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Monday, January 18, 2010

Mr Blue Sky

We are about to find out if the sky really is the limit for British cycling.
The men who have masterminded unprecedented Olympic success for British riders on the track over the past decade are now using the same revolutionary methods to try to conquer the world on the road.
Team Sky, Britain's first professional road-racing team, was launched in a blaze of publicity at the start of January with the aim of providing a first British winner of the Tour de France by 2015 - but how will they attempt to do it?
Ahead of their first major race, the Tour Down Under in Australia which starts on 19 January, BBC Sport lined up team principal Dave Brailsford, team leader Bradley Wiggins and head coach Shane Sutton to find out.

After returning from the Beijing Olympics in 2008 with eight gold medals in the bag, Brailsford, British Cycling's performance director, was finally able to switch his focus to forming a British-based professional team that could compete at the highest level on the road.

The Team Sky launch was a slick and stylish event
The main requirement was a partner willing to bankroll the operation but, with Sky already backing track cycling, Brailsford did not have to look far to find a suitable sponsor, one that promises to raise the profile of the sport in the UK.
A five-year deal worth a reported £35m was signed in February 2009 and Brailsford said: "Sky found us as much as we found them. They had plans for a big project around participation in sport and the health of the nation - and decided cycling was something to get involved in."
Since the team's official launch on 4 January, the bulk of the team have been at a training camp in Valencia while head coach Shane Sutton's nephew Chris Sutton and Greg Henderson - who have spent the winter in Australia - have been joined by the other five riders that will form the Team Sky line-up in the Tour Down Under (TDU).
Henderson and Sutton gave Team Sky a dream debut by finishing first and second in their first event, Sunday's Cancer Council Helpline Classic in Adelaide, and hope to continue that momentum in the six-stage, 800km TDU.
"We want to kick off with a bit of a bang," said Sutton senior. "but after all the work to put this team together, it is more a feeling of relief than excitement right now."

"If our riders don't gel then they will not be able to work together," said Sutton, as he explained how combining "personality and ability" was behind Team Sky's team-building policy.
With Wiggins installed as team leader and a core of seven other British riders, he and Brailsford seem happy with the blend in their squad.
Sky are not a one man team - Brailsford
But assembling the Team Sky squad has not been without its problems.
Garmin and Katusha were publicly unhappy at the way they lost the services of Wiggins and Swift and, although Brailsford brushed aside talk of friction with rival teams, signing already-contracted riders is not behaviour that will win them many friends in the peloton.
Still, getting Wiggins on board was a major coup. He finished fourth in last year's Tour de France to equal the best-ever finish by a Briton and will be one of the contenders for the General Classification in this year's race.
"This is a British team," said Brailsford. "We are going out there to represent Britain and we needed a British leader. Bradley was the obvious candidate.

Bradley Wiggins
Geraint Thomas
Peter Kennaugh
Steve Cummings
Russell Downing
Chris Froome
Ian Stannard
Ben Swift
"Getting him in was a great achievement and, like him, we feel this is where he belongs."
Aside from Wiggins, Geraint Thomas and Peter Kennaugh are both bright British hopes for the future, and Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen is seen as a major star in the making.
"Edvald is probably the most talented young rider in the peloton at the moment," said Wiggins.
"He is probably the biggest signing by Sky if you look at things overall. He is going to be the future of this team and it is quite frightening to think about what he can achieve."
There is plenty of experience too, with another Norwegian Kurt-Asle Arvesen and Canada's Michael Barry expected to provide a steadying influence as the team settles in competitively over the next few weeks.
But, from a British perspective, there is one notable absence on the Team Sky roster - Mark Cavendish, who is not only the best known rider on these shores following his six stage wins at the 2009 Tour de France but is also rated as the best sprinter on the planet.

Cavendish won six stages at the 2009 Tour de France
It is arguable that Team Sky are better off without him as the effort needed to deliver him stage victories in the manner of the 'train' of his Columbia team-mates could distract from the greater goal of overall victory.
Sutton, however, says he would already have the 24-year-old on board, if he could get him.
"I think 'Cav' could fit in anywhere," he explained. "We have worked very closely with him the past, have a great relationship with him from the track and we would not have to change anything to make space for him at Team Sky.
"We'd love to have him but he is under contract with Columbia right now and very happy with them."

The men who masterminded Team GB's rise to prominence in the velodrome are joined by a group whose background is firmly in road racing.
From British Cycling, Brailsford and Sutton are joined by psychiatrist Steve Peters and Rod Ellingworth, who coached the likes of Cavendish at the British Cycling Academy and whose new role will see him work closely with riders while they are in competition.
The team's strategic and tactical nous in road-racing will come from Sunderland and his sporting directors - Sean Yates, Marcus Ljungqvist, Steven de Jongh - all of whom were long-serving professional riders.
There will also be nutritionists, engineers and doctors at Team Sky's headquarters in Manchester, as well as at their permanent base in Quarrata, Tuscany - where around half the squad will live.

