Who would have thought the velodrome in Manchester would have had the effect it has?

Cycling, in its purest form, is a sport without a home. With many of its landmark moments and famous races occurring out on the roads, the role of a velodrome in a cycling community is quite unique. Although nowadays many cyclists focus solely on either road or track, in times gone by it was common for many Tour de France legends to ride the summer on the road and the winter on the track. As such, velodromes crafted a special place in the cycling community’s hearts, a stadium, a focus, a home ground to play at, with cycling’s biggest one-day road race, Paris-Roubaix, finishing on the banks of Roubaix’s outdoor velodrome and Sir Bradley Wiggins choosing to make his last race before retirement the fanatic Gent Six Day, hosted annually on their short steep indoor track. In many ways, velodromes are seen as cycling’s theatres, so surely it would follow that the more velodromes a country has the more cycling-orientated it must be, yet at the time of construction of the Manchester Velodrome in 1994, and for 18 years after its construction, it was the only Olympic standard velodrome in the UK – perhaps a surprising reality given the mainstream nature of cycling here today and the modern success of British cyclists.

To mark to 25th anniversary of the opening of the velodrome, I was interested to search through the archives at the Manchester Central Library to find out more about its story and its place in the development of cycling in Manchester and how it changed the face of the sport throughout Great Britain and arguably beyond.

Discovering more about the velodrome was as much a representation of the drastic shift of cycling’s place in UK press, media and journalism. With the vast majority of newspaper and magazine articles from the library archives covering the months immediately before and after the 2002 Commonwealth Games, there is much to be said about cycling’s place in the 1990s and early 2000s in the national sporting psyche from the lack of coverage of the sport. Once the Games had finished, the press seemed to change their focus, cycling had its time in the limelight but the interest for the media lay elsewhere – it was amazing to consider how times have changed, if they knew then, what we know now, little were they aware of the surge of cycling’s dominance in Britain that was only just taking shape.

It was noticeable in the archives of newspaper articles written about the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games, that expectations for British Cyclists, both road and track, were hardly great. With only a few names recurrent across most articles, it was evident that cycling was a long way from mainstream in the British sporting psyche. I chuckled at ‘Bradley Wiggins, from England’ in one report, at the idea of those now household names, in the small print or as an occasional comment from a post-race interview. Chris Hoy (now Sir Chris Hoy) was present in many headlines with his victory at the games and in the 2002 archives I saw not only a changing of the guard in the British athletes gaining success, cycling was making headlines – photos of the slopes of the Manchester Velodrome were across the broadsheet newspapers and the sport was gaining its figureheads. Cycling was beginning to transition from a side note or an event listing, to the centre of attention – the sport in Britain was facing a new era and if Britain was to become the crowning glory of international track cycling, the Manchester Velodrome would be its palace.

In 2003, the Manchester Velodrome became home to the newly formed ‘British Cycling Olympic Development Programme’, set up by Rod Ellingworth to recruit and train the next generation of cycling talent in Great Britain. With Mark Cavendish one of its first six members, it seems amazing to look back now and consider how much history in the sport was about to be created that nobody could possibly have imagined at that moment.

Amongst the archives were several Cycling Weekly columns written by professional cyclist Max Sciandri[1], who was the only British rider to win a stage of the 1995 Tour de France. In the columns, Sciandri charted his experiences as a professional in the top races of the sport and discussed balancing his preparation for the Commonwealth Games alongside participating in stage races in Europe – the rarity of a British rider in the world professional ranks in cycling was an amazing contrast to the current UCI World Tour level, in which, as of the start of 2019, there were 21 registered British World Tour riders. Much of the dominance of British riders on the global scene has been accredited to programmes implemented by British Cycling following the impetus from Sport England to improve cycling in Britain through the construction of the Velodrome and subsequent funding to the track cycling programme. Since its construction, the Manchester Velodrome has been home to British Cycling, the training base for the immense success at Olympic, Commonwealth and World Championship level – no wonder the National Cycling Centre in Manchester became known as the medal factory. In the following years, cycling in Britain not only gained widespread recognition, it was gathering momentum to become a national obsession.

