Cycling: Brailsford’s Team Sky aiming high
Dave Brailsford doesn’t do things by halves. A British winner of the Tour de France within five years might sound far-fetched but that is the mission statement Team Sky have set themselves ahead of their first season in Pro Tour cycling.
Brailsford is the man responsible for masterminding Great Britain’s domination of track cycling over the last decade and he believes he can replicate the success in the traditionally European world of road racing.
But in recent years British interest in the sport, and in the Tour in particular, has increased significantly thanks initially to London’s successful hosting of the Tour prologue in 2007 and then through the success of Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins.
Amateur participation is also booming throughout the country and ostensibly it is Sky’s desire to support this drive which has prompted their venture into professional cycling. What other incentives the UK’s dominant sports broadcaster might have for splashing its name across what it hopes will become the dominant force in the peloton is unclear, but will be a fascinating sub-plot to follow over the next few years.
For the time being however, all eyes will be on the team itself and judging by the rhetoric emanating from the camp it is clear that Sky do not intend on easing their way through this debut season.
Whilst their budget remains an issue of immense speculation, there are few who doubt it stretches beyond the realms of any other pro team in history.
Much of team GB’s success has been attributed to the miniature details and the obsessive manner in which Brailsford and his team, which includes former GB head coach Shane Sutton, prepare their riders. And this is a policy which Brailsford believes will reap rewards on the road. “We will look at everything,” he said, “we will look for marginal gains and if we get that right, we will find some new approaches, some new methodology.”
As with GB, Sky are concentrating on a ‘rider centric’ programme where the emphasis will be on the riders themselves making the major decisions as opposed to simply obeying the orders of the management. “We want the rider’s to perform to the best of their ability. We will give them the best environment to do the best they can.”
How the remainder of the peloton will react to the new boys on the block will depend largely on how successful they are. There have been rumblings of discontent from other teams regarding the aggressive recruitment tactics employed to secure the signings of Bradley Wiggins and Ben Swift, the two most likely British tour winners in the current squad.
Both riders were under contract at Garmin and Katusha respectively and Sky’s aggressive pursuit of Wiggins in particular brought cries of disillusionment from those concerned Sky will be able to simply buy their way to success.
Brailsford however believes Sky can be about much more than crossing the line in first place, something they achieved twice in their first pro tour event, the Tour Down Under, earlier this month.
The issue of doping and cycling go hand in hand and one of the pre-requisites for the squad assembled by Brailsford and his team was that no riders should have any association with drugs.
The image of the team is all important and is another area where minute attention has been given. Everything from the state of the art interactive website to the squad’s sleek team jerseys has clearly been carefully thought through and the decision of the team to enforce a rule ensuring each rider is kitted out in regulation team clothing at all times reflects their commitment to the cause.
And then there is the bus. Of all the Formula 1 style innovations the team will benefit from, it is the painstakingly modified Volvo 9700 coach which will be perhaps the most noticeable display of Sky’s wealth. Never before have riders been able to relax, discuss tactics, have a massage, watch Sky on their own personal screen and, in Bradley Wiggins’ case, tweet about the days riding, in more luxurious surroundings. Even the team cars are Jaguars.
Of course, with all this expense, Sky’s bosses will expect returns. Since his transfer was confirmed in December, the Wiggins for yellow bandwagon has rolled into gear, fuelled inevitably by anyone connected with Sky Sports.
In reality however, matching his performance last year will be a remarkable achievement, let alone surpassing it. Alberto Contador might have a severely weakened Astana team to work with at this year’s tour but he remains miles ahead of the pack with Saxo Bank rider Andy Schleck the only likely pretender to his crown.
Away from le Tour, much is expected of Edvald Boasson Hagen. The Norwegian won the Tour of Britain last year and also picked up two stage victories in the Giro de Italia. He is currently ranked third in the ICU rankings and is expected to star in the spring classics.
Wiggins however refuses to set a ceiling and having only discovered his potential in the mountains half way through last season, many believe there is more to come from him. As he himself maintains “we’ll have the best equipment and the best team. No stone is going to be left unturned. If I’m not good enough physically, that’s something else, but we won’t make mistakes that shouldn’t happen.”
It would take a brave pundit to write off Dave Brailsford, that’s for sure.