They will have access to equipment at cutting edge of sporting technology, with the team's new space-age bus - featuring individual stations for the riders - a shining example of how they will look to garner an advantage by any means possible.
Brailsford explained: "It's somewhere the riders will spend a lot of time.
"So we got our sports scientists in and said, 'How do we get a competitive advantage out of that space, pre-race and post-race? How do we make sure our guys are better recovered by the time they go to the hotel?'
"We didn't want our team bus to act just as a billboard - we are not just here to ride around and look good. It has to give us an advantage."
Another priority will be demonstrating the team's anti-doping ethos in a sport tainted by too many scandals in recent years.
"We will have our own in-house testing process and it will be done in liasion with the International Cycling Union and UK Sport," said Brailsford. "Our strategy will be to work hand in hand with the authorities and show that this is a clean team."

"Sky could go out and sign Alberto Contador and win the Tour de France tomorrow but that would divert from our mission to win with a British rider within five years," says Sutton.
In an attempt to achieve that goal, Team Sky will follow the same system as Team GB - leaving no stone unturned in their preparations (or "controlling the controllable" as Brailsford puts it) and doing everything possible to get the best out of their riders.
Wiggins eyes Tour win
They hope to do that by mentoring and coaching them rather than directing and controlling them, using a rider-centric programme that will concentrate on assisting and improving individuals not the team.
It's not an approach that is common in professional cycling, but Brailsford is confident it will pay off.
"Our ambition isn't to change professional cycling but certainly we will approach it in the same way as everything else - we will pay attention to minor details and we will look for marginal gains," he explained.
"The philosophy of how you treat riders and how you treat people will be very much a part of this team.
"We will use technology too and we will look to other industries for inspiration. We will continue looking for fresh approaches but it will be more about us as a team rather than trying to influence the wider sport."
Will it work? Wiggins, who will be given a schedule this year to allow him to concentrate specifically on the Tour for the first time in his career, appears to think so.
"I'm always going to say that this is the best team in the world because I am paid to say it," Wiggins said. "But, honestly, from what I've seen so far we are heading in the right direction because Dave will always listen to what you say.
"I've noticed a big difference already in the way things are done and their professionalism, in a relaxed way, too. A lot of it is just common sense in looking after the riders but a lot of teams lack it.
"He's said right from the start that this is our team and he is not going to dictate to us what to do. Whatever things we think improving along the way, Dave is open to making this the best team in the world and he will change whatever he feels he needs to."

With the London Games just two-and-a-half years away, could diverting focus to the road team jeopardise Britain's hopes of repeating their incredible cycling success at the Athens and Beijing Olympics on home ground?
"If I had thought that, I would never have started this project," said Brailsford. "My own belief is that this will augment British cycling's prospects at the 2012 Games."

Thomas and Wiggins won track gold in the team pursuit at the 2008 Olympics
Brailsford, who is still British Cycling's performance director as well as Team Sky's team principal, points out that his dual role allows him to organise Britain's best endurance riders like Geraint Thomas so the Welshman can prepare for and compete in upcoming events like March's World Track Championships in Copenhagen, or the Commonwealth Games in October, without fearing a conflict of interest with his professional road team.
"Being able to manage both sides of that equation will give us a competitive advantage in the run-up to 2012," added Brailsford.
"I am totally opposed to the view that I might be diluting my efforts across two different fields. I actually think I am strengthening it."

There were no brash statements from Brailsford or Wiggins about planning to win this year's Tour de France at Team Sky's launch.
Both men know it would be foolhardy to make predictions like that - instead we got promises that Wiggins, and the rest of the squad, would be "the best they can be"... which is not exactly a statement of intent.
Having a five-year target also takes the pressure off the first 12 months somewhat but Sutton insists they are still aiming high in 2010.
"Everyone is going to throw you that line about just being the best they can be but ultimately this is about winning," said Sutton. "We want to win.

Tour Down Under (19 Jan)
Paris-Nice (7 Mar)
Milan-San Remo (20 Mar)
Giro D'Italia (8 May)
Tour de France (3 Jul)
Tour of Britain (11 Sep)
"What we want from the season is to get some wins under our belts in one or two of the Classics [one-day races in western Europe] and show prominently in the Giro D'Italia with some stage wins there too.
"We are not putting people under pressure but I still believe in saying reach for the stars and, in our first year, that is getting on the podium at the Tour. That's where I'd like to think we can be at the end of the season."
It is already clear that the Tour is seen as Team Sky's top priority and Wiggins added: "Obviously the other races are really important and they are part of the bigger plan of the team and the development of the younger riders.
"But to be honest it the Tour is the only race that matters and the team is going to be judged on how we perform in it. So it remains the goal, and it has to be like that."


  1. I watched highlights from the criterium on Versus. Congratulations to the Brits!

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