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Cycling Australia continued on its phase of renewal this week, announcing it had appointed Team Sky’s Simon Jones to head its high performance unit as it seeks to restore the nation to its former role as an Olympic cycling force.
It’s a move that harks back to British Cycling’s days of poaching Australians and modelling the system on that of its former colony, yet now the tables have turned.
It hasn’t been the easiest of patches for Cycling Australia. In the past few years the national cycling body has had to dig itself out of a financial hole and face a performance decline, which saw the once dominant cycling nation fail to meet expectations at the latest Olympics. Australia won just two cycling medals in the 2016 Summer Olympics, while Great Britain won 12, quite a contrast to 2004 when Australia won 11 and Great Britain four.
Jones, who spent 12 years at British Cycling, was one of the coaches credited for ushering in the turnaround to an era of British cycling strength. Cycling Australia now hopes that the dual-citizen, who will start as high performance director on April 3, can transform the fortunes of Australia with a philosophy of marginal gains and continuous improvement.
“Everybody of course would like better results,” Jones told CyclingTips. “And let’s make it clear, I’m only here for one reason. I’m only taking this job because I want to win – I’m not here for the t-shirt and the suntan.”
The announcement of Jones as a replacement for Kevin Tabotta, who has gone to Orica-Scott, comes just a day after the news that former Victorian premier Steve Bracks will chair the Cycling Australia board.
Duncan Murray was also appointed deputy chair and Steven Drake added to the board.
There has been plenty of change afoot, perhaps signalling a shift in phase from a team that is focussed on the stabilisation of the financially strained organisation to one that can look to building a sustainable future. However, Jones said it wasn’t as if he was coming in with an attitude that there wasn’t value in the current set up, as he was a “massive admirer” of the Australian system; after all it was the one that British Cycling used as a model.
“I want to go in with the team and really listen hard. There are a lot of good people, good athletes, good coaches and good support,” said Jones, who spent six years in Australia and worked at the Western Australian Institute of Sport.
Most recently head of performance support and innovation at Team Sky, Jones is a big believer in marginal gains, continuous improvement and exploiting data to improve performance, but he said the decisions about how to move forward aren’t going to be his alone.
“I’m going to take an approach that we have got to get buy in from the coaches and the athletes so certainly its not going to be just my opinion and my ideas. We’re going to go on this journey together.”
Controversy, compassion and equality
Jones, who has a sports science background, is shifting from Britain at a time when performance may be good, but other issues are casting a shadow. In particular an independent review is underway at British Cycling looking into the culture of the organisation. This comes after former British Cycling technical director Shane Sutton – an Australian who was also named in the media as a contender for the Cycling Australia high performance role – had a complaint against him of using inappropriate and discriminatory language upheld.
Jones said he didn’t observe that behaviour in his time at British Cycling but “I think my opinion on this is probably less important than that fact there’s an ongoing process and that it’s been dealt with by the authorities.”
The question Jones was happy to answer is how he intends to help shape an equitable, fair and encouraging environment for female athletes at Cycling Australia. Part of this he said is an athlete focussed culture which deals with people in a genuinely compassionate way.
“We’re dealing with people. This is about people, not just numbers and power outputs and speeds,” said the father of two teenage girls.
He said as a parent he is strong on providing an equal opportunity in life for his daughters, and his thoughts on equality in a sporting setting reflect that mindset.
“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough, if you hit the standards and display the characteristics, the behaviours, follow the code of conduct and all the other policies that we need to have … and do things in the right way, then you can be part of the program.”
That clash: “I’ve learnt lessons along the way.”
Jones has had to deal with some controversy of his own and has learnt first hand what can happen when an athlete doesn’t feel like they were treated with compassion. One of the things you’ll find if you go and type his name into a search engine is Mark Cavendish’s opinion of Jones, as a man he detests. Cavendish said this in his book, which details multiple exchange in the early 2000’s, one about eating too many chocolate bars.
“We had a clash and I think that’s quite common in high performance,” said Jones. “I’ve learnt lessons along the way, and I think it’s these people that really stand out … you know they don’t do things in the normal way.”
“I think you have to have a flexibility in your approach. You have to know how to deliver the message. I think I’m better at that now than I used to be. I’ve improved a lot in that,” he added.
The money is what it is
Jones worked with British Cycling until 2007, but now its going to be his competition, and competition with much deeper pockets at that. The organisation has the benefit of yearly revenue of more than double that of Cycling Australia. His latest workplace, Team Sky, is also renowned for being incredibly well-resourced. So how will Jones handle the prospect of slimmer budgets and still get results?
“I think we need to stop worrying about the money and think about what it takes to win – think about the strategy and what we need to prioritise,” said Jones. “I think if we work backwards from each gold medal and in detail break it down. What is it going to take? What resources do we need?”
“The money is what it is,” he added matter of factly. “I wouldn’t be doing the job unless I felt that we had sufficient resources, quality athletes and coaches that can actually get results and win.”