British Tour de France winners are like buses — you wait years for one and then you get two, one right after the other.
Two British victors of cycling’s toughest event back to back might seem outlandish, but Dave Brailsford, Sky Pro Cycling, Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins have made it seem routine.
In 2009, Sky was spreadsheets, jottings and “brain dumps” as they tried to start a professional cycling team — they had little idea what they were getting into — but last month Froome started as overwhelming Tour favorite, led the race from week one and never looked likely to be beaten. Wiggins did exactly the same last year.
It has taken four years, but that is not a coincidence — it is an Olympic cycle, the timeframe in which British Cycling, the UK’s governing body, and its performance director, Brailsford, have functioned since the arrival of lottery funding in 1997.
Britain’s Tour domination stems from the record Olympic haul which drew big money from Sky — James Murdoch is a cyclist and turns up to some races — and gave them the base from which to climb cycling’s Everest.
Sky’s goal was to dominate road cycling using the same methods that had brought Olympic success, notably the “aggregation of marginal gains,” where every area is examined in detail for possible improvement and the cumulative effect of many small gains gives a considerable gain on the opposition.
Sky also used the people-management principles of Steve Peters, a psychiatrist who had worked at Rampton mental hospital.
The first year was a struggle. The “marginal gains” made the team the butt of derision. Their special setup at time trials, with matting laid out so cyclists would not slip in their carbon-fiber soled shoes, took hours to set up — and other teams would laugh as they toiled away.
Attempts to use weather modeling to locate training camps and decide Wiggins’ start time in a Tour time trial fell flat. Staff would moan about lugging riders’ custom-made bedding in and out of hotels every night.
There were tensions among riders and staff, with European hirings struggling to fit in with British Cycling’s methods. Key members left — there were complaints about constant meetings.
The ridicule lasted only as long as it took for Sky to start winning and since late 2011 there has been a trail of success, not just in the Tour, but in other stage races.
By then Sky’s training guru, Tim Kerrison, was putting together a radical program at the root of Wiggins’ and Froome’s successes — intense training at high altitude, reverse periodization, which turned the idea of a gradual buildup to the Tour on its head, less racing and more training.
Rod Ellingworth, Sky’s performance manager, and Kerrison put together an internal communication system based on drop boxes, as Sky’s 80 personnel were spread around Europe. Advanced planning and logistics were put in place. More training staff were hired, so that, uniquely, Sky’s riders benefit from one-to-one training.
“You can see from this team how much you can get by investing relatively small amounts in coaching,” Kerrison said. “The gains are disproportionate.”
Kerrison’s computer modeling of the Tour’s athletic demands meant the team could target what training was needed. The dietitian, Nigel Mitchell, monitors every gram consumed.
The fruits of Froome’s work in a wind tunnel could be seen in his time trial success and in the climbs that won him the race, while the Olympic link is as strong as ever — key team members Geraint Thomas and Peter Kennaugh were gold medalists.
On Saturday, Froome spoke of his journey to Tour de France success, from pounding dirt tracks in Kenya as a teenager, but the voyage taken by Brailsford and his cohorts from tyros to Tour tyrants is equally remarkable.
The Sky head said that in 2010 he would have given his right arm to see one of his cyclists make the podium in a major Tour — now the cycling world is scrabbling to catch up.