Cycling director mixes pragmatism, versatility and determination, Andrew Alderson reports

Pragmatic, versatile and gregarious when required - those are the skills Mark Elliott will employ to help Cycling New Zealand count to five at the Rio Olympics.

The sport will receive $4.7 million of taxpayer money this year, and $17.5 million across the Olympic cycle.

Sometimes the budget even stretches to a High Performance Sport New Zealand "overdraft", as occurred with $251,000 in 2012. The quid pro quo? Five medals.

Elliott's team secured three at the London Games. Cycling New Zealand's key playing cards have expanded to the men's team sprint, individual sprinters, men's and women's team pursuits, time triallist Linda Villumsen and BMX rider Sarah Walker, if the latter can qualify a spot after a campaign hindered by a broken arm.


As the governing body's performance director, Elliott is renowned for assessing situations quickly and making optimal decisions with the available resources.

The assertion rings true. Take the example of Elliott and his wife Jude freezing in a Rome camping ground last century on their OE. Their tent wasn't exactly a blueprint for Housing New Zealand's insulation policy.

"We were biking around Europe," Elliott says. "It can be a bloody cold and inhospitable place during November. Two Aussies were sitting next door in a lovely Ford Transit. They felt sorry for us and invited us over for a cup of tea. They said 'we're off home and selling our camper van'. We didn't have much money but they only wanted 600 quid. We bought it, and put our bikes in the back."

In that sense, Elliott is Mr Number Eight Wire.

When he and Jude initially worked with New Zealand's top triathletes in European summers before the Sydney Olympics, they would ski in the French Alps over winter. He employed his physiotherapist skills among the chalets to make ends meet.

Elliott grew up in Oamaru. He left home at 16 to work as a graphic artist for the Lands and Survey Department and was made redundant twice. He used the second payout to do his university degree and a post-graduate diploma in sports medicine.

26 Apr, 2016 3:30pm
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He was a "wannabe athlete, but didn't have the genetics to excel". Years later that led to his appointment as the elite triathletes' physio. By the Sydney Games he was organising them. A part-time performance director role was created to dovetail with his medical practice.

"It became clear the sport didn't have the structure for athletes to perform. Politics got in the way. I ended up doing 20 hours a week and running my business for a year before getting the job fulltime in 2001.

"Rather than become a 'high performance manager' I've always considered myself a 'performance director'. I don't want to manage anything. If I wanted to be a manager, I'd work for a government department."

Around that time, Elliott also became coach of a developing athlete called Bevan Docherty. That led to one of the most memorable experiences in his working life at the Athens Olympics when his charge and Hamish Carter took silver and gold respectively.

"It started with transparency, recognising I'd be coaching the guy who would be Hamish's main competitor. We achieved something as a team. [Carter's coach Chris] Pilone and I were going around the roads hugging each other afterwards.

"Bevan had only dreamed of going to an Olympics to win a medal. Hamish had only dreamed of gold because he had failed at Sydney.

"It came down to respect for each other, working out who needed what and how that worked for the team.

"Hamish and Bevan did very little training together. They went for two-hour runs and trained in the pool but did all their hard road runs and rides independently. Hamish had Nathan Richmond as a training partner and Bevan had Kris Gemmell.

"The success came down to early planning decisions. I still remember sitting in a room at [Auckland University's] Tamaki campus with all the key players to work out what the ideal scenario would look like.

"There were a lot of challenging conversations, but if you don't have them you don't get performance. No one guy dictated terms."

Similar principles have applied in Elliott's tenure with Cycling New Zealand, but an uncompromising gene lurks. Take the controversy last year when Linda Villumsen defied her pro-team's orders and raced an unbranded rather than team-sponsored bike to win the time trial at the road cycling world championships.

"We knew from our modelling and wind tunnel tests that she was riding a bike which would get her eighth," Elliott says. "My job was to get her riding a bike to make her win. Her team couldn't provide that.

"I don't think they [UnitedHealthcare] thought we'd ever enforce the decision to use our bike rather than theirs. She won the title by almost three seconds.

"My job was to make sure the decision was implemented. That comes with trust. Linda's big on that. We did a debrief post-London where she was fourth [by 1.73s]. It wasn't so much a detail issue but about trusting those around her. All we've worked on the last three years is putting the right people around her."

Elliott's Rio ambitions are clear, but don't keep him awake at night. Compartmentalising was a strength he developed in his past working life.

"I'm passionate about the job and what I am trying to achieve but can step out of it quickly. I bike to and from work. I use the ride to step out of the environment.

"I think about high performance until I finish work, then it's about my wife and family [children 14-year-old Hamish and 11-year-old Manaia]. I'm lucky I can do that.

"I hardly ever have a bad sleep. I learned that as a physio. You work on one person, then someone else 30 minutes later. You can't be thinking about the next one because each client needs you. People can sense straight away if you are not engaged.

"I'm an introvert but can choose to be an extrovert, if that makes sense. I'm not comfortable in the limelight. I'm happier behind the scenes, trying to create success for other people."

Elliott, who owns a place in Wanaka but is based near the team's Cambridge Avantidrome base, says the only downside of working towards the Olympics is that he doesn't get to ski as much these days.

In fact his preferred habitat is much like the metaphorical challenge his team face in Rio. "I don't like flat mountains and I don't like groomed slopes. I like going off-piste and jumping off stuff."

If that's any guide, his charges should be well-prepared for Rio when they pedal into the unknown.