project rainbow; how british cycling reached the top of the world. rod ellingworth. faber and faber hardback 292pp illus. £18.99

project rainbow by rod ellingworth

many years ago, in a land far far away, i bought stuff for a living. it was my job to purchase vast quantities of stuff to fill the little metal trays with plastic tasting food that is served on aeroplanes. it's a simple enough task once you get the hang of it, the trick being to anticipate full passenger numbers, yet not be left with lots of superfluous stuff if the plane flies out half-empty. the day to day management of such is pretty much flying by the seat of your pants, if you'll forgive the pun, but not every facet of the job imposed such immediate demands.

those little metal trays themselves can be had in a whole raft of different dimensions, and each airline has different demands, standards and in-aircraft ovens. it will also surprise you not at all, that some of these little metal foil trays are manufactured abroad, and thus have to be ordered from other than the uk. in the specific case i recall, a preferred supplier was based in holland, and required one month's notice of order. but just to make life a tad more complicated, those trays ordered a month in advance were usually for flights departing in the month following that.

therefore, orders placed at the end of may (for example) would arrive at the end of june and due to go on aeroplanes leaving in july. since aircraft passenger numbers can vary by the hour, you can imagine the amount of inspired guesswork that predicated any orders for those dutch foil trays. the only consolation is that foil trays have no sell-by date. but it does mean that, while everyone else lived day to day, i was living in may, but thinking about july, and i'm not sure that was ever a comfortable place to be.

rod ellingworth is like one of the guys you see playing keyboards or bass with a famed beat group no longer in possession of its original line-up. you know they know what they're doing, and that the concert or album could not have happened without them, but nobody ever asks for their autograph. such a man is rod ellingworth and aside from his relative anonymity, it appears that he too suffered/suffers from the dilemma of having to plan not just months, but most often several years into the future.

following mark cavendish's more than complimentary foreword, chapter one, intriguingly titled shouting at the telly starts in copenhagen on 25th september 2011. since the subtitle of project rainbow alludes to this particular moment, at that point, you kind of wonder what happened to the rest of the book. though i'm hardly the guy to be talking about cliches, this notion of starting books at the end is beginning to become a rather overused ploy.

chapter two, however, restores the balance with ellingworth's opening sentence "I first went to the Worlds when I was nine.", the very year when beppe saronni on a red colnago crossed the line in first place to wear the rainbow bands through 1983. ellingworth's parents having split up in 1979, he lived with his dad, yet another in a long-line of cyclists in the ellingworth family. there is, apparently, still a gp ellingworth run in late may named after rod's great grandfather.

cycling may give the impression of approaching the mainstream in contemporary times, but as ellingworth relates "At that point cycling was nothing as a sport. I was doing a sport which wasn't really recognised, which had no presence in schools, and no-one there knew anything about it." there are a lot of them still about. however, in order to financially appease his aspirations, his grandad suggested applying to the council under the 'Gifted Young People' grant scheme, ending up with £50 for 1987 rising to £5,000 and a car in 1996.

academia was not suited to the young ellingworth (or vice versa), principally due to his ambition to go to france as a professional racing cyclist. his first taste of racing abroad was gained in moscow 1989, riding the junior world championships, followed by a period of racing in europe. during this time, ellingworth began to gain an appreciation of just how the great britain team worked, or rather, didn't. "There was no experience in the management, no coaching structure, no pathway for the riders to follow."

even at this early stage in the book, it is all too clear how far british cycling has come in the last twenty or so years. "British Cycling had no real base - it was run out of Jim Hendry's place in Kettering. There was no money. They were doing all the races off the back of nothing."

