Where do British cycling and Team Sky go after winning the sport's blue riband event for the first time in the race's 109-year history? According to team principal Dave Brailsford – already responsible for overseeing the British track revolution that led to seven Olympic golds in Beijing – Sky's next goal is to become "the best cycling team the world's ever seen".
"I feel driven to do that," Brailsford said as Sky celebrated Britain's greatest cycling success. "The components of that are winning the best races out there, over a sustained period of time, and doing it clean. There are a lot of things you can identify in that process that will keep you motivated and make you get out of bed in the morning."
Although the UCI, cycling's governing body, has a classification for the sport's 18 top teams, grouped together in the Pro Tour (and currently led by Sky), extending that high point from one point in one season to the whole of the sport's 140-year history would be a huge target indeed.
Winning the Tour de France for a long period of time would help crystallise such a high ranking. But so too, as Brailsford points out, would winning all three Grand Tours – of France, Italy and Spain – in a single year. No team (or rider) has ever pulled off the so-called Grand Slam, and just five riders – Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Alberto Contador and Felice Gimondi – have won all three Grand Tours in their career.
Another component of becoming the world's best team would be triumphing in cycling's almost equally prestigious series of one-day races, the Spring Classics.
"We were s**t at them this year and we need to sort that out," Brailsford recognised. Indeed, Sky have yet to take a "Monument", one of the five top Classics such as Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders, a notable gap in their achievements.
For now, in any case, winning the Tour de France for a second time is on the immediate programme, and such a focus on the overall stage classifications of the Grand Tours would not be without sacrifices – among them, perhaps, Mark Cavendish's hopes of repeating his victory in the green jersey's points competition in 2011. Brailsford did not rule out that Cavendish might even quit Sky – with whom he is under contract until 2014 – should he wish to return to a squad like his former HTC line-up, where he was the undisputed leader, with a lead-out train of eight riders for every sprint stage.
"The reality of it is that we had to prioritise yellow over green and that's always going to be a bit of a challenge for him," Brailsford said, "[although] if it were not frustrating for him then I would be more worried. The team will keep its overall classification ambitions next year [but] if he felt like he wanted a dedicated team around him, he's within his rights to want that. We'll take a common sense approach to it."
A failure to apply that kind of straightforward methodology that had served the British Cycling performance staff – who are at the heart of Team Sky – so well in Beijing's gold rush was the error that Brailsford feels he made when the squad started in 2010, and which indirectly cost them the Tour that year.
"We tried to overcomplicate things in 2010. You apply a theory, you do it, and you review it, and if you're rigorous you'll move forward," Brailsford said. "It's all about doing the simple things better than anybody else.
"After Beijing I did contemplate moving on but the acid test of a methodology is to apply it somewhere else and see if it works there. Rather than go to another sport, I went to another discipline of cycling. And the biggest thing in cycling is the Tour de France, so I thought, let's go and try and win that."
Brailsford and Sky gave themselves five years for that particular goal, and have achieved their target in three. Part of doing so well so quickly was building a team of riders around Bradley Wiggins that ensured he was "never isolated". "Hand-picking staff with a hire-and-fire mentality" was another "massive contributory factor".
"If I had to name a stage where we executed our plan the best, it would have to be the Planches des Belles Filles," Brailsford said. That was the uphill finish in the Vosges where Wiggins took yellow, Froome the stage, and Froome took a brief hold on the King of the Mountains jersey, while Sky led the overall team standings. "It had been a really nervous first week and a real shock to see Kosta [Sivtsov, Sky climber] break his leg in that crash. But on the Planche the other guys really took it up and it was remarkable how quick the people [rivals] came out the back; it was obvious our guys were really on top of their game.
"We knew [Cadel] Evans [the 2011 winner] would attack but when he got out of the saddle there was a mini-second, within a pedal rev, when he didn't accelerate and we knew he hadn't got it.
"It couldn't have been more perfect. There was a brow, beautiful blue sky behind it, and all you could see was Froomie's helmet coming up like a helicopter. That was one of the highlights of my career. That stage will stay with me forever."
At the centre of it, though, is Wiggins, whose victories in the Tour de France and before that in Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné throughout the spring were described by Brailsford as "probably the highest sustained level of performance by any British athlete".
"You need massive talent and you need a level of commitment, which has been outstanding, and he's got both.
"There are a lot of distractions in the off-season for a Tour winner; at the time when you are being pulled from pillar to post with sponsor commitments the guys who are going to win the Tour the next year tend to be training their a***s off. But if Wiggins stays intrinsically committed to the Tour – and I'd lay money on him being committed – there is no reason why he can't win it again."
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