Interview: British Cycling coach Shane Sutton talks tech, Jaguar, the cycling boom and buzz of the sport
It’s a windy day in Warwickshire and we’re on site at Fen End racing circuit with Jaguar to not only meet British Cycling coach and Team Sky performance advisor, Shane Sutton, for a quick-fire interview, but also to combat that biting wind in our first 10-mile time trial. It’s not only cars that we’ll be seeing race around the track, but cyclists too - as part of Jaguar’s now completed "Ride like a pro" competition.
Cars, bikes, sporting personalities. It sounds like a melting pot of man and machine. Our interest? To enquire about the relationships that technology has between them and where it can help drive the sport.
Our first meeting with Sutton is a little earlier than anticipated, out on the track. We’re legs-to-pedal going for it, near foaming at the mouth, five laps out of seven down, when he pulls up alongside in the team’s Jaguar Sportbrake, having donned full Team Sky skin of course, to offer some advice. It’s a surreal experience: one of cycling’s foremost coaches pushing us - the ultimate amateur - beyond the barrier. But it works, cadence maintained, heart rate close to explosive, we cross the finish line in 29:55.
It’s hard work. Wobbly legged, more than a little sweaty of brow, we embark the Team Sky bus after and catch Sutton for a 10-minute sit down. Time limited, we get straight to it.
How did the Jaguar deal come about and what is it about the Sportbrake that’s so right for its task as a support car? Why not - plucking this from thin air - a Fiat Panda?
"How does it fit with Team Sky? The innovation and performance are along the same lines as ours. They [Jaguar] are on the same page, they’re British, they want to be the best - and I think that’s why we aligned ourselves."
An essence of British synergy then?
"Yeah, more so than ever. We’ve been offered all kinds of brands, but obviously this was the one for those reasons. It’s the best team car in the peloton. We’ve got the most space. For us it’s a partnership made in heaven."
Later on we speak to Jaguar UK’s dealer marketing manager, Chris Bayliss, who has bucketloads of technical detail to add in on the subject.
"I think what Team Sky find really makes a difference with the XF Sportbrake is the suspension set-up. We’ve got adaptive dynamics, with adaptive damping at the front, and adaptive air suspension at the rear, so the system can effectively change the spring rates individually - both across the car at each corner and also in terms of managing lateral or longitudinal forces, when braking or accelerating."
"If you’re cornering hard and really driving hard - say when driving fast to get through the peloton, or someone’s down or needs a wheel change - then you need to get to them fast. There’s the power of the car but also the adaptive dynamics working to keep the car trim, and the turning sharp."
But we’re not just here to talk about cars. Sutton is a cycling man, through and through. So we shift the conversation with our Aussie interviewee back to focus on the bikes.
How has technology changed the sport and training in recent years? There’s so much consumer tech out there these days, how is that advancing athletes?
"It’s massive, you know? Any form of data that you can collect and decipher and then look to better yourself is an added bonus at any elite stage. And particularly on that human side of cycling - when you’re turning the pedals and looking at the power you’re producing, and so on. Right through to the point of the whole drag co-efficiency side of things; it’s massive and that’s why we have winds tunnels and all the guys working there, whether we’re looking to ride with more pelvic rotations or whatever else will get the max out of the athletes’ aero-watts, as it were."
We’ve asked similar questions before directly to athletes. Jason Kenny, for example, once told us that - brilliant though it is - sometimes the focus on the tech, on the numbers, can be distracting when you just want to get on with the job.
"Yeah it’s the same for me. I’m not going to come down to Jaguar and tell them how to make the best Sportbrake in the world. They’ve got people that do that job and deliver us that car, as I said, and it’s the same for me from my point of view, you know? The cyclists will deliver what we need to see and we’ll put the programmes to fit [that]."
You haven’t asked Jag to start making bikes yet then?
"Hah. No, but I reckon they’d do a damn good job of it if they did - if the cars are anything to go by. For me, we just like to take all the information and, as Jason [Kenny] said, we just like to crack on and do our jobs. I’m the same as Jason really. It’s all there - you need to use all those tool available to you but ultimately it is down to you being a coach or a bike rider and letting the science deliver us what we need."
Cycling seems to have boomed of late. What do you think is it about the sport that’s caught more of the UK’s attention than before?
"Well, a) there was a massive dip in the economy, and b) the prices of fuel [went up]. But also all of a sudden you had this Great British cycling team and Team Sky join forces and create this massive juggernaut. And then it becomes about iconic figures. Back to back wins in Le Tour. Partnerships that were made in heaven: from the cars through to the nutrition, to the equipment, everything. And then all of a sudden when you see your iconic figures out there in sport people want to be part of it; they want to follow.
"That’s why we have masses of talent coming through. Because they want to be the next Bradley Wiggins or Sir Chris Hoy. And, you know, the guy who’s 40 probably wants to relive the dream that he probably couldn’t afford to do before. But the kids have now left home, he can afford to buy all the high-tech stuff and he’s living his dream as well. So, yeah, I think a big boom has been created in Britain through Team Sky for sure."
Talking about the high-tech kit. How important is that tech and, more so, where can it go from here? What’s going to happen next?
"From a bike point of view, you’re always going to have the electronics and so on. But there’s always a legal limit, too, isn’t there? You’re not going to get much under the 8-kilo mark any more. Because you just can’t go any lighter and because you’re governed by the rules as set down by the UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale]. So I think we’re pretty much in a stalemate. There will be quirky little things that come out no doubt, but ultimately you’ve got even in certain categories - into the school type events - a legal document that says you can only ride x-amount of spokes and so on and so on, so I think we’re getting a handle on the whole technology."
Given such limitations, it seem tech is getting as far as it can go and the focus is then on man rather than machine. When it comes down to training, what’s next for that?
"The training is always governed by the product. It’s what you have. You know, we could go away and work together and I would look at exactly what you had and what tools were available to me and how I could fix you and turn you into one of the best athletes in the world. I think the training can go on and on and on in so many areas.
"But as an individual what you’ve got to remember that you’re never going to be the full package. No one’s perfect. Where you might be great at climbing or time-trialling or whatever, you might not have good torque, as it were, so there’s always somewhere that if you look at all the attributes you need to be a Tour de France winner, Olympic winner, World Champion, whatever, there will always be a room for improvement.
"Because when you have the accelerator of a car flat out you know it’s flat out. On a bike you’re never going to get it flat out. It can go on and on and on. You think about it: in the technical world it’s never been as fast as it can go, because a company will always come along and push further and faster. So there’s always room for improvement in cycling."
The other component is passion. You’ve achieved some great things. What is it that keeps you excited about it all?
"Yeah we’ve done some great things. And you can say you have the best job in the world, you know? You walk outside, pick up a new set of keys to a new Jag, drive it down the motorway, living the life of Riley, spend the day with a group of enthusiasts that just love cycling [as part of the Ride like a pro competition]. If you can’t love sport then there’s not a lot of hope for you to be honest with you. That’s what sort of makes the world go around if you ask me. I think the figures show you that. The crowds at Le Tour and the Olympic Games. I was at a Revolution meeting at the weekend and it was packed. It’s just a buzz."
You still get the buzz?
"Ah yeah. I mean not to where it’s life and death as it used to be. But I still get the buzz. I still miss the team car, I miss the track centre. But it’s the best job in the world. You don’t need to get me out of bed: cycling does that for me every day."