Last weekend, British Cycling, the governing body of all branches of the sport in the UK, faced one of its biggest challenges of recent years.
Bigger than the Olympics or world championships; bigger than partnering Sky in setting up a team to conquer the Tour de France.
The challenge was this: to commemorate the 50 years since the organisation came into being and honour the various luminaries who have contributed in the years since, while also celebrating the recent successes of such stars as Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Bradley Wiggins and, finally, integrating into proceedings a new corporate partner, Sky, whose involvement heralds something of a new era for a sport unaccustomed to working in tandem with large corporations.
Put bluntly, the traditional club cycling scene in the UK appears to have as much in common with a corporation such as British Sky Broadcasting as the 'Wobbly Wheelers' - the generic name used by legendary Cycling Weekly cartoonist Johnny Helms in his depictions of the typical British club - has with Team Sky.
To some, a clash of cultures appears inevitable - and this is before we even consider the challenge of accommodating disciplines other than road or track, such as mountain biking and BMX.
What was most significant was that the former president, who will be 90 in April, didn't dwell on her own outstanding (and unpaid) contribution, but instead toasted the recent glut of medals and world class performances, and remarked that watching Beijing ("I don't watch telly normally," she pointed out) had fired her enthusiasm and left her craving more.
Quotes of the week
And so, as Dermot Murnaghan took to the stage to address the 700 guests, ranging in age from teens to 90, and including representatives from all the disciplines, the British Cycling top brass would not have been human (something they've probably been accused of at some point) had they not been apprehensive.
The audience, after all, included such stalwarts as Eileen Gray, who was there at the start, when the divided factions of the sport were brought (kicking and screaming) together, with the National Cycling Union and British League of Racing Cyclists united in a "shotgun wedding" that gave birth to the British Cycling Federation (streamlined last decade to British Cycling, or BC).
Also there were Britain's first Tour de France stage winner, Brian Robinson; another 1950s Tour veteran, Tony Hewson; Beryl Burton's widow, Charlie; Barry Hoban, the winner of eight stages of the Tour, and his wife Helen, who happens to be Tom Simpson's widow... And so on and so on.
A nation of cycling
First off Brian Cookson, who as BC president has overseen the 'revolution' of the past decade, was invited to the stage by Murnaghan. He began by reminding everyone of Beijing: "If British Cycling was a nation, we would rank eighth in the world thanks to the superb performance of our athletes at the 2008 Olympics."
Cue warm applause all round, some cheers. He continued: "The Olympic success has clearly boosted our image and made us much more attractive to the public, to national and local government and of course to the private sector. We are determined to make the most of the opportunities that this presents...
"Cycling's journey from Cinderella sport to an international force has recently gone up yet another level with the launch of Team Sky, Britain's first ProTour level professional road team. This brilliant venture, which draws on British Cycling's performance values and is backed by our principal partner Sky, not only has the potential to produce the first British Tour de France winner, but will also attract thousands of newcomers to the sport."
It has to be said that Cookson's was a speech - and a lively, impassioned performance - that went down well.
Were any discordant notes struck? Well, Murnaghan had to interrupt Hewson mid-anecdote, because he feared - and said so - that his account of the 1959 Tour would last as long as the race itself. And it must have struck some as strange - at this gala celebration of British cycling - to be applauding recent wins by a Kiwi (Greg Henderson) and an Aussie (Chris Sutton) at the conclusion to a Team Sky promotional film, which highlighted their victories in the (British) team's colours before and during the Tour Down Under in January.
But was the evening a success? According to Charlie Burton, whose late wife Beryl remains arguably the country's best ever female cyclist, the answer to that question was a resounding 'yes.' I bumped into him in the hotel lift the following morning and he was beaming.
Gray steals the show
He had been one of 38 riders or representatives of riders called on to the stage the previous evening during the induction ceremony for the new hall of fame. Thirty-eight from 50 initial inductees was a healthy representation, and it wasn't Chris Boardman, one of the more high-profile inductees, who stole the show but Eileen Gray.
What was most significant was that the former president, who will be 90 in April, didn't dwell on her own outstanding (and unpaid) contribution but instead toasted the recent glut of medals and world class performances, and remarked that watching Beijing ("I don't watch telly normally," she pointed out) had fired her enthusiasm and left her craving more.
In saying so, this grandee of the sport positively embraced the new era of British cycling. The top brass can breathe easy, for now.
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George Searle says...
What about Charlie Holland
Posted 16:06 24th February 2010
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