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Speaker spotlight - Phil Burt and Tony Purnell

The story of British Cycling and Team Sky’s rise to dominate cycling is one of the most fascinating and intriguing sporting successes to be told. But what principles underpin this success? Phil Burt, Head Physiotherapist and Tony Purnell, Head of Research and Innovation at British Cycling reveal what it takes to win.

Phil and Tony are speaking at the event, British Cycling’s Secret Squirrel Club.

CSF: What physical and mental attributes does it take to be a winner in sports?

TP: It’s a given that you have to be blessed with ‘outlier’ physical abilities, so genetics is a big part of it.  This said, I’ve seen more than a few with the talent who are just unable to deal with the discipline and determination needed to train day in day out.  Add to this the self-belief and confidence that you need to be able to perform on demand when it really matters and you can see that mental approach will tip you into the winner’s circle.  To be a champion, one needs a killer instinct that smells a result when everything suggests it’s not going to happen.

PB: I believe many, many people have the physical attributes; the limitations are often more mental. The ability to push oneself in training and competition is key to winning. However, it’s not just about people that can’t train hard enough, it’s also about those who don’t know when to stop or understand their bodies enough to know when to stop, which can result in physical breakdown and fail. Superior athletes understand the demands of their event inside out and their bodies as well.

CSF: In what ways is cycling different from other sports?

TP: Cycle racing is a lifestyle as much as a sport, every waking hour needs discipline.  Eating, sleeping, training, drinking, weight, fear of illness and injury are omnipresent in a cyclist mind.  It’s a very demanding way to live.  Other sports are the same I’m sure, but when it comes to road racing the hours one has to put in competing are in a different league to other sports.  The Tour de France is three weeks of pretty much daily competition, for hours and hours each day.  Wow!

PB: It doesn’t have the same injuries as other sports. Cyclists don’t have to deal with landing or jumping, twisting or turning. However, crashing can result in some very serious injuries. Cycling is very easy sport to measure and the equipment means that the performance of the human and the machine is unique.

CSF: What makes a cycling champion?

TP: Utter dedication and discipline, supreme talent, and that killer instinct!

PB: God-given physical ability, or genetics, the right kit and application.

CSF: How far does the design of a bike affect performance?

TP: It’s a marginal gain. The best technology won’t win you a gold medal, but not having it might cost you one.

PB: I agree with Tony. You have to be going very fast already for a more aero bike to make you faster still.

CSF: British cycling teams are dominating the sport right now. Why do you think this is?

TP: I honestly believe that the appliance of sound science and engineering coupled to good organisation is at the root of it. 

PB: Great leadership and great people pulling in the same direction, and some truly world class riders!

CSF: What role does Cambridge play in this success?

TP: So far nothing, but that’s because we only started helping out two years ago with the focus on the Rio games.  However, the role Cambridge has played in preparation for Rio is really significant and there is not a doubt in my mind that all our cyclists should have a little Cambridge Blue on the uniform . . .  they won’t of course, but they will go a little bit faster because of Cambridge brains.

CSF: For the future, what strategies will you implement to continue this success?

TP: Just a complete faith that if you engage with talent like we have at Cambridge, good things are sure to come.  I’ll be here engaging for a while.

PB: After our successes, we sit down and consider what if we hadn’t won what would we do differently. I think remaining humble and constantly being open to new ideas and never being satisfied with what you have already done.

CSF: What are the immediate challenges? How will you overcome these?

TP: The opposition! They’ve all read that British Cycling are keen on engineering and science and have put their arms around the approach.  Short of skulduggery, we will just have to try to do a better job than the Australians, New Zealanders, Germans, Americans, and indeed everyone.  We’d always like more investment in research and in the riders, so hopefully some Alumnus would like to get involved in this respect. 

PB: Delivering in Rio. We won so much in London meeting expectation will be hard – but that’s our job! 


Image copyright: marc