WHEN cyclist Zach Bell and coach Richard Wooles first started working together in the leadup to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Wooles said some things the young rider had never heard before.
Both were recent arrivals to North Vancouver. Bell, a native of Watson Lake, Yukon and a member of the national cycling team, came to the North Shore in early 2008 long on talent but short on results. Wooles, a former world class rider for Great Britain, arrived that same year with a much longer resumé that included stints as head coach of the British women's cycling team and as a coach at the International Cycling Union's World Cycling Centre in Switzerland.
The highly experienced Wooles, who moved here to become head of provincial programs for Cycling B.C. and quickly added head coach of Canada's national track cycling team to his duties, saw a lot of potential in Bell and let him know about it.
"A lot of the things he was saying to me, I kind of thought they were unbelievable," says Bell, recalling those first conversations. "He was telling me, 'You're capable of winning medals. I've seen guys in other programs with a lot fewer tools than you have.' For me it was like, 'Come on, you don't have to butter me up. I still want to work with you.'"
Bell, still very raw and cycling in his first Olympic Games, showed flashes of that potential in Beijing, placing seventh in the points race. Four years later he is a now a favourite to win a medal at the 2012 Games beginning in London in a little more than a week, and Wooles is the man who has helped take him there. Wooles, in fact, has taken a lot of people along for the ride the past four years, building the Canadian track cycling team from nearly nothing into an outfit that - with the likes of Bell, Tara Whitten and Jasmin Glaesser - is being counted upon to contribute to Canada's medal tally in London.
It's been a massive turnaround for a team that arrived in Beijing with just three athletes, one coach and nothing else - there wasn't even a mechanic to take care of their bikes.
"It was a phenomenal group of people trying to do a professional job without any tools," says Wooles about the state of the program when he took over before the 2008 Games. "They didn't have anything at all. It was great coaches, great athletes but there were no systems in place. They didn't have any of the basics there at all."
The first step for Wooles was finding those tools. For instance, he was shocked to hear about the lack of actual track time the cyclists had received. Bell was off the charts in fitness tests but the results didn't show up in races.
"It was like, 'Wow, this guy's amazing,'" says Wooles. "But it was (also) like, 'Why do you suck so bad?' When you get to talk to him afterward it was like, 'Well, I don't get to ride a track.' It's like saying you're going to play on an indoor hockey rink but you're training on a frozen lake. You need some facilities, you need some time on the wood, you need to get used to going 60, 70 kilometres per hour."
Wooles went about adding sponsors and raising funds. Eventually
enough was raised to open a training base in Los Angeles and to bring in more coaches, support staff and technicians.
With worries about equipment and facilities taken out of the way, Wooles went to work on the athletes.
"Pretty much every prediction he made about what I was capable of has come to fruition," says Bell, who won the World Championship title in his new event, the omnium, in 2010 and took home the World Cup title as the best omnium rider of the year in 2011. "He says things that he definitely believes to be true about the program or a rider and he says them in a very matter-of-fact kind of way. For me he said, 'You can win a world medal,' when at that point I had clearly not done anything remotely close to that. Knowing that someone has that kind of belief in what they're doing and belief in your capabilities can be a bit intimidating because suddenly you're kind of accountable.
"In sport it's easy to go through and say at the end of your career, 'Ah, I could have been a contender.' But when somebody with that much belief in your capabilities comes to you and says something like that, especially somebody who is as experienced as he is, you're suddenly kind of accountable to your own talent."
Bell now relishes the spot he's in heading into the London Games.
"There's definitely more pressure but I don't view it as a negative - I like the fact that there's a bit more control, I know that it's a bit more in my hands, whereas last time I was just going to be chasing guys and hoping for the best," he says. "As a kid I never thought I'd be going to the Olympics as a contender and that's something that Richard has helped me do. . . . I'm definitely going to go there with the idea of getting on the podium and I think I'm a contender for the top spot."
That's just what Wooles wants to hear - the more success the team has in London the easier it will be to expand the program even more.
"I'm not just (coaching Team Canada) because I like these riders, I'm doing it because I think you need to build from the top and you also need to build from the bottom," he says. "If you don't have any headliners at the top, other people aren't interested in coming into the sport."
Though the team has improved leaps and bounds since Beijing, there's still a long way to go.
"I would say we're on Level 3 of 10 levels. We were on Level 1 before," says Wooles, adding that he was discouraged at times by the struggle to find funding but ultimately inspired to keep going by the support he found in B.C., particularly from companies on the North Shore like Haywood Securities and Adera Development Corp.
Moving from the cycling powers of Europe to the biking backwater of British Columbia has been a challenge but he is here for the long haul, says Wooles.
"When you've been somewhere and driven a Formula 1 car and then are given a Ford Fiesta, it's like wow, it's going to take a while to get back up to the horsepower that we really need," he says. "We're getting there."