Ollie Wood keen to pick up the pace in bid to restore GB’s track cycling golden days at Paris 2024 Olympics
Life after Ed Clancy has begun for the British Cycling team pursuit squad, but wouldn’t you know it, the grand old master of the sport is finding it hard to stay away.
“Ed’s been sticking around,” laughs Ollie Wood, Clancy’s now former team-mate from Wakefield.
“There’s no point him disappearing, he cares for us a lot and wants us to do well.”
Clancy’s reluctance is understandable. The Yorkshireman helped Britain dominate the team pursuit for a decade, winning Olympic gold medals with Sir Bradley Wiggins in 2008 and 2016, and future Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas sandwiched in between.
The fall from grace in Tokyo this summer was a painful one, particularly for Clancy, who aggravated a back injury in the first round of the competition and announced not only his withdrawal from the squad but also his immediate retirement.
It left a young team suddenly without their experienced leader and Britain’s long run at the top was over.
“Ed had always said he was going to retire but you don’t know if it’s a joke,” says Wood.
“He’d always say ‘that’s me done boys’, but some people find it hard to step away.
“After the flight out to Tokyo, plus the operation on his back after Rio, he just wasn’t in the best condition. He did his best.
“Ed is usually the one bringing us all together. We had to say ‘look mate it’s not your fault’. He wasn’t in control of his body, what happens, happens.
“We tried to be as united as we could, to support each other.
“At the end of the day there’s worse stuff happening than us coming seventh in the Olympics. It was disappointment at the start but you soon get over it.”
In the world of professional cycling the wheel keeps spinning, especially with a European Track Championships held last week and a World Track Championships to come in Roubaix, France, next week; two major events held within three months of the Olympics.
Hence why the familiar face of Clancy is still to be found in the British Cycling velodrome in Manchester.
“We’ve had meetings and debriefs, planning meetings and looking ahead,” continues Wood. “We’re looking at what we did well, what we can improve on, and Ed is still a part of that.
“So he’s been involved a little bit and his experience is invaluable. I hope he sticks around as long as he can.”
With Clancy retired, and other household names long since in the past, it is very much a transitional period for a men’s team pursuit squad that for so long was a dominant force.
Wood and his fellow Yorkshireman Charlie Tanfield of Great Ayton were the only two Tokyo Olympians to compete in Switzerland last week in the European Championships. They won bronze.
“I don’t think we’re too far off,” confirms Wood, who will be joined in Roubaix by Tanfield, Ethan Vernon and Ethan Hayter in what bears more resemblance to Britain’s best squad.
“We were capable of winning in Tokyo, stuff just didn’t come together. We were confident going into qualifying. That’s sport at the end of the day.”
If Tokyo was unfulfilling professionally, the experience also left Wood feeling a little empty.
The Olympic velodrome was two hours from the athletes’ village. There were no fans. “It felt like any other championships,” he admits.
One thing it has done is increase his appetite to succeed and to restore the British team pursuit name to its rightful place.
“To be honest, the road to Paris is all that matters now,” says Wood, who began cycling at Wakefield Triathlon Club and then Aire Valley Wheelers in Keighley before joining the GB academy squad when he was 18.
“Straight after Tokyo we were already asking what can we do better, what can we do to beat them?
“You immediately look forward to the next opportunity you’re going to get.
“Last week it was just me and Charlie with a couple of younger guys, a chance for them to compete at their first senior championships. They need that opportunity, that was me three or four years ago.
“There’ll be plenty of opportunities between now and the Paris Olympics, but every one of those is going to be important.”
Britain needs to start closing the gap quickly.
Their time of three minutes 45.636 seconds in Tokyo was three-and-a-half seconds shy of the Italian quartet that won gold, confirming fears first raised at the last world championships held in Berlin shortly before the pandemic began that Britain had not just been caught, but overtaken.
To get back to the top step of the podium will require a channelling of the ‘marginal gains’ strategy of 15 years ago.
“It’s an arms race now, it’s closer to Formula 1 than the team pursuit of say 10 years ago,” continues Wood.
“It’s very much driven by aerodynamics, equipment. We can be in the peak shape, but if you’ve got a terrible skinsuit you’re going nowhere. It really does sound silly, because you could be the strongest cyclist there is, but if you’ve not got the equipment to match you won’t see the rewards.
“Our R&I (research and innovation) team is the backbone of the whole Olympic programme going back to 2008 when the whole marginal gains ethos came about.
“We started paying more attention and that’s how the medals came, but everyone is on to it now and there’s no nation at the Olympic Games that are not wise to everything.
“At the end of the day it comes down to the R&I guys working with us, seeing what equipment works, what things we can change.
“It really is all about the skinsuit, the helmet. Your bike compared to your body is marginal in terms of drag, so it’s more about what you’re wearing.
“Remember in swimming when all the world records were broken in that big long suit they had on? Same in track cycling.”
As it did in swimming, it has created an ethical dilemma.
“It needs to be regulated,” admits Wood, “it’s getting that way, because teams who are not as well funded miss out. We’re extremely well-funded and we are very grateful for that.
“You still need your extraordinary athletes, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes you can be extraordinary and not get what you deserve.
“There’ are other nations that are losing out, but then I guess the flip side is you only deserve it if you cover all the bases, and one of them is aerodynamics.”
So the one thing in his control is making sure he is in peak physical shape when the major track championships come around. That means continuing to put the work in with his British road team Canyon DHB, and continuing to work with his track team-mates to rebuild the legacy that Clancy made.
“With Ed around, if ever a decision needed to be made, you would look to him because he was a bit wiser and had more experience,” says Wood, who at 25 is the eldest of the four riders in Roubaix this week.
“I don’t feel like I’m radiating to a leadership role. We’re all equal, we all get stuck in, give our opinions. It’s not like I’m 10 years older than these guys, we’re all the same age roughly and have got the same experience.”
Turning those experiences into winning ones is now the challenge.