Sir Dave Brailsford has put Chris Froome’s success in the Tour de France largely down to a major rethink among Team Sky’s heads that was prompted by last year’s disastrous race when Froome crashed out early on and the team’s plan B failed to materialise.
Brailsford, the team’s general manager, described the 2014 race as “a horrible experience”, adding: “You’ve got to go through those horrific moments if you really want to get to big results. If you just want the middle ground, do all right, it’s all OK – that’s not what we want.” The defeat led to a realisation among the senior management that Sky had become set in their ways after three successful years.
“This time last year we drove six hours to Paris, phones off, and I grilled the management all the way: ‘What are we going to do to turn this round? This isn’t good enough, this isn’t what we are all about, this isn’t excellent.’ And excellence is what we are supposed to be all about.”
The core group around Brailsford consist of the head of performance operations Rod Ellingworth, the physiologist Tim Kerrison and Carsten Jeppesen, who is the team’s backroom principal, and it was among the four of them that the discussions took place. “We all looked very hard,” Brailsford said. “We’d been becoming pretty aligned over the last six years working together. If you gave us a problem we’d come back with the same answer, [we had lost] the cognitive diversity we had as a group. [Before] when I would say something, they would say ‘bollocks’, we’d argue a lot, there would be tension but we’d come up with some good ideas, constantly pushing forward.”
Brailsford has a reputation as a manager who is demanding to work with, who shakes up his colleagues, and who likes creative tension. The return to that was key, he felt. “It’s comfortable, everyone getting on but it wasn’t excellent. So if we want to change this we’re going to have to rock this boat, as uncomfortable as this is. It’s a pain in the arse to do it.
“It’s going to be stressful, it’s not going to be pleasant but ultimately you have to rock it from side to side, bring new people in who will question everything, ask why we are doing this, take us forward.”
One example of the staff brought in by the Team Sky head over the winter was the coach Simon Jones, who had worked with Brailsford at Great Britain until 2006 and had subsequently worked in Australian cycling, and is a forthright character who has no hesitation in voicing his opinions or ruffling feathers.
Another key to Sky’s success this year, Brailsford felt, was the recruitment of strong all-rounders to support Froome, riders who could swap roles depending on their form on a given day. “What tends to happen is someone will have a good day while someone has a bad day,” Brailsford said. “The next day it rotates. And if you have a strong enough engine room, versatile enough in terms of climbing ability and the flat, then it rotates, someone can always do that key job.”
The most obvious example of this was Geraint Thomas, who managed to support Froome through the flat stages in the first week, and most of the mountain stages as well, but there were others, Brailsford felt. “Wout Poels stepped up when he needed to but certain days he wasn’t quite there. He missed the front group two days ago on the descent – stopped for a piss in the wrong place. The peloton split and he jumped from one group to the other, nailed himself and paid for it on the climb. Nothing physical or technical, but the other guys stepped up.
“Leo König is a damn good time triallist. If necessary Leo could ride on the flat for a long, long time. And he did. On certain stages, he paced extremely well, that diesel pace for a long period of time. Instead of Nicholas Roche coming in just as a climber, which he can do, we asked him specifically not to lose too much weight, to keep his power. I wanted to use his power, strength, not just come purely as a mountain guy and he stepped up and delivered fantastically as well. He’s a strong rider, a fantastic all-rounder.”
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