Pro XC Racer Jenny Copnall Speaks Out At British Cycling

by
April 26, 2016

Yet Another Story Update: 4pm 27/04/16

Head coach, Shane Sutton has announced he will be stepping down as Performance Director in order to not distract current athletes in their Olympic preparations.

Story Update:

In light of Jess Varnish’s story and allegations from other British Cyclists, including Jenny Copnall, below, and members of the Paralympic Team, it appears that British Cycling is to suspend head coach, Shane Sutton, pending a review into his behaviour:

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“British Cycling is announcing the formation of an independent review, in conjunction with UK Sport, of the federation’s performance programmes following allegations of discriminatory behaviour. We are fully committed to the principles and active promotion of equality of opportunity and we must take any such allegations seriously. The terms of the review will be announced in due course and no further comment will be made at this stage.”

Here is Jenny’s original column for us and we’ll update this with a comment from her as the news of the investigation is clarified.

After Jenny Copnall took to Twitter to criticise British Cycling’s mountain bike cross country selection process (in the wake of Jess Varnish’s recent bust-up with Shane Sutton and British Cycling) we asked Jenny if she’d like to write some words to back up her 140 character digs at the National Governing Body for cycling in the UK.

Below, you can see what Jenny wrote. It makes interesting reading about British Cycling’s selection process from the view of a professional rider and multiple National Champion and backs up much of what commentator Dan Jarvis wrote for us recently about British Cycling’s selection process for Rio 2016. We have asked British Cycling for a comment.

Jenny Copnall
Photo by Luke Webber

Jenny Copnall, April 2016

Following track rider Jess Varnish’s response to being dropped from the GB Track Cycling Team, which questioned British Cycling’s Head of Performance’s approach to Olympic qualification strategy, selection of riders and treatment of female riders, it feels pertinent to consider British Cycling’s approach relevant to MTB XCO {That’s ‘Cross Country Olympic’ – what we know as regular XC racing – Ed}. What follows is a combination of opinion and fact from my 24 years at the top of the sport in the UK.

Since 1998, Mountain Bike Cross Country (XCO) has been part of the National Lottery-funded World Class Performance Plan (now World Class). If our current position remains, in 2016 we will not qualify a single men’s or women’s spot at the Rio Olympic Games. We have gained no medals in XCO at the Olympics. The only medal gained since 1998 in senior World Championships in mountain bike endurance has been Sally Bigham’s silver medal in the Marathon. Sally is not part of World Class. We have gained medals in Junior and U23 Worlds, but these performances have not, as yet, fed through to a senior medal haul. World Class has been in place for 18 years, and its remit is to gain medals in World Championships and Olympic Games at senior level. It has not yet achieved its remit.

During the period 1998 until now, we have seen a severe tightening of selection criteria for major championships. Prior to 1998, British Cycling would fill all available places at World Championships, funding the better riders and offering the others the chance to race if they could self-fund. For most World Championships this was entirely feasible and our top British riders would round out their year by representing GB at the Worlds. They had earned this right by being in the top five or six British riders. In 1998 things tightened up. All riders would now be funded but, as a result, the number of selected places dropped. However, there were still 3 women taken to that year’s World Championships in Mt St Anne – I know because, aged 22, I was selected for the GB team. After 1998 selection criteria moved about, sometimes being based on World Cup placings, sometimes on being within a percentage of the finishing time of the winner of World Cup races, sometimes being based on UCI points gained. Until 2004 the selection criteria remained just about tangible, although my selection for Les Gets in 2004 had to go to appeal when BC failed to include a haul of UCI points I had gained while racing World Cups in North America. After that, and likely as a result of my forcing them to reverse a decision, they removed tangible qualification criteria altogether, and major championship qualification, along with gaining a place on World Class, became “discretionary”. This meant that a non BC funded / produced rider could be discretionarily not selected, while a BC funded and produced rider could be discretionally selected, regardless of which rider had finished ahead of the other in competitions. In 2006, having won every BMBS round, the British National XCO Champs, the British National Marathon Champs, and having never been beaten at home or abroad by a UK rider, I was discretionally not selected for the World Championships. BC decided to discretionally select a New Zealand based British rider instead, who had never then nor since finished ahead of me in a competition.

So we reached 2007 and a home World Championships at Fort William. BC did not select any senior women for the race, while selecting various male riders based on both domestic and international results. One rider had not even raced outside the UK that year. I was told that I had been selected to ride the relay on the Thursday. When I discovered that the UCI had a rule stating that all riders in the relay must also be racing in their own races (in other words, you could not bring a relay-specific squad), I thought BC would relent. Instead Dave Brailsford, then Head of Performance alongside Shane Sutton, emailed me back to answer this query. Yes, he said, that was indeed the rule and BC would enter me into the World Championship Senior Women’s race. However, they would withdraw me from the race after the relay on the grounds of being unwell or injured. I found this unbelievable. Not only did BC not want any women to race at their home World Championships, they were prepared to break UCI rules to prevent that from happening. They were prepared to fund all aspects of my trip to Scotland to race the relay, but not prepared to let me stay around to race. Why on earth would that be their stance? To this day I can only conclude that it was as simple as me being a self-produced rider, who spoke her mind and challenged their decisions. I had, on various occasions, been seen to “show up” their funded riders by beating them when riding for GB, and the British Championships each year had become my proving ground where, time and again, I fended off a funded rider to take the crown. I guess they didn’t want to be shown up anymore. This aspect is pertinent now with Jess Varnish who is out to prove them wrong. BC will do anything they can to prevent her being able to do this.

