Andy Sparks Interview: Track worlds, guiding medal winners and contenders plus the need for clean sport.
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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Andy Sparks Interview: Track worlds, guiding medal winners and contenders plus the need for clean sport.

by Shane Stokes at 4:48 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews
 
‘My viewpoint for a number of years is that men’s road cycling should be removed from the Olympics’

andy sparksFormer US Olympic coach Andy Sparks is well known for his work with Sarah Hammer but also helps guide many other riders in their buildup to World Cup, world championship and Olympic track races.

The current worlds campaign got off to a successful start yesterday with Hammer taking her fifth individual pursuit career gold at the championships in Minsk, Belarus. Another of the riders he coaches, Caroline Ryan of Ireland, was fifth in the same race, while Ryan’s compatriot Martyn Irvine is amongst those who will race today.

Through his Performance United business, Sparks works with a group of riders from different nations from the company’s base in Mallorca. Of those, Hammer, Ryan and Irvine are competing in the worlds, as are David Muntaner and Albert Torres (Spain), Sofia Arreola (Mexico), Bernard Esterhuizen (South Africa) and the Korean Min Hye Lee.

“Through a lot of hard work, over the past three years we have produced the first-ever Korean world champion, the first-ever South African world champion, the first-ever Turkish European Champion, the first Irish worlds medallist in 100 years and the first US Olympic track cycling medals in twelve years,” he said. “It has been a tremendous amount of work by everyone involved but the results have made it all worth it.”

VeloNarion spoke to Sparks in the build-up to the worlds. In the interview below he talks about Performance United and its work, the build-up for the championships, his riders’ form this year and his expectations for the worlds.

He also comments at length on the Lance Armstrong situation and doping in the sport, saying that a no tolerance approach is needed and those who broke the rules should not receive concessions or sympathy.

He also believes the officials that were in place during the time of Armstrong and US Postal need to be held accountable. “I think as a whole, if you were complicit and knew what was happening for the last 15 years and did nothing about it; there should be no place for you in our sport,” he explained.

“People with previous involvement with drugs are a liability our sport cannot afford as they pose a risk to contaminate our young cyclists. People who truly believe in clean sport need to take a stand now. For our sports survival, the time for being politically correct is over.”

In fact, Sparks argues that men’s road cycling should be removed from the Olympic Games in order to provide real leverage for lasting change.

VeloNation: First off, Andy, you will have several athletes competing at the track world championships. You’ve previously been the US Olympic track coach but now guide many riders from different countries. Can you talk about your operation in Mallorca and what that involves?

andy sparksAndy Sparks: For the past two years we have been running our high-performance training centre, Performance United, in Mallorca, Spain. Currently we are providing coaching services to the National teams of Ireland, South Africa, Korea, Mexico, USA and Spain.

Our overall coaching structure aims to provide the world’s best training structure and environment in every category and for every individual athlete. Performance United is the only training centre in the world where development riders can train side by side with Olympians and World Champion riders. We believe we are the only performance centre where a young female cyclist from Korea can get mentored and guided by Sarah Hammer.

Specifically, our main customer demographics are small budget national programs that have very talented athletes but are in need of guidance and structure. So that’s what we primarily do, we help guide and empower them to get out of their comfort zone and think bigger. We really push them to work towards the same level of success that larger and bigger budgeted teams achieve.

Most of our smaller countries do not have the resources, equipment, infrastructure and depth of riders to do everything themselves. We solve this by bringing everyone together to work together as one large team working towards mutual goals. The experience has been very rewarding and successful.

Through a lot of hard work, over the past three years we have produced the first-ever Korean world champion, the first-ever South African world champion, the first-ever Turkish European Champion, the first Irish worlds medallist in 100 years and the first US Olympic track cycling medals in twelve years. It has been a tremendous amount of work by everyone involved but the results have made it all worth it.

VN: How has the season gone so far? Are you happy with the riders’ preparation for the worlds, and who are going particularly well at this point?

andy sparksAS: Our progression since the Olympics has been steady and consistent.

Our first race of the season was the Scotland World Cup, which was a great success with Martyn Irvine and our Spanish rider, David Muntaner, filling out two thirds of the World Cup pursuit podium. Martyn clocked a six second PR in the process, crossing the line for silver with a 4K pursuit time of 4.22.

