I became seriously involved in this sport in 2008, when I covered my first World Championships. For the next 10 years, you could predict who would be the next great power in the Men’s Team Pursuit by looking around the track centre to see which team Heiko Salzwedel was working for.
Over the course of those 10 years, Heiko became a good friend – one of the people I didn’t have to seek out for a quote because he’d grab me as I walked past and talk animatedly for 20 minutes before we both remembered we had other things to do. From the start he was patient with my naïve questions and ignorant assumptions – and, over time, hugely enthusiastic when he finally felt that I got it.
But by the time I got to know him, he’d been already been at the top of his game for over 12 years.
Salzwedel coached the DDR team pursuit squad to their last Gold medal at the World Championships in Lyon in 1989 and when the Berlin wall fell in 1989, it unleashed Heiko on the world. In 1990 he moved to Australia as the New South Wales Elite coach and in 1991 launched a road cycling programme, based in Canberra and part of the legendary medal factory that is the Australian Institute of Sport. By 1993, it was Australia taking Gold in Hamar and again in 1995 in Bogotá.
In 1998 he moved to Manchester as part of British Cycling’s lottery-funded program to replicate the AIS model. Progress was slower with Silver in Manchester in 2000 and again in Antwerp in 2001. Bronze in Copenhagen in 2002 confirmed that the British team was now a permanent fixture on the podium. It was Silver again in 2003 and 2004 before, finally, in 2005 in Los Angeles the squad took the Gold.
The GB team that Heiko built looked unstoppable by then, but the man himself had moved on – joining the Danish team in 2005. In 2006, Denmark finished 10th. In Palma, they took the Bronze and in 2008 the Silver, in Manchester – beaten only by a GB team that set a World Record in front of a home crowd and would go on to take Gold and set another World Record at the Olympics in Beijing – beating the Danes in the Final.
Denmark took Gold in the Worlds in Pruszkow the following year – by which time Heiko was in his second spell at British Cycling and by 2010 – ironically in Copenhagen – Great Britain was on the top step again.
Russia were now on the rise – taking Silver in Apeldoorn in 2011 – so who else would they turn to but Salzwedel? Officially working for trade team Rusvelo – whose riders were, in effect, the national team – he masterminded a couple of World Cup wins but it wasn’t a happy time for him and by 2014 he was back in Manchester. At the start of the year – before he rejoined the team – Great Britain had finished eighth in the TP at Cali; by 2015 they took the Silver in Paris and they took it again in 2016 in London. The goal, though, was the Rio Olympics and, once again, it was Gold and another new World Record.
The Team Pursuit is a great marker of his influence, but his impact across endurance track cycling – all of track cycling – and road cycling was remarkable. In 2015 he helped Wiggins to break the World Hour Record. During his time at the AIS he kick-started the careers of Robbie McEwen, Cadel Evans, Henk Vogels, Matt White and Kathy Watt, and at the T-Mobile Development Programme helped develop Mark Cavendish, Ed Clancy, Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard.
The bond with Cavendish was particularly strong. I talked to Heiko in Hong Kong in 2016 in the run-up to the games. Much of the conversation was about MarkCavendish’s bid to represent Great Britain in the Omnium at the Rio Olympics and he was brutally honest. He talked about the Manxman’s journey with that mix of pride and frustration usually reserved for a father talking about a son. But he got him there – and got him a Silver medal.
Then, sadly, in 2017 it all came crashing down around him – dragged down by association with Shane Sutton and Bradley Wiggins as the jiffy-bag scandal and allegations of a toxic culture within the team led to a clear-out of coaching staff.
Heiko was understandably bitter about the way he had been treated, but when I met him at the World Cup in Berlin in 2018 – working with a young German squad under the Track Team Brandenburg team banner – it was as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He seemed as happy as had done for a long time.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Heiko Salzwedel shaped the modern Team Pursuit – and, to a large extent, track cycling itself in the ‘indoor’ era. I’d go so far as to say that Heiko was the greatest coach the sport has ever seen and, in terms of his long-term impact, possibly the best it will ever see.
Our thoughts are with his wife and his two sons.