The image of Chris Froome on foot running up Mont Ventoux will define this race but tactically the sight that sums it up is of a knot of cyclists in black clustered around the yellow jersey.
It is six years since Dave Brailsford’s Team Sky made a hesitant debut at the 2010 Tour de France, but since then they have become the Tour squad par excellence, taking three yellow jerseys in four years with a fourth on the way.
Just how critical team support is in the Tour was thrown into stark relief when the race went downhill on slippery roads in the Alps and Froome crashed. The helicopter images showed those black jerseys all round him, with Geraint Thomas handing over his bike. With the Sky team car well behind the lead group, had Froome been alone the Tour could have been lost as the leader’s bike was unusable. Instead it was Thomas joking that he thought it might be his turn to run.
One of Froome’s most telling comments during the Tour was: “If I was riding for a small team it would be very different.” The machine that is Team Sky has the largest budget in professional cycling but their former sports director Sean Yates says that having the cash is only the starting point. “They’ve got the budget but they’ve got someone clever running the show. Other teams have big budgets and don’t perform.”
Yates recalls that initially at Sky there was a period of experimentation, of “thinking outside the box”, followed by a decision to focus on doing the simple things properly. “They initiated warming down, which is obvious but no one [before] could be arsed to do it, post-race eating protocols, weighing the riders, checking their urine for dehydration. They did those things properly, not just every three days. Because they were a new team no one would say: ‘Sod that, I’m not doing it.’ They didn’t have to battle with the old ways.”
“We’ve learned quickly,” says Thomas, the only member of Sky’s first Tour team to be alongside with Froome six years later. “When you have a system that works you build confidence and people come and buy into it.”
Recruitment is key, so too is team selection, and Thomas says: “The big difference this year is having [an] extra climber. In the past, we’ve never had five guys who can stay there in the end on their day. I had a mechanical [on the Culoz stage] and lost the group, [but] we still had Wout Poels and Sergio Henao. Mikel Landa was on a bad day, Mikel Nieve had a bad day, but that’s why we brought so many climbers.” He adds this caveat: “Froome still has to ride his bike and get up the hills by himself.”
Sky’s tactics on the climbs are obvious: set a pace that means rivals cannot attack, as practised in the past by teams such as Miguel Indurain’s Banesto and Lance Armstrong’s US Postal. They have fine-tuned it, however. “They’ve got the luxury of being able to rest guys for particular stages,” says Yates. “You would see guys sitting up in the Pyrenees. They trace the workload on Training Peaks – software used with power meters –, see who is where, how hard the guys are trying, then they can rest one guy or another.”
Yates also believes Sky have reached the place achieved by Banesto and US Postal, where their experience makes them hard to wrong-foot. The crosswind stage to Montpellier was one example of this, the other Froome’s crash, and Thomas’s speed of reaction and lack of panic. “You encounter different scenarios during the races and overcome them, which gives you confidence. When you are new to it, the whole thing is nerve-racking.”
It took the Team Sky physiologist Tim Kerrison 18 months to learn the ropes, but in 2011 he put his initial model in place: figuring out the power outputs needed at certain key points in the Tour and training the riders to hit those levels. A key revelation was that the traditional cycling practice of racing as “preparation” rather than training was counterproductive; racing could be easier than training and the time might be better spent at home or on camp.
Other innovations included altitude training camps, using races to practise controlling a peloton while holding a leader’s jersey and rehearsing post‑race protocols such as warming down and replenishing protein stores. The coaching model has been refined and early on the communication model across the team was tightened up. It is hard to imagine a Sky leader coming to a Tour after feeling below par for many weeks, as FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot did, and blaming illness on training in poor weather. That Sky rider would be training somewhere warm.
Brailsford’s strength has been finding the right people, such as sports director Nicolas Portal, and crucially he has learned from his mistakes. The dispute between Bradley Wiggins and Froome over leadership in 2012 has not been repeated. Mark Cavendish figured in the 2012 Tour team but after tensions around him there have been no more sprinters. “I think one of the big differences with our team is that all eight team-mates of mine are focused on one goal. If you look at other teams, they’ve got a sprinter, they’ve got two GC riders, they’re trying to put guys in the break for stage [wins],” Froome said last week.
There have been mistakes en route. Brailsford’s policy of zero-tolerance on hiring staff with doping records has backfired at times. There have been failed experiments in recruitment. The single-minded focus on winning the Tour means there has been no room for developing talent, which is why the Yates brothers, Adam and Simon, are riding for an Australian team. For a squad founded to inspire cyclists within Britain, that has always seemed like an anomaly.
It would be stretching the facts to say Team Sky are well liked. They polarise opinion, to say the least. Sean Yates remains an enthusiast; other directors could be heard muttering in frustration after the Mont Ventoux stage of the Tour. “The Tour isn’t a popularity contest,” Yates says with a smile. “But if it was, the chances are that Sky would adapt and win it.”
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