New Australia cycling boss pledges 'compassionate' approach

Talek HARRIS
Cycling Australia's new high-performance director Simon Jones (C) with the team at the Track Cycling World Championships in Hong Kong

Cycling Australia'snew high-performance director Simon Jones has pledged to put riders first rather than obsess about medals as he sets about taking the country to the very top of the sport.

The Briton, a veteran of British Cycling and Team Sky -- both highly successful but recently controversial -- said a "compassionate" approach was ultimately more effective than treating riders like "robots".

"We have to treat each other with respect but we need to be honest and challenge each other," Jones told AFP ahead of the Track Cycling World Championships in Hong Kong.

"High-performance environments are an uncomfortable place to be, because it's not about the status quo, we're constantly looking for improvement.

"But I think there's a way we can do that in which we put the person first. We're all human beings -- we're not machines, we're not robots... we (can't) just think mechanistically around the medals, and forget there's a human being.

"They're on a journey, we're all on journeys here and ultimately they've got to love what they do."

Jones said his approach had been indelibly shaped by his experiences in Britain, whose riders won six gold medals -- three times more than any other country -- at last year's Olympics.

However, British Cycling has been in turmoil after claims of sexism and bullying, while Team Sky, where Jones has spent the last two years, has hit trouble over the drugs records of 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins.

- Marginal gains -

Jones said he would implement a refined form of the "marginal gains" philosophy made famous by Team Sky's ex-British Cycling supremo Dave Brailsford, where small advantages in a wide range of areas are said to make a big difference in competition.

Somewhat surprisingly Wiggins, a five-time Olympic gold medallist and a long-time collaborator with Brailsford, recently rounded on marginal gains, calling it "a load of rubbish".

"Marginal gains is about continuous improvement. I think marginal gains can be applied to quite a mechanistic (way)... but this game is about people," Jones said.

He added: "It's about each and every person understanding their role and how they can improve, and most importantly we need to improve in the biggest gain areas.

"As opposed to looking at marginal gains across the board, we've got to be quite clever about where we focus on improvement. The trick is often leaving things out on purpose... and it will be different for different people at different times."

Jones, who only started his new job last week, began his career as a sports scientist with British Cycling in 1995 before rising to head coach by the 2004 Olympics. He also worked at the Western Australia Institute of Sport from 2007-2013.

He is taking charge at the start of a new chapter for Australia after the retirement of two-time Olympic champion Anna Meares, and following a disappointing Rio campaign where the team failed to win any gold medals.

"This to me is the best job in the world. And I want the athletes to feel think that when they're in training and it's difficult and they have a bad day, they still can step back and think, 'I just love this'," Jones said.

"Unless you love what you do, I don't think you can be the best in the world... Unless you engage, you're not going to value-add, you're not going to go the extra mile, and that's what you need to do in high performance.

"It's a tough environment, we have to be honest about that. But we can deliver that in as compassionate a perspective as possible."