At November’s Investec Track Day, cycling enthusiasts got the chance to ride alongside six-time Olympic gold medallist Jason Kenny at the Lee Valley VeloPark, the scene of Team GB’s all-conquering success in 2012. THE STAND caught up with Jason to talk teamwork, marginal gains and finding work-life balance.
Cycling has been one of the great British success stories of the past decade, and Jason Kenny is one of its leading characters. It speaks volumes about the quiet, unassuming way that Kenny has become one of Britain’s greatest sports stars that, when he retired from track cycling after the Rio Olympics in 2016, there was no fanfare, no press conference, no statement – nothing. In fact, it wasn’t until he returned to the sport around a year later that anyone officially knew he’d even quit cycling in the first place.
And Kenny proved that he hasn’t lost any of his edge when he won silver in the team sprint at the World Championships in February.
Finding sport-life balance
Reflecting upon his ‘retirement’, he says, “Since coming back, I’ve learned a lot more about balance. Particularly since having little Albert in our lives [Kenny and wife Laura – a four-time cycling gold medallist herself – welcomed their son in August 2017], we got a lot of distraction there. And I think it was important for me that I took a year off. In the past, I’d taken breaks, but I never really stepped away properly.
“Also, I think because I never planned on coming back, I properly stepped away and fully relaxed and refreshed. And then even though I was nearly 30, I was like a teenager trying to get back on the squad again. I started to really enjoy it and had that hunger.
“No matter what your job is, it’s important that you feel a part of the team, and I think that starts from the top down.”
“It’s important to take breaks and remember that life goes on. At the end of the day, it’s a bike race.”
Kenny briefly considered becoming a coach, but, at the age of 29, he knew he still had a lot more to offer on the track. Now all roads lead to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, where Kenny could become Britain’s greatest Olympian. He has won more golds than Sir Steven Redgrave and Sir Bradley Wiggins and is currently tied on six with Sir Chris Hoy. Overtaking former teammate Hoy could result in another invite from Buckingham Palace to add to his OBE from 2012 and CBE from 2016.
A central figure in Kenny’s story is Sir Dave Brailsford. Back in 2008, Brailsford was British Cycling’s performance director. He’s the one who picked 20-year-old Kenny for the Olympics ahead of two proven top-level performers.
Brailsford took practices that had been successful in the business world and applied them in a way that would work for cycling. His mantra was ‘forget about perfection; focus on progression and compound the improvements.’ It was about looking for ‘marginal gains’.
“Dave Brailsford was really good at employing the right people for the right job and letting them get on with it,” Kenny says. “He’s not somebody who stands over people all the time – he brings people together on the same page. That was something that I picked up on naturally just by being around him, and others like him within the team. That really drove it on and has given us the success that we’ve enjoyed in recent years.
“I’ve been really lucky in my time in cycling, because I came along just as marginal gains started as a concept. Everyone asks about the one thing Team GB has done that’s better than everyone else. But, actually, the one thing we’ve done is everything. We’ve ticked every box, no matter how little it seems.”
“I’ve learned in sport that everyone has a role to play,” Kenny adds. “Everyone’s part is important, and it doesn’t matter what your job is. We’ve had doctors fetching dirty laundry. If we’ve got a team where nobody is afraid to chip in and do whatever it takes, then I’m sure that’s more likely to be a successful team.
“I’ve also learned that leadership is important to inspire people, to bring a whole team together. No matter what your job is, it’s important that you feel a part of the team, and I think that starts from the top down.”
“Just because you made it there once doesn’t mean you’ll spend your whole career at the top. It’s a constant fight to stay ahead.”
But for those who only tend to watch the sport every four years, it’s worth remembering that Kenny doesn’t simply rock up to every major event and take home a medal. At the European Championships in August, the men’s sprint team was eliminated in the first round.
“You probably learn more in defeat than you do in success, where you might walk away and think ‘well, we got away with that one’,” he says. “It’s a constant battle. Just because you made it there once doesn’t mean you’ll spend your whole career at the top. It’s a constant fight to stay ahead.”
That said, he does seem to have this uncanny knack of peaking at the right time. “When you’re in the Olympics, you have no idea what’s happening. It doesn’t matter if it’s in London, Rio or Beijing, you’re in such a bubble you don’t really know what’s happening. Sure, it’s loud in the velodrome, but it’s always loud when you put 6,000 people in a little place. Then you come home and it’s a little bit surreal to take a look back.”
Driving the cycling movement
Track cyclists used to be the people you only heard about during the Olympics, and if you went back to a time before 2008, then the chance to ride with one of the team might not have generated too much interest beyond the sport’s core enthusiasts.
But the success of the Kennys, Hoy, Wiggins, Victoria Pendleton and more have inspired people to literally get on their bike.
“It’s good to be involved in such a positive sport,” Kenny says. “Cycling is good for keeping fit and for getting around in cities, as people are finding out in London a lot more!
“It’s really nice to be part of such a positive modern movement in Britain.”