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Why Jamie Staff turned down GB track return

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Ollie Williams | 07:30 UK time, Saturday, 18 February 2012

Great Britain have still not found anyone quite like Jamie Staff. So much so, he says, they tried to get him back.

"Even last year, at the World Championships, they were like, 'We want you back'. But I'd made other commitments and I love what I do," he recalls.

Staff, now 38, rode to gold with Sir Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny in the men's team sprint at the Beijing Olympics four years ago. Hoy and Kenny have fought on to London 2012 but Staff, troubled by injury and keen to see more of his family, called it a day.

The problem for British Cycling is that Staff's skill and pace as "man one" in the team sprint - the team's leader for the opening lap - were almost unparalleled. Replacing him has proved impossible in the years since his retirement.

Hoy and Kenny have been moved up and down the order, with others such as Matt Crampton and Ross Edgar shunted into the line-up, but the magic combination has yet to emerge.

Hence, Staff says, the offer to bring him back out of retirement and reunite the full, golden Beijing line-up. But by "other commitments" he means his new job, as a coach to the sprinters in the United States track cycling team.

Jamie Staff with Ross Edgar

Jamie Staff, in US coaching guise, chats to Ross Edgar, tasked with filling his GB shoes. Photo: Getty

He now lives in southern California's Orange County, far removed from his years spent at British Cycling's base in Manchester. The drive to abandon his coaching career and return to cycling for Britain, even at a home Olympics, did not exist.

"My wife's spent most of her adult life in California and she found it pretty hard being over in the UK, living somewhere notorious for being pounded by rain," says Staff. "I was away travelling and racing; she was at home with two young kids, in a village, with rain. She struggled and it got hard.

"I miss certain things - like road rides in the countryside, because LA is a concrete jungle - but I don't know whether my back would have coped with more riding, and, more than that, you have to want it.

"You've got to want it more than anything else, and that's what people don't realise. You've got to want to do it and I was ready to move on, to be a family man and be there for my wife. There's more to life than just sport."

That may be, but Staff has remained within his sport to coach a US outfit which, he says, needs much the same treatment as the British team of a decade ago. He has been given both the budget and the backing. Now he is set for the long haul, charged with turning American track cycling into something resembling Britain's successful programme.

Doing so means watching the British at work. While filming the GB team sprinters in their qualifying heat at the Olympic Velodrome on Friday, Staff felt an odd pang of disappointment at no longer playing his part in that success story.

"For the first time, watching GB get on the line for the team sprint qualifier, I actually missed racing," he says. "I was standing there, filming it, and I wished I was up there.

"Part of me wants to go out there, still be in front of the crowd and enjoy every moment of that. But a big part wants to move on."

British Cycling could not confirm that Staff had been approached last year. But, if Staff did turn down the opportunity to rejoin his team sprint colleagues, he is certainly not short of opinions on how Britain - who won bronze in the event on Friday - can best replace him.

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Highlights: GB men's team sprint win bronze in Olympic Velodrome

"Even I was surprised. I was expecting someone would be able to step up when I retired," he says. "And I know Jason Kenny can do it. He could go out there and I've no doubt he could go as quick, possibly even quicker than me in man one. But then that leaves another spot empty.

"I would personally put Jason at one, Ross [Edgar, currently riding in Staff's old position] at two and Chris in three. The time they would gain from Jason in one is better than the couple of tenths they might lose with Ross in two."

Has he suggested this to his former employers?

"I met [performance director] Dave Brailsford and [coach] Shane Sutton in the hotel the other night and mentioned it. The coaches know what they're doing; they're not silly. They're trying different combinations.

"To me, though, it's obvious. I know Jason doesn't enjoy riding at one - he says he doesn't get to go fast enough - but at the end of the day you're out for medals, not to enjoy yourself."

In his career, Staff managed both. He can quickly pinpoint all sorts of tiny moments from that glorious day in Beijing: snapshots of panic on reaching the Olympic final, a calming chat with psychologist Steve Peters, strange tranquility in the seconds before the race, then jubilant phone calls to family having stepped down from the podium.

"Every year got better and better. We're looking at each other each time saying, 'Seriously, this cannot be happening'. Even we were surprised," he says.

