By Nick Harris
6 March 2010
Dave Brailsford, the man who transformed Britain’s cyclists into the strongest track cycling nation in the world, believes his recent diversification into professional road racing could pay dividends as early as this summer with a win for Bradley Wiggins in the 2010 Tour de France.
“The Tour De France has never been won by a British rider and I think we have the opportunity to maybe put that right,” said Brailsford, 46, whose cyclists won 14 medals – 12 on the track and two on the road – at the Beijing Olympics, including eight golds. No other country won more than two cycling golds, or more than six medals in total.
“[Within British cycling] we have the Olympic ambition on the one hand, and then the Tour de France plans on the other hand,” Brailsford said. “It’s one of those iconic events and we should have a go at least. In Bradley Wiggins we’re got somebody who’s capable certainly of getting on the podium. It’s 21 days racing so a lot can go wrong [but] he can win it. If we can get it right this year, then why not this year? And if not, then we’ll keep on trying.”
Brailsford was speaking at the launch this week of the Jaguar Academy of Sport, a bursaries and mentoring programme funded by the car maker to promote up-and-coming British talent across all sports. Brailsford is an ambassador for the scheme, which will also involve a stellar cast ranging from David Beckham to Sir Ian Botham, Dame Kelly Holmes, Sir Steve Redgrave, Gareth Edwards, Denise Lewis and numerous others.
Brailsford added: “I spend a lot of my time with a lot of money and a lot of funding focused on a very few [people] and after a while you ask yourself ‘How’s this actually going to circle back in society in some way?’. Hopefully it creates roles models and inspires people to get involved, but it would be nice to think it could link to participation and inspire participation.
“It’s something as I’m getting older I certainly think a lot more about. I get very passionate about these projects and in the participation in sport.”
He revealed that Britain’s hi-tech kit will now be kept away from public outings, and from competition, until the London Olympics of 2012. “We’ve got a very intense R&D [research and development] programme, so we built every single bike for Beijing. We manufacture all our wheels, our helmets, actually everything that the cyclists had on, including their socks, overshoes, everything. And we felt that we made some real gains, particularly from the guys in Formula 1 to be honest.
“We worked very closely with several of the guys at McLaren and they came up with weird and wonderful ideas for us and we took them on board, and that made a real difference. When we came back [from Beijing], we then had the choice: do we keep on riding it [using the special gear] and do we keep on showing the rest of the world what we’re doing? Or do we put it away and get it out for 2012? Our decision was to put it away and get it out for 2012.”
Brailsford also expanded on the formation and development of the professional operation, Team Sky. “The main difference is I’ve had to find 67 new staff to run the team including 26 riders who can be in two different programmes at any given time. We’ve got 17 nationalities and we got together for the first time in November and we started racing in January. So it was a very short period of time from the first wheel turning to try to create a high-performance environment and get everyone functioning as a team.
“We’ve been racing for seven weeks. We’ve won seven races. Last weekend we won the first classic race in Belgium. Bradley Wiggins is now down in Spain riding the Tour of Murcia against Lance Armstrong, and that’s going pretty well. There are a lot of problems behind the scenes with vehicles and buses and trucks and breaking down and all the usual hiccups you’d expect from a new team, but in the main I think we’re happy with where we are.”
Asked if he could take a sportsman from any other discipline and turn them into a top class cyclist, as happened – famously – with former Olympic rower, Rebecca Romero, he said: “Unlikely. There are some fabulous athletes certainly from the world of athletics and I think there’s a specificity about certain sports. But I think the heptathetes are very interesting, and 400m runners. Anybody from a 400m background, I definitely like to have a go with.
“We’ve had a couple of the [British] bobsleigh team wanting to try out. [Olympic skier] Alain Baxter came down, he wanted to try out on the track. Ewan Roberts came up and had a ride around the track. He fancied his chances. But I think you choose your sport pretty early on these days, and obviously focus is quite difficult to change.”
British cycling’s attention to detail has been a key part of its success but Brailsford insists that “giving ownership” to the riders is at the heart of that success.
“It’s not about the staff. It’s not about me. It’s not about anybody in the backroom. It’s all about the athletes, and we’ve got to give them genuine ownership. And I do believe in supporting and mentoring and coaching, and certainly not directing and controlling. We see quite a lot of directly and controlling by coaches or managers. I just don’t think that’s the right formula for most people to perform and get excellence.
“We analyse the plans of every event that we go to in great, great detail, and having analysed the demands of the event, we then plan accordingly in great, great detail. But when it comes to preparing for that event we try and give ownership to each rider so they can decide for themselves if this conditioning programme works better for them or not, so they take ownership of it. We actually act as expert advisors to give them the advice if they so wish it, but that’s the model that we use.
“We don’t write the rules. We don’t tell them what to do. They sit down and say ‘If you’re late for training, what do we do?’ They write a list of rules, so they take ownership of their whole world. That’s our model and that’s what we do and it’s worked pretty well so far.”