Cycling: Dave Brailsford interview
It says a lot that, when asked where he’d like Team Sky to be five years from now, chief among Dave Brailsford’s concerns is that the sport of cycling will no longer be tainted by the legacy of its most famous – and now infamous – name: disgraced seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong.
“Given the current climate, it would be great if we could reach a point where there were no doubts or raised eyebrows in terms of performances and that we’d helped the sport gain the trust and confidence of the fans and general public,” he says.
The Team Sky principal is all too aware of the whispers that follow any outstanding performances on the road from his riders, such as those that this year elevated Bradley Wiggins and his sideburns to cycling superstardom. But he also believes they have the power to change that.
That’s because Brailsford is one of the most positive-thinking men you will ever come across.
His glass isn’t just half full; it’s half full with the potential to be overflowing, given the right prodding, poking and cajoling. On the back of the Armstrong revelations, he interviewed every member of Team Sky – riders and management – asking them all to sign a pledge declaring they’d never doped.
He ended up losing two key members of staff in director sportif Steven De Jongh and road coach Bobby Julich, both of whom confessed to doping during their pro careers, as well as long-term Team Sky rider Michael Barry. Brailsford is resolute, though, describing it as “a short-term hit on performance to get where we want to be for the long term“.
But arguably the most difficult departure for the man who also heads up British Cycling was that of 2011 world champion, Mark Cavendish. Having battled so hard to get the sprinter’s signature on a Team Sky contract for the start of the 2012 season, Brailsford found himself having to tear it up one year later, the Manxman arguing that his staying with the team would “restrict both them and also what I want to do“.
So it’s a somewhat altered Team Sky that will start 2013 with the mission of bettering a year in which they made history and were also made to suffer by it. Not that the boss is spending too much time dwelling on the negatives...
There have been a few changes at Team Sky, most notably the departure of Mark Cavendish. Did you expect him to remain for longer than one season?
“If you sign a three-year contract, then you go into these things with a positive attitude. But, equally, you have to be brave enough that if something’s not working very well, it’s better to step in and change it rather than just persevere. With Bradley [Wiggins] and Froomey [Chris Froome] in the team, we should be competitive for the overall general classification in a number of races next year. And we saw from the Tour that Mark would prefer to have a dedicated team around him for the sprints. You have to respect that – that’s his belief and it’s his career. We wouldn’t want to compromise Mark’s opportunities and career, and that’s why we didn’t stand in his way.”
His arrival had led to the belief that Team Sky would challenge for the Yellow and Green Jerseys in the Tour. On the start line in Liege, did you believe it was possible to win both?
“When we embarked on that project, we certainly believed it was possible. But what was becoming clearer was that Bradley was going into the Tour as a real favourite. If you have to prioritise at any point, then you have to prioritise the race overall above winning the Green Jersey. So by the time we started the Tour, there was definitely a clear prioritisation, albeit when we first thought about it they were on an equal footing and the aim was to try to do both. As it panned out, we had to make sure that, given the opportunity to win the Tour, we didn’t do anything to jeopardise that.”
Is that something you had to sit down and discuss with Cavendish before the race?
“You only have to look at the way Mark was talking before the race to see he understood that being part of a team that could win the overall race might mean that at certain times the team might have to compromise to make that happen. I think he was aware of that – we talked about it plenty of times. We talked about it with his coach plenty of times, too, so I don’t think that came as any surprise, to be honest.”
Is the hardest part of your job keeping everybody satisfied that they’re getting their fair shot at glory?
“It’s certainly one of them. When you surround yourself with ambitious people who want to win, then inevitably there are going to be times when that can clash. But the key thing is to be honest with people – tell them exactly what the game plan is and what we’re trying to achieve. That clarity of purpose is absolutely critical. It’s very difficult to keep everybody happy all of the time – but that’s part of management, and you expect that. How you deal with it is the most important thing.”
Wiggins won the Yellow Jersey on Stage 7 of the Tour and never lost it. At what point were you able to relax and enjoy the fact he was going to win?