"I was so fortunate, it was an amazing time to be a part of British Cycling. I email Chris Hoy still, now and then. We had our good times; we're still good friends.

"And it's a shame because, for the likes of Chris, London 2012 is his last race - probably - and he might not be able to double or triple up.

"But I'm not going to put it on my shoulders," Staff adds with a smile. "They may have failed in terms of getting someone new, but I haven't let them down."


  • Comment number 1.

    After the Beijing Olympics Brailsford said, ”We can’t do the same things for the next four years. We’ve got to stimulate coaches to come up with new ideas.”

    From the past three years, it’s painfully obvious from every interview that they failed to find better methods to eliminate the debilitating training injuries. Many missed races and below par performances can be attributed to the Team’s obsession with lifting big weights. Does this blind faith in brute strength have its roots in 2008? I suspect it does.

    In a sport noted for being low-impact - i.e. predominantly high cadence - standing up with a maximum weight on your shoulders is barely relevant, even for riding 1 lap from a standing start. Yet Chris Boardman insists that training for ‘man one’ is “just weight-lifting”. That may be the widely held conventional wisdom, but it’s still arrant nonsense.

    As Jamie, Victoria and many others have learnt to their cost, it’s bad for your back. Why didn’t they adopt more sensible strength exercises years ago? It beggars belief. Recently, Vicky revealed that common sense has at last prevailed; “The compression on my spine was causing me a lot of issues, so I cut them out completely.” Even so, squats are still “considered the gold standard of exercises” for cycling.

    You can see the inevitable consequences of this ignorant dogma every time any rider’s technique degenerates into fighting the bike i.e. good coordination is lost, due to a lack of appropriate skill training.

  • Comment number 2.

    Brilliant point Dave Smart. In hindsight, they did all right at the weekend though.

    It's a pretty extreme sport and the body is going to get punished try to improve physical areas above what can be achieved only training on a bike. The No.1 position clearly needs something special for the acceleration to allow high cadence as quick as possible. This is a sport of 100th of a second margins, there is no room for a slow start. However, only those resilient enough can deal with the training required, for perhaps a shorter career?

    Having read Pendleton's recent interview, what she did instead of squats obviously works for her. Perhaps there is another way for everyone else too?

    And for Brailsford, perhaps 4 years was not enough and whilst working on other projects thus reducing the number new ideas implemented in training.

    Sky Pro Cycling had a good weekend too, so the future looks promising.

  • Comment number 3.

    It’s refreshing to find anyone prepared to discuss this stuff, so thanks for that Gavin. Challenging convention is a minority sport, even when you try to keep things firmly rooted in the scientific method.

    Actually no, the body needn’t be “punished” to be strong enough, even for the “extreme” demands of riding ‘man one’. That’s my point. The physics says you choose a lower gear to accelerate faster, yet what did the girls do? They used a higher gear for the final. Great, a new world record, but still we should be asking the question - was that because of the high gear or in spite of it? Logically, one can argue for Jess to reduce the ratio and raise her cadence to, say 170 by the end of the lap. If she can’t do that, it’s a lack of technique, not a lack of strength. A focus on perfecting biomechanical skill would be far more productive.

    It’s reasonable to argue for Vicky to use a higher gear than Jess as she can wind it up gradually, but just look at the way she’s fighting the bike, wasting precious energy, never getting ‘on top of’ the gear. Why don’t the coaches see, that’s just not good enough, and work on improving THAT aspect of performance. The rider should be in harmony with their machine - I think that’s fundamental.

    That was one of the highlights of a great weekend, but the sprint and keirin were rather lacklustre, weren’t they. The fatigue kicks in sooner, when your pedalling’s not in tune. We see that in other events too, especially the omnium.

    The Guardian published two pages of ‘Victoria’s diary’ for January 2009. The gym sessions mention leg curls - good for cyclist’s hamstrings, but also include power cleans and squats, which should have been dropped in favour of the leg press. I matched my strength training to the specific skill of pedalling over 40 years ago, by building myself special equipment for the job. I offered to supply a new one to the Manchester gym, but Jamie Staff and Iain Dyer turned me down. I never could figure out why.

    Now slowly, the Team are beginning to see sense, because of the injuries, which I warned them about years ago.

    This link goes back to basics:-

    And this one examines a single issue - how do you mix road and track?


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