“Five years/My brain hurts a lot/Five years/That’s all we’ve got”
So said a different Dave B: Bowie, not Brailsford. The Dame and the Team Sky principal share an enthusiasm for half-decade strategies, it seems. It was the platform on which Britain’s only WorldTour team was launched, at the fag end of 2009. And it will remain the strategic wrapper around its ambitions until 2020.“Our mission for 2020 is very simple - for Team Sky to be indisputably and consistently the best cycling team in the world, and to be viewed as one of the very best sports teams in the world,” Brailsford has declared.
“The first chapter of Team Sky was successful. We set out to win the Tour de France, to do it clean and to do it with a British rider. We have done that twice. And we have helped inspire a million more people in the UK to take up cycling.”
The scale of Team Sky's achievement in winning the Tour de France twice within five years of its formation should not be underestimated. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Brailsford is right to highlight the success of the opening chapter of Team Sky’s success story. The scale of the achievement is easily overlooked. It is perhaps pertinent to remind ourselves of the hilarity prompted by such lofty ambition five years ago, when a diffident Bradley Wiggins was prodded in front of the press corps, reluctant even to take centre stage.
Sky has racked up 165 victories in its first five years, including the two Tour triumphs, but Brailsford has pledged to increase that total in the team’s next five-year stint, including the Classics. The success of cycling’s other superpower, Etixx-Quick-Step, might be taken as a reference for both ambitions: Patrick Lefevere’s heavyweights won 56 times last season alone, including an impressive haul of one-day races, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Strade Bianche, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and Paris-Roubaix among them.
Geraint Thomas has ridden with endeavour, but without fortune at the Classics and with each passing season looks increasingly unlikely to win one. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
It is hard to share Brailsford’s sudden enthusiasm for Classics and Monuments. Sky seems no closer to winning one of cycling’s great one-day races now than it did in 2010, when it had the likes of cobbled Classics specialist Juan Antonio Flecha and Gent-Wevelgem winner Edvald Boasson Hagen on its books.
Andy Fenn is the latest signatory to declare an overarching desire to triumph in a Classic, his ambition perhaps founded on victory in the junior Paris-Roubaix. But he must join a queue for leadership of Sky at this year’s l’enfer du nord, one headed by Sir Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas, and also containing Ian Stannard, Bernard Eisel and Luke Rowe.
Last season revealed an uncomfortable truth: that when Sky’s Grand Tour ambitions go awry (and everything is relative – they finished second at La Vuelta), there is little left from the top drawer. A Monument has slowly been acquiring the status of “must have” for Brailsford’s team, but one suspects that as long as Froome remains a credible contender for the Tour, cycling’s biggest race will continue to dominate Sky’s thinking.
“Our vision is to continue to play a leadership role in charting a better future for this great sport of ours and changing the culture that so damaged it. That means continued leadership on anti-doping. But much more than that, we want Team Sky to be at the cutting edge of innovation and a reference point for excellence in human performance.”
There is little doubt that Sky has raised the bar, bringing new standards of professionalism to the peloton. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
There can be little doubt that Team Sky has led the way for other teams in its first five years. Its willingness to challenge accepted norms has led in some cases to derision, but later to imitation, the sincerest form of flattery (the deployment of rollers for a post-race warm down being the most obvious example). Most teams recognise, tacitly or openly, that Sky has raised the bar.
Brailsford’s team is the only to operate a zero tolerance policy for doping, a stance regarded as naïve and unenforceable in some quarters, but applauded by this correspondent at least. The presence of former dopers in senior roles at the sport’s biggest teams was again thrust into the spotlight with the renewal of Astana’s WorldTour licence. Sky’s approach, while not universally supported, allows it to stand well clear of such brouhaha.
The ones that got away
It’s a stance, however, that has cost them the services of those unable to sign-up to a pledge of an entirely clean past, and in the case of former DS Steven de Jongh, publicly credited by Alberto Contador as a key factor in restoring his mojo, Sky’s loss has been Tinkoff-Saxo’s gain. We wait to see whether the effect will be magnified by the decision of fellow Sky exiles, Sean Yates and Bobby Julich, to follow De Jongh to Bjarne Riis’s squad this season.
Brailsford and Sky faced criticism over their appointment of former Rabobank doctor, Geert Leinders. It has taken a lead on anti-doping with its zero tolerance policy and must expect to be held to its own standard. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Sky also rightly caught flak for hiring former Rabobank doctor, Geert Leinders, an astonishing decision unlikely to be repeated as the team heads into its second chapter. There was a sense of Sky being hoisted by its own petard over the Leinders issue, but this is surely preferable to the debacle over Astana, where the wider world looks askance at how a retired doper is allowed to run the team of the Tour de France winner. If Sky is held to its own standards, so be it. The policy of zero tolerance applies both ways.
Winning (“the what”), performance (“the how”), inspiration (“the why”)
Brailsford describes his three cornerstones as unchanged from those on which the team’s first five years were built, but with greater aspiration and ambition for each.
Brailsford's ambition is for Team Sky to become one of the great teams in sport, with similar reputation to New Zealand's feared All Blacks. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Of winning, he says: “In 2020 when we look back over the decade we want Team Sky to be seen as the most consistent and successful Grand Tour team as well as one that is regularly winning Classics. It means more success over the next five years than the last five.”
More interesting, perhaps, are his comments on performance – how the team will achieve its ambitions. The team should be at the cutting edge of research and innovation, he says: “a reference point for excellence in human performance.” He refers to Formula One twice in this context, but it is the third reference that is most interesting.
A "data rich" sport
The final parallel drawn by Brailsford between cycling and F1 is the latter’s reliance on data and how “it has become part of the spectacle”. This column speculated on whether the ultimate extension of Velon’s ambitions for television coverage of cycling might be real time, on-screen data to supplement footage from on-bike cameras.
Brailsford references Formula One three times in his 2020 vision for Team Sky. Both cycling and F1 are 'data rich' with influence beyond the world of sport, he argues. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
“There is something spellbinding about seeing a rider break away from the pack on a climb. But what if we could actually know what exactly was happening to the bike, and to the body pedaling it, at that time? How much richer would the experience of following the sport be? Again, we will have more to say on this. The initiative with Velon is only the start - we applaud the collaboration between the professional teams to strengthen our sport through a shared vision to get more fans closer to cycling.”
Such statements should be music to the ears of fans and sponsors alike. The insights offered to the casual viewer would be immense and would surely boost the sport’s popularity among floating voters who perhaps delve no deeper than a Tour highlights package. Cycling tactics can be impenetrable to the casual observer. On-screen rider data and on-board footage would offer dazzling clarity. Brailsford’s vision is to be welcomed.