“Absolutely not until he crossed the line on the Champs Elysees. [Laughs] I think it was made worse by the fact that he’d crashed out of the Tour the year before [suffering a broken collarbone, again on Stage 7]. That had happened so quickly and it was such a shock – it was a reminder that, in cycling, you can crash at any moment. As the race went on, it became more and more obvious that unless something quite extreme happened, then the chances of him winning were becoming greater. But at no point did we think okay, we can relax and enjoy this now.”
Did you feel just a little bit smug at having proved wrong those who scoffed at Sky’s ambition to win the Tour with a British rider within five years?
“No, I don’t do it for other people. If people don’t want to share the optimism that I share, they’re entitled not to – but I’m not motivated by showing people who are sceptics or cynics that they’re wrong. That doesn’t give me any pleasure whatsoever. I enjoy the performance and the process of putting a team together and then winning the biggest race in the world. You always get sceptics and cynics, but I’m not going to run my life by virtue of their glass-half-empty world.”
Where do you see Team Sky in five years?
“In the current climate it would be great if, five years from now, we were proven to be consistent high-level performers; that we were a very disciplined, organised, well-structured team that was open and transparent; that we had got to a point at which there were no doubts or raised eyebrows in terms of performances; and that we’d helped the sport move forward in gaining the trust and confidence of the fans and general public in cycling. That would be a great place to be.”
Do you worry that younger generations will be put off from pursuing a road-racing career after the Armstrong revelations?
“Most people understand the fact that this is something from the past we’re dealing with. It’s not a current crisis where the sport has issues in the here and now – it’s definitely cleaned up its act. It’s a sport people can believe in now. There’s no doubt that what happened in the past has cast some shadows – we can’t ignore it. Team Sky is a clean team, though. And we’ll continue to run a clean team. But the importance of showing how we do it is incumbent on us.”
Hence the behind-the-scenes TV programmes, photographs and books you’ve allowed to get up close and personal?
“It’s a deliberate choice to allow those. Certainly there’s an element of risk, when you think about the competitive advantage we have. A lot of sports teams like to operate behind closed doors. But in a sport like ours, unfortunately, it’s important that we are as transparent and as open as possible so that, when you do win the bigger events and have seasons like we’ve just had, then we try and show how it’s achieved and what the processes are. It’s so that people can see for themselves that we are genuinely a clean team – and the riders work very, very hard to make sure they get to the level where they can perform like they do.”
And, after a season like that, is motivation an issue for Wiggins in particular – with him having won the biggest race out there?
“It’s a bit like the first Olympic gold you win. The first time that you try and do something, it’s a very different experience to trying to repeat it or going for a different goal. It’s worked out nicely that Bradley’s targeting the Giro d’Italia next year, with a different race programme to this year – it’s healthy. Otherwise you go and do the same race programme leading into the Tour and it would be just a straightforward comparison; all the way through, people would be saying: ’Oh, he’s not where he was last year.’ Or: ’He’s ahead of where he was last year.’ From a mental point of view, to mix it up and have another big goal makes a lot of sense to me. And, fortunately, we have another very good rider in the team in Chris Froome who is focused on the Tour, so it works out well.”
What about you? Having led a team to Tour glory, did you have to examine your own motivation to continue?
“Within your career you always wonder what it would be like to run a team that wins the Tour. So when that happens, it’s quite something. But we had the Olympics days later, so it was straight from the Tour into London – we didn’t really have time to reflect. You feel like you’re pushing so hard at times in an Olympic cycle and it’s so intense that you think: ’Blimey, I cant keep doing this forever.’ So you build in a period of thought process after the Games to see where you are. I got there and realised this is what I enjoy doing. There’s a lot more of Team Sky to build, and a lot more bike races to win. The Rio Olympics are in the distance, too. And with the young generation of cyclists in the British squad, it’s a very exciting time – I’m still very much motivated to be a part of it.”
Sarah Shephard @sarahsportmag
21 Days to Glory: The Official Team Sky Book of the 2012 Tour de France is out now, published by HarperSport