Team Sky: Blue-sky thinking is the key for Dave Brailsford
Tour de France winners refuse to be content with their recent glory. Instead, they are always seeking ways to improve and push the boundaries, as Robin Scott-Elliot discovers at their high-tech, high-aiming training camp in Majorca
Tuesday 29 January 2013
Chris Froome's bike is carried carefully out of the hotel. His name is printed on the frame, alongside a small Union flag. On the top tube, connecting seat to handle bars, a small sticker carries the words of Team Sky's motto "This is the line."
It is a piece of motivational prose of the type beloved among today's coaching fraternity, drawing a verbal line between winning and losing, being good and great, between conservation and innovation. "It's a fine line," it concludes, "it challenges everything we do and we ride it every day."
Inside, in a corner of the dining room, Tim Kerrison, Sky's head of performance support, is discussing another line, a thin red line. This one scurries across a graph, charting the level he believes a rider has to be at to win the Tour de France, one part of Sky's bold, three-part project for 2013 and their attempt to take the next step towards an ambition so lofty it could easily become lost in the clouds shrouding the peaks of Majorca's mountains. They want to become the "world's most admired sports team".
The town of Alcudia, stretched around a sandy bay in the north of the island, is quiet in winter. A large banner adorns the hotel where Sky are based, welcoming the "Tour de France winners". This is the third year the team have been here to prepare for the season. This will be their longest stay, six weeks before the bags are packed at the end of the month for the start of the Majorca Challenge, Bradley Wiggins' first race of 2013, and is part of a subtle shift in emphasis towards that grand plan.
"If you are going to be really audacious, set an audacious goal… reach for the stars and get the moon," says Dave Brailsford. "That's one of the challenges, if you tell people about it then you stand yourself up for some criticism. I think that's healthy."
It is, of course, a goal that cannot be achieved in black and white. What is more black and white – with that red line running through it – is the aim this season: win the Tour de France, via Froome, win the Giro d'Italia, via Wiggins, and have an impact in the Classics, via the likes of Geraint Thomas, the British Olympian earmarked as the next to have an impact on the road.
"People will say you can't do it but we thrive on the challenge – we like being told it can't be done," says Kerrison.
That evening Wiggins describes Kerrison as his "guru". It is not a term the softly spoken Australian, a former swimming coach and sports scientist, would relish. Part of Kerrison's mission at Sky is to banish the concept of "gurus". This is a facts-and-figures game.
"Things are done because that is the way they have always been done. We have set out to question that," says Kerrison. It has not made Sky popular within the sport – there was a degree of ridicule amid a difficult beginning. Brailsford and his team accept errors were made in their debut season. "We looked at marginal gains but forgot the big performance," says Kerrison of 2010. That changed in 2011 – the first year the team came to Majorca – and, under the direction of Brailsford, Kerrison and Rod Ellingworth, the performance manager, it is changing again for 2013.
To achieve the headline target of crossing the line first in Italy, France and elsewhere there has been a scaling back of the race programme with preference for greater training, and use of training camps. "Key riders will do less racing to allow significant blocks of training within a season," explains Kerrison. "Otherwise you get trapped in a cycle of race and recover. We are investing heavily in training camps."
Long-term the team is investing in a permanent base in Nice – unusual in road cycling – and the search is under way for a suitable property. A number of the riders, including Froome, live in the area, and they will be joined by Kerrison and other staff. It is part of the Ellingworth-led plan to ensure more direct and regular contact between coaches and riders. The team has divided the role of coach and sporting director – a reshuffle in part down to the retirement of Sean Yates and Bobby Julich's departure under the team's no-doping past policy – with the sporting directors left to concentrate on race tactics while the coaches oversee the day-to-day. "It is a major step forward in cycling," says Ellingworth.
Tenerife is the other island haven. A spartan hotel boasting no internet connection is the base for altitude training around Mount Teide, Spain's highest point. During a stay a rider will do the equivalent of climbing from sea level to the top of Mt Everest four times over a two-week period. Tenerife too plays a part in getting the team used to riding in extreme heat – in their debut Tour in 2010 Sky were ill-prepared and it hit them hard over the race's second week.
It is in Tenerife that specific climbing plans are put into practice. By then the 27 riders will have been divided into three but Majorca is about beginnings, buying into the thin blue line to allow that thin red line to be crossed. Riders pass through in blocks, some stay a couple of weeks, others for shorter periods; Wiggins goes home at weekends.
"There's an intangible side of the process, of training, of being together, generating confidence in each other, camaraderie," says Brailsford.
Kerrison uses his red line in different ways. Some riders like plans – Wiggins for one, and the Tour winner was the first to buy into Kerrison's way. "Tim's unique skill is to take complex information and present it in a simple way for the riders, in individual ways for each rider," says Brailsford, whose quest to find new avenues to explore is encapsulated in his latest idea in having get-togethers with leading coaches from across sport, including Stuart Lancaster, England's rugby coach.
One of the factors Kerrison's studies revealed about Wiggins was he needed more power in the early stages of races – it had been assumed that because of his track background he would be strong at the start. Others are given their graph for last season to follow and asked to overtake it early in the campaign, playing up what Brailsford sees as a "psychological element" – competing even against themselves.
The success has come accompanied by insinuation, the fate awaiting any cyclist who succeeds today rather as all Ben Johnson's sprint successors are routinely doubted. Kerrison struggled with it last year but has come to accept it as part of the sport's present. "Now more than ever cycling's credibility is tarnished by history," says Kerrison. "Some of the things our riders do are seen as remarkable but remarkable performance does not equate to doping."
Julich, Froome's main man, left because of the team's doping policy. "We prefer to compromise our performance rather than change our policy," says Brailsford. It has led to another left-field arrival – perhaps Brailsford's greatest strength is his ability to spot leading performers in other areas and convert them to his cause – in Shaun Stephens, who coached Australia's triathletes at the Olympics. He is here too in Majorca, laptop under one arm.
"Continuous improvement is the thing that drives us on," sums up Brailsford. "If we get that right the winning will look after itself."
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