an interview with kenny pryde

the medal factory - kenny pryde

it's something of a tired cliché that america and britain are two countries separated by a common language. and despite an appreciable overlap of riders, it wouldn't be too unkind to describe road-racing and track-racing as two velocipedinal genres, separated by a common purpose. this becomes more definable if considering the training methods and machinery employed across both disciplines.

track racing, if anything, is more responsive to the numbers game: rider power output and aerodynamics, to be a tad more specific. though i doubt that the latter varies greatly whether the races rotate clockwise or anti-clockwise, if you've ever attended an indoor track meet, you'll be well aware of the desire to maintain a constant (occasionally unbearably) warm temperature. though i confess to be considerably less than au fait with computer fluid dynamics, i'd presume that removing any variables of temperature when calculating tube and wheel profiles, makes life a bit easier than would be the case for a road bike that has need of performing in often unexpected weather conditions.

and, when it comes to track events undertaken over a specified number of laps, gauging the sustained power output required, would be similarly quantifiable. the latter became the forté of former british national track coach, peter keen, very much the originating subject of kenny pryde's the medal factory, released today and reviewed on the post yesterday. in retrospect, and with regard to recent events concerning the final aspects of team sky, it's a book that very much needed to be written. so, i asked kenny what prompted the writing of 'the medal factory'.

"I was working at the now closed Cycle Sport magazine on a feature on Chris Boardman and Peter Keen, reckoning the impact they had on British Cycling was a tale worth telling. The story got bigger, I realised I needed to speak to more and more people and then - karma - Cycle Sport was closed down. So I thought I'd expand the feature into a book with a longer historical perspective and talk to more people."

as one who regularly reads the guardian newspaper's weekend review supplement, it seems not uncommon to discover that even authors of fiction are often surprised at the twists and turns their characters seem to engender, without recourse to the wishes of the author. i too, have frequently set out to write one article and ended up with something entirely different: books and features frequently seem to have minds all of their own. it therefore seemed not too unseemly to ask kenny if the book, as published, was the book he set out to write?

"Not really, no. The original manuscript went back to the 1984 Los Angeles Games and included stuff about the growth of sport, global broadcasting, commercial sponsorship. There was even a bit about Jane Fonda's workout video. Plus, so many stories were cut; Jim Hendry, the 1992 Games, Yvonne McGregor, Graeme Obree, Colin Sturgess. And of course the effluent hit the ventilation system several times while I was writing. Shane Sutton resigned, Jess Varnish spoke out, sexism and bullying in public life became a massive public issue. Then there was the Fancy Bears hack, Lizzie Deignan's problems, the Jiffybag mystery, the DCMS Parliamentary inquiry, Chris Froome's Salbutamol case, Dr Freeman's GMC hearing. There were mornings I was scared to check the news, because I was scared everything I'd written would turn out to be irrelevant."

gary larson, progenitor of the idiosyncratic 'far side' cartoons, stopped his creative process at the beginning of 1995, effectively retiring as a cartoonist. his output, since commencing in 1979, was prodigious to say the least, a scary prospect to a once budding cartoonist such as yours truly. way back when, despite apparently having a bit of a knack for scribbling cartoons, the overwhelming likelihood that i would find myself bereft of ideas within a matter of days, prevented from me ever approaching the foothills.

for the selfsame reason, despite constantly reading that anyone who writes regularly, has a book in there somewhere, i'd prefer to demur from even starting. it's all very well having a loose idea for a potentially award-winning narrative in your head, but in the process of researching the subject to ensure an avoidance of embarrassment and accusations of ineptitude, i'm pretty sure i'm less than equal to the task. in writing the medal factory, kenny pryde has demonstrated an impeccable approach to the research aspect, but was access to the information as straightforward as he's made it appear?

"Ah. No. For the reasons mentioned, lots of people were keeping their heads down, and I don't blame them. I wanted to ask them about the characters who were all over the news for all the wrong reasons. But I was lucky. Lots of people were generous with their time and I've been following the sport for a quite a while now, so I think that helped."

the joy of what might reasonably be termed, the non-linear approach to writing, afforded by contemporary word-processing software, undoubtedly eases the prospect of being appraised of different stuff at different times. all this can then subsequently be placed in an orderly and chronological fashion. that's not to say, however, that so doing is a simple affair. Was it a complex matter to arrange the book in such an eminently readable and cogent format?

