April 28, 2016 / 1:13 PM / a year ago

Britain's medal machine scrambling to repair damage

LONDON (Reuters) - British Cycling was rummaging around for the puncture repair kit on Thursday after technical director Shane Sutton's resignation left the track powerhouse deflating like a shredded inner tube on the road to Rio.

Less than 100 days before the start of the Olympic Games, the team that enjoyed medal bonanzas in Beijing and London is reeling from Wednesday's departure of Sutton, a key cog in Britain's rise to cycling superpower, over allegations of discrimination, sexism and bullying.

Straight-talking Australian Sutton, who became a father figure to Britain's first Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, had been suspended earlier in the week after British Cycling announced an independent review of its performance programs in the wake of mounting disquiet over the 58-year-old's leadership.

Jess Varnish, the rider who sparked the current meltdown when she claimed Sutton told her "to go and have a baby" after being dropped from the squad, said at the heart of British Cycling's slick exterior was a "culture of fear".

Other have come out in support of the 25-year-old, including Olympic champions Victoria Pendleton and Nicole Cooke.

"I know exactly how miserable they made me," former sprint queen Pendleton, told British media this week.

Paralympic cyclist Darren Kenny said Sutton, 58, described para-cyclists as "gimps" and "wobblies" -- terms often used in good humor by Paralympic athletes amongst themselves.

Others within the team, including Rio road race medal hope Geraint Thomas have leapt to Sutton's defense while the likes of Wiggins and Mark Cavendish, who have both returned to the track for one final tilt at Olympic glory, remain fiercely loyal to the coach who helped transform their careers.

Olympic champion Laura Trott, too, describes her dealings with Sutton as "wholly positive".

Divisions and splits in the camp are hardly ideal preparation for a team already under pressure to try and emulate the success of Beijing and London where they easily topped the cycling medals table, winning eight golds at each.

To add to the toxic mix, media reports on Thursday said expensive British Cycling kit, including race bikes worth thousands of pounds, was being sold online for profit.

UK Sport, which has funded British Cycling to the tune of 30 million pounds ($43.69 million) in the four-year Rio cycle, ordered an urgent investigation into the claims.

OMINOUS SIGNS

Yet, at last month's UCI track championships in London everything was looking rosy and there were ominous signs that the British team was moving through the gears just in time for Rio.

Olympic champions Trott and Jason Kenny blasted to gold in the omnium and sprint respectively.

Euphoric scenes reminiscent of London 2012 greeted Wiggins and Cavendish as they snatched the Madison gold in thrilling fashion.

The feelgood factor was palpable and Sutton, who stepped up from head coach to the top job when Beijing and London mastermind Dave Brailsford quit to concentrate on Team Sky in 2014, seemed on track to deliver a healthy Rio medal haul and justify UK Sport's huge investment.

His departure breaks another link in the chain though.

Brailsford, whose "marginal gains" obsession transformed the team's fortunes, is busy running Team Sky while sports psychology guru Steve Peters is no longer working with the team.

Now Sutton, who has denied all the allegations leveled at him, is gone too and the wheels are in danger of falling off.

"Any team would miss a coach of his caliber and inevitably this will be a loss to the organization at this time in the Olympic cycle," Brailsford said this week.

Andy Harrison, formerly the programs director for British Cycling, has stepped into the breach and will try and steer the team back on the right track.

($1 = 0.6867 pounds)

Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar

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