Ellingworth returned from europe in 1999, aware that he was never going to emulate paul sherwen or robert millar. he applied for a job as a fireman in grantham but was turned down because "they weren't going to train up someone who had been swanning around the world for the last ten years." aside from a period of time working with his brother, the end of ellingworth's road cycling career was more or less his introduction to the new british cycling after gaining a coaching qualification, though he continued to have success as a track rider.

his responsibilities at team gb were centred around bringing on new talent, and it's at this point you begin to realise that no longer was it prudent simply to think of the day to day. a coherent future for british track and road cycling had now to be considered if there was to be any real point to ellingworth's coaching. "My career as a coach with the Great Britain Olympic team began in March 2002." this initial period with team gb more or less set the structure for ellingworth's future as a coach, travelling round schools in central london carrying out sessions at which he might identify future talent that might possibly bring road and track gold medals.

the narrative from this point onwards is modestly matter-of-fact, for despite the nagging suspicion that, were it not for rod ellingworth we'd still be a cycling backwater, the man himself is remarkably self-effacing about the principles on which he worked and the disciplines he put in place. sir dave brailsford has been provided with quite rightly deserved plaudits for not only overseeing britain's track and road successes, as well as his work with team sky. however, it seems more than likely that were it not for ellingworth, sir dave would have had a serious paucity of british riders from which to choose.

his greatest innovation appears to be that of unarguable discipline. if the young aspirants were told to be ready for 9am, no excuses would be brokered. the ride left whether you were there or not. if the team failed to heed agreed strategies in a race. they'd find themselves either having to ride home after the finish, or clean the team bikes and cars to forcefully underline the point. "Their basic understanding of cycling was poor. They were nice kids, but they didn't have a clue. They weren't really into it. They had no passion for cycling."

though the proclaimed subject of the book is that of the processes that brought the rainbow jersey to britain once more, tom simpson having been the only previous british wearer of the rainbow bands, the preceding chapters offer a comprehensive dissection and history of just how that came to be a feasible and believable target. and to yet again belabour the point that ellingworth was constantly looking to the future while organising the present, the whole project effectively took the form of a business plan. with many of the team gb riders contracted to different professional teams, regular training camps had to be planned while taking into account a number differing and often conflicting race schedules.

perhaps the most telling part of ellingworth's recollections relate to the non-compulsory nature of these camps on the approach to copenhagen in 2011. due mostly to the aforementioned dispersion of the riders across the world and their individual team commitments, it was decided that they would not be compelled to take part in each and every get-together. bradley wiggins, however, apparently attended none of them.

that cavendish won the rainbow bands (after a last lap lead-out from wiggins no-less) is now part of british cycling history. there is a nagging despondency, however, that having achieved the previously unachievable, team gb seem to have let go. though ellingworth was widely quoted as being less than impressed with the team's performance in tuscany only a weekend ago, to go from winning to wholesale abandoning looks suspiciously like a 'been there, done that' situation.

despite all his self-effacing grasp of reality throughout the book regarding the likelihood of certain riders achieving particular goals, ellingworth's integrity seems oddly shaky concerning cavendish. the odd sentence alludes almost to sycophancy, but borders on the irrational when discussing the abortive 2012 olympic road race where vinokourov was a large fly in the ointment. cavendish having finished in twenty-ninth spot after almost everybody expected him to grab gold, ellingworth's usually pragmatic and largely unemotional reactions to less than victory seem to take a tumble. "I was pretty angry with the other nations because I got the impression that they felt it didn't matter who won as long as we didn't."

i have no idea as to how good a writer rod ellingworth may be in his own right, but project rainbow is immeasurably enhanced by the ghost writing of william fotheringham. the attention to detail present in all but perhaps the final chapter (one chapter too many i'd venture to suggest) is quite excellent, yet at no time does the narrative become stodgy, incoherent or onerous. placing everything in logical order must have been a task in itself, yet having done so, the result is all but transparent; not only is this a story worth reading, it has all but transcended its subject, making it as appealing to the non-cyclist as to the velocipedinal obsessives like ourselves.

there's every likelihood that, post 2012 olympics, when they were handing out new year's honours, one of the most important cogs in the machine was missing from the list. though not quite of the same scale, project rainbow at least keeps the record straight. if you have any interest at all in how britain became a major force in modern day road and track cycling, i doubt there has been a finer explanation or testament published. not only is it exceptionally well written without pretension or flourish, but it fills many of the historical gaps relating to britain's place in top level, international cycling in the 21st century.

not, however, the finest cover i've ever seen.

sunday 6th october 2013