quarrata, for its under-23 academy — the cycling “nursery” set up by John Herrity, Max Sciandri and Rod Ellingworth, where British stars like Mark Cavendish, Geraint Thomas and Ben Swift cut their teeth. (Cavendish still maintains a home in Quarrata.)

“They know cycling, and they did a good job of converting their track kids into road racers,” Miller said. “John Herrity was a good junior coach; he probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He taught them to race at a young age, and that amplifies the curve from John to Max to Rod. It’s a nice pathway they’ve developed there.”

Australia also has an Italian base, in Varese, home to the AIS European Training Center, a state-of-the-art facility equipped with dorms, a strength and conditioning gym, physical therapy centers, hot and cold pools, a dining hall, and conference, recreation and education rooms. Largely funded by the Australian Sports Commission, the aim of the AISETC is to produce Olympic cyclists capable of bringing home gold medals — the currency still most valued by all national governing bodies.

And it’s not just Anglophone nations that are on the rise. Developing cycling nations from Colombia to Slovenia to Iran are producing world-class bike racers. Malaysia will enter the London Olympics with a true gold medal contender on the track and the Rwandan national team is making headway in Africa.

As for the U.S., it’s a cycling nation that, in some ways, is still emerging from the shadow of Armstrong and his seven Tour de France victories. That the U.S. was ranked seventh in 2001, and eighth a decade later, is a testament to the depth the country now enjoys at the top level. While veterans Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner still produce the country’s top results, the next generation of Americans, such as Tyler Farrar, Tejay van Garderen and Taylor Phinney, all came through the USA Cycling national U23 team program run in Izegem for a decade by Belgian Noel Dejonckheere and now run by Swiss Marcello Albasini.

“We’ve seen a ton of riders come through our program who ended up in ProTour teams,” Miller said. “It’s no longer an anomaly to see an American on a top pro team. And I think it’s a testament to the development of these young guys, to making European racing their roots, rather than domestic racing. They are good bike riders now.”

And it’s a good thing America is producing good bike racers — the sport has gone global, and there’s no turning back.