Not only is the time fantastic but this is also his first-ever World Cup medal. Both he and I were ecstatic and it seems that when it rains it pours as he finished out the weekend with a matching set, securing another silver medal in the scratch race.

Following this race Martyn headed off to start working with his new professional team, United HealthCare. The team director is a close friend of mine and Martyn will fit into this team well. They are also committed to Martyn’s results on the track.

VN: What have the riders planned for the build-up to the worlds?

AS: We arrived back from the Mexico World Cup on January 21st. The race went very well with our international group of cyclist recording a total of five new national records. Sarah won her seventh straight World Cup Omnium and finished up with the overall World Cup Omnium title, which is actually a first in her career.

Other highlights include our South African sprinter, Bernard Esterhuizen, who lit the Mexican track ablaze by setting a new South African national record by ½ a second in a time of 9.7 seconds for 200m.

One of our Spanish endurance riders, David Muntaner, was set to win his 3rd World Cup medal of the year (and take the World Cup overall title) when disaster struck and he crashed in one of the final Omnium events breaking his collarbone in four places. That’s really too bad as he was on great form, setting career-best performances in both the flying lap (13.1 seconds) and individual pursuit (4.20) as well as winning the points race by gaining four laps on the field.

So from today we pretty much have two weeks before we will depart to Belarus [note – this interview took place earlier this month – ed.]. For this week we had a big endurance build and then next week we will move back to the track for some more specific work.

VN: What do you believe is possible from each rider?

AS: I think you will see a lot of surprises this year at the world championships. I think this will be a year where future champions will be identified and I think we have some riders who will stand out.

Sarah is still motivated and has the goal to win at least one medal at the championships. Exactly what races she will do have not been finalized but the Omnium is confirmed.

Martyn is on track for a fine performance in the scratch and pursuit. I would have liked for him to get more specific pursuit work in but now it will come down to balancing team obligations with the time we can get him for the track. I dream of seeing him on the podium for the scratch race and he is very motivated.

Caroline Ryan is getting better and better as the year goes on and we don’t know exactly how the track will run in Minsk so it is hard to predict times but I expect her to have her best-ever result in the pursuit. Her training block from Mexico to Worlds has been her best and most consistent of the year, so all looks good for a great result in the pursuit. Caroline will be lining up in three races – the pursuit, scratch and points race. She won the bronze in the points race last year so anything is possible for the points and scratch race.

VN: As the 2008 US Olympic track coach, what is your current assessment of the Lance saga?

AS: I honestly think it is time for those who truly believe in clean sport to stand up and say these guys knowingly broke the rules and should be penalized for their actions. In my opinion the argument is pretty black and white with no grey in between.

My feeling is these guys made their decision and have to pay the consequences for those decisions. It’s simple. Additional words are only hyperbole and clutter the argument. It’s not about 1 person or 100 people. Did you know the rules? Did you break the rules? Was it ultimately your decision? 100 people breaking the rules does not suddenly make something okay.

And I do say bravo to the teams that are actually doing something about the problem, first and foremost, Team Sky and British Cycling. Their actions are showing that they are serious by appointing directors, such as Dan Hunt, who are not contaminated from the old doping culture. A radical paradigm shift is never painless but now is the time for change.

Having said all of that, I think the current crisis is much more of a USA Cycling problem than a UCI problem. I think as a whole, if you were complicit and knew what was happening for the last 15 years and did nothing about it; there should be no place for you in our sport.

As a coach, should I tell a parent their child should be involved in a sport when some disaster and controversy can happen and yet the same people who oversaw the debacle stay in their positions. No way. That would not be responsible of me as a coach.

Young riders should be seen by coaches and national governing body leaders as their children that they are responsible for; their best assets. People with previous involvement with drugs are a liability our sport cannot afford as they pose a risk to contaminate our young cyclists. People who truly believe in clean sport need to take a stand now. For our sports survival, the time for being politically correct is over.

My viewpoint for a number of years is that men’s road cycling should be removed from the Olympics. I think this would solve many of our current problems and force more support where it is needed most – women’s cycling and other disciplines such as track cycling and mountain biking. Men’s road cycling can stand on its own now.

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