"Initially I thought I'd try some kind of 'clever' structure that went back and forward in time. But I binned that idea quickly and stuck to a simple one event after the other thread. I had a hard enough time of keeping track as it was!"

but there's no denying that part of the fun of investigative journalism, or authorship, is discovering hitherto unknown factors that might conceivably alter an opinion about something or someone. assuming this is conveyed to the reader in commensurate fashion, a similar sense of discovery can become a favourable feature within the narrative. in the writing of 'the medal factory', was there anything kenny came across that he wasn't expecting?

"One or two things, though nothing drastic. There were some shocks and a few disappointments, but mostly illumination. When you get a combination of money, success, power and human frailty, the stories aren't complicated, they're kind of universal. There's always lots of arse covering and making stuff up as you go along in any businesses."

prior to the london olympics in 2012, i recall reading a report in the news media, that dave brailsford had had his cycling budget cut by close to £2 million. for the majority of us, that amount of money is the sort of sum we'd be delighted to win in the national lottery, so i did feel a smidgeon of sympathy for the man charged with implementing the world performance programme. however, on further reading, it was noted that this meant a reduction from £27 million to nearer £25 million.

without wishing to seem disloyal, that seems one heck of a lot of money to spend on acquiring a collection of metal badges, no matter the sense of national pride that might ensue. does kenny see parallels between the east europeans of yesteryear and their propaganda bid for victory, and the amount of money britain spends on effectively doing likewise?

"I think its very similar. The State invests money to help citizens feel good, generate some global PR and give the State broadcaster something to screen and cheer us all up. Funnily enough, I think 'sport-as-propaganda' now matters less, now the Cold War has ended. When UK sport was properly amateur and we were getting our arses kicked by the Eastern Bloc, we had other things to cheer us; our colour tellys, VHS recorders, holidays on the Costas and football teams that could win internationally. Who cared about the team pursuit qualifying times back in 1980? We had Coke and Levis."

given such vast sums of money being spent on 'going round in circles', the concentration required from the competitors and the tenacity and integrity of those involved in logistics, coaching and administration, cannot but separate the individuals involved from what you and i might term 'real life'. such a situation, quite possibly, could not be otherwise, but did pryde get the impression that the team gb operation at manchester exists in a bubble, somewhat detached from reality?

"I think elite sports everywhere exist in a bubble. They're not sports like you and I and the people reading about cycling practice them. British Cycling in Manchester was - and is - two parts: there's the BC handling membership and grass-roots part and then the World Class Performance Programme. They're in the same building, but miles apart in many ways."

'the medal factory' makes it plain that, at various stages during implementation of 'the programme', those involved were improvising, if only because they'd never been in such a position before. some tactics worked almost exactly as planned, while others never came close. but when you read that an alleged £10,000 was spent on designing and manufacturing a chainring, let alone the cost of the bespoke carbon bicycles, then a few years later everyone's riding shop floor cervelos, you do begin to wonder.

then there's the alleged bullying of riders by coaching staff and accusations of sexism by one or two of the female competitors. did kenny ever get the impression that british cycling had actually learned anything from the process as described in the book, or is it still business as usual?

"I'm sure that 'lessons have been learned as the cliché has it. Certainly processes and oversight will have been tweaked and I'm sure that everyone inside BC is watching what they say much more than they did in 2000. But then the wider culture and society we all work in has changed in the last 20 years too. What hasn't changed will be the desire to win, because the hands-on coaches working with the track squads are still the same. Shane has gone, but Paul Manning, Jan van Eijden and Iain Dyer are still there."

peter keen's original application for funding was designed to lift british cycling out of the doldrums it had inhabited for many a long year. his plan identified the track events in which there were opportunities for victory. taking into account the annual budget for cycling's world performance programme alone, never mind that spent on other olympic disciplines, the whole project begins to take on the trappings of big business. is it still 'sport'?

"When you asked earlier about there being anything that I discovered, I came to realise that professional sport is just a branch of showbiz. It's showbiz for physiological freaks, part of a massive global entertainment industry. It's a more obvious observation when you look at football - or, especially - American football and the SuperBowl! There's the sport we do - the road races and club time-trials, the mid-week track league - and then there's professional cycling. They look the same, but they're very different. When you see pro sports as showbiz, it takes on a different perspective."

the medal factory. british cycling and the cost of gold by kenny pryde, is published today, 20 february, by pursuit books.

thursday 20 february 2020

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................