Soon the track acted as a springboard for new ventures to replicate the incredible success on the road, with the Velodrome becoming the home to professional World Tour team, Team Sky, in 2009 and continuing to be the team’s base to the present day (now Team Ineos as of April 2019). At the time of Sky’s inception, the sporting press met the team with a mixture of confusion and disbelief. When Dave Brailsford announced the team’s purpose was to win the Tour de France with a British rider within five years, much of the press were waiting for the punchline to the joke. Only time would tell it seemed, and by 2012 it was already prepared to speak, with Bradley Wiggins’s Tour de France victory stealing headlines globally. Again, similar to success on the track, there was little belief Team Sky and cycling in Britain could pull off the feat again, yet at time of writing British riders have taken the overall Tour de France title 6 times[2] and Chris Froome stands second on the list of most Tour de France wins and joint fourth for most Grand Tour wins.

I was interested to research further into British presence at the Tour de France and was amazed to find between 1990 and 2007 (the era of Sciandri’s career), there were only 7 British stage wins, by 3 separate riders[3] – this was the era of Pantani, Cipollini and Indurain, expecting a British rider to be competitive in the race, let alone be a contender for the General Classification was a far cry, if not a laughable proposition. However, in the following 12 years (2008-2019), there have been 47 Tour stage wins, not to mention Simon Yates’s[4] Vuelta a España grand tour win and Chris Froome’s Giro d’Italia win in 2018. It is clear cycling has not only become more popular in Britain, the impact of this popularity has led to incredible British success on the global stage.

Just prior to the birth of Team Sky, Brailsford posed another question ‘What’s it going to take to win the road Worlds?’ and with that Project Rainbow Jersey came to be, with the wintry roads south of Manchester and the minds at the Manchester Velodrome meticulously setting conditions in place that would lead to Mark Cavendish donning the famous Rainbow Jersey in 2011, only the second British rider to do so after Tom Simpson in 1965.

As Team Sky grew, an international spotlight was shone on British Cycling and its Manchester HQ; with a budget exceeding the major players at World Tour level and a pattern of phenomenal success, global names were attracted to Team Sky and the Manchester Velodrome was again centre of attention. The sole host of track cycling’s Revolution Series from 2003-2012, and a regular host in subsequent years, the Manchester Velodrome began to make its name on the international track cycling scene, with Elia Viviani[5] also leading Sky’s foray into the series in 2015. In 2019, Manchester was added to the ‘Six Day Series’, a global tour of venues hosting six-day cycling throughout the year.

With Pinarello becoming the official bike provider for Team Sky and experiencing fantastic results as the bike provider for British Cycling between 2010-2016, the focus on Manchester as the UK’s cycling home brought Pinarello’s flagship UK store to Deansgate, securing Manchester a place in the fabric of the sport.

You only have to see the packed daily schedule for the Manchester Velodrome each day, notice the mass of cyclists taking to the road each weekend in the local area and view the immense presence of cycling in the national press to understand cycling’s role as a national past time. As a huge cycling fan and a cyclist myself, I knew a lot about the sport prior to researching and writing this piece and I understood the wealth of cycling heritage the UK has to offer, stretching back through the decades, yet until this piece I was not fully aware of how recently this awareness and knowledge has come into the mainstream. Cycling has always been in British culture but thanks to the Manchester Velodrome, it is there to see, to celebrate and to enjoy, for everybody. It’s safe to say that without the construction of the Manchester Velodrome 25 years ago, Britain and its sporting and recreational culture wouldn’t look quite the same as it does today.

Thank you to Manchester Central Library for the opportunity to delve into the Archives in order to write this piece. If you found this an interesting read, please take a look at the books and materials available at the Library for further reading, including autobiographies and information on the legacy of the 2002 Commonwealth Games in the city.

Blog written by Archives+ volunteer Julia Wardley-Kershaw

[1] professional 1989-2004, now Director Sportif at Movistar Team

[2] 2012 – Wiggins, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 – Froome, 2018 – Thomas, plus 4 other overall jersey classifications during this period 2011 – Cavendish, Green jersey, 2015 – Froome, Polka dots, 2016 – Adam Yates, White, 2017 – Simon Yates, White

[3] no wins between 1990-1993 and 2004-2007

[4] Former GB Academy rider, rides professionally for Mitchelton-Scott

[5] Elia Viviani (Italy) – Team Sky rider 2015-2017, Olympic Omnium champion -2016, Italian National Road Race Champion – 2018