In the end, due to a multi-pronged approach on my part, BC made a late call to reverse the 2007 selection and ended up allowing the full quota of riders to race in both the men’s and the women’s races. This was a victory of sorts, and I was happy to see the women getting their chance to race a home Worlds in GB kit, along with a few extra men, as a result of my battle. Interestingly it was only Nick Craig who came and thanked me for enabling this, recognising the emotional toll it had taken on me. To this day I appreciate that. Of course, much as I hoped it would not be the case, my race was poor. I was utterly exhausted from the weeks of fighting with BC, of battling to get the story out, of dealing with the media, of sleepless nights, and, at times, utter despondency. I was, at the time, four times British Champion having retained the title, a week before the decision to exclude me was made, with a superbly authoritative ride at Newnham Park. I should not have had to go through all that to be able to ride my home World Champs, or any World Champs for that matter.

In the past year, with the support of nearly all former female British National Champions, our Marathon Worlds medallist, our former DH World Champion, former Olympians, and the unanimous support of the Mountain Bike Endurance Commission at British Cycling (of which I am, at time of writing, a part) we took to the Board of British Cycling a request that the British senior men’s and women’s National Champion should gain the automatic right to race at that year’s World Championship. (This is shown below). This could be in a self-funded capacity and only if the Worlds Quota allowed. If World Class is working properly then this rider would already be selected since you would imagine they’d be a BC funded rider already. Regardless, we are talking about a maximum of two automatic selections. The Board turned it down. The thought of losing that complete power of discretionary selection was clearly too much for the Head of Performance, Mr Shane Sutton.

To: BC Board of Directors / Mtb Endurance Commission

We, the undersigned, would like British Cycling to consider applying the following rule:-

“That the senior male and female British National Champions gain automatic opportunity to race in the World Championship of that same year. Funding remains at the discretion of British Cycling”.

While this issue is especially pertinent to Female Mtb XCO, we feel there are grounds for its application across both genders and all disciplines.

Notes –

  • The UK Sport funded World Class programme has been in existence for Mtb XCO since 1998. If this is functioning to its remit, to produce senior riders capable of winning medals on the World stage, this rule will simply result in riders being selected who would have been selected regardless. In other words, it is a non-issue.
  •  If a non-World Class rider becomes National Champion, they have proven that they are the best British rider on that day, therefore earning the right to represent their nation at the World Championships.
  • UCI quotas for World Champs easily allow the selection of the National Champion alongside any other selected riders. Regardless, we are talking about a maximum of two additional riders, possibly unfunded, per year.
  • When stricter selection criteria was brought into play some years ago, it was argued that stiffer criteria would result in higher standards. With no senior male or female selection being made this year, one has to question whether this intended result has been achieved and the impact that the criteria is having.
  • Other NGBs have this rule in place, including USAC and Cycling Canada amongst others. Both offer stepped funding levels dependent on the rider’s evidenced potential.
  • The broader mountain bike fraternity in the UK is continually dismayed at seeing no / under representation of our top riders at Worlds, and there has been widespread support for this rule change on social media. There is strong evidence that the perceived treatment of our riders has demotivated our upcoming riders, especially those entering the sport at senior level.
  • This rule change is likely to lead to top quality National Championship fields as overseas / UCI Trade Team riders will be able to justify attending to their employers.
  • Our only off road endurance senior female Worlds medallist thus far has been Sally Bigham – gaining silver at this year’s World Marathon Champs. Our only off road endurance senior male Worlds medallists thus far have been Tim Gould, who gained bronze in 1990, and David Baker, who gained bronze in 1992.
  • We have just witnessed our second Tour de France Champion, with the widely publicised story of his ingenious methods to gain access to race a World Championships as a young rider, this opportunity having inspired him to greater things, of which we are all now very proud. Therein lies why blocking your best riders may limit future medals.
  • While there are grounds for broadening this rule to cover junior and U23 riders, at present these are largely taken care of within the remit of World Class, and we’d like to begin by focussing on the senior categories.
  • Thus far the senior male XCO National Champion has never been omitted from the Worlds squad, but the female equivalent has been on numerous occasions (this year the Senior male National Champion competes in the U23 category at Worlds).
  • We would be happy to send representation to any meeting to further this issue.

Yours in Sport,

  • Jenny Copnall (former British National Mtb XCO Champion)
  • Sue Clarke (former British National Mtb XCO Champion)
  • Nikki Harris (former British National Mtb XCO Champion & current British National Cyclo X Champion)
  • Tracy Brunger (former British National Mtb XCO Champion)
  • Lee Craigie (current British National Mtb XCO Champion)
  • Louise Robinson (Mtb XCO Olympian & World Championship Silver Medallist in Cyclo X)
  • Barrie Clarke (former British National Mtb XCO Champion)
  • Jess Stone (former British National Mtb DH Champion)
  • Tracy Moseley (former World DH Champion)
  • Dan Jarvis (Commentator UCI Mtb World Cup and 2012 Olympic Games Mtb)
  • Martyn Salt (Mountain Bike Event Manager, 2012 Olympic Games)
  • Emma Guy (former professional DH racer)
  • Rob Wardell (elite mtber and Dirt School coach)