Sir Dave Brailsford on marginal gains and that Froome-Wiggins rivalry
“We are not running a marriage guidance service here,” says Team Sky boss
Team Sky boss Sir Dave Brailsford says that his goal in handling his two two riders, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome is to win races, regardless of the rivalry between the pair. “We are not running a marriage guidance service here,” he told The Times.
Wiggins and Froome have not raced together since the Tour of Oman in February, but will be reunited Sunday at the world road cycling championships where Wiggins has said he will ride for Froome in the road race and aim for the title himself in the time trial.
Froome and Wiggins fell out in the 2012 Tour de France when Froome appeared to attack Wiggins on a climb. Former Sky sport director Sean Yates recently claimed that Wiggins had to be talked out of going home after that incident.
In an interview with the paper’s Matthew Syed, Brailsford told The Times: “Look, they are consecutive winners of the Tour de France and are both amazing riders. They are also different. My responsibility is to make sure they perform to the best of their ability, individually and together.
“We are not running a marriage guidance service here. We are trying to win big races. They are both selected for the World Championships next week. When we get to the end of the season we will have a debrief and figure out where to go from there.”
While the rivalry of two of his best riders is undoubtedly a headache for Brailsford, there are worse problems to have than figuring out how to get two British Tour de France champions to work together. When Brailsford started his coaching career, the idea would have been unthinkable.
“When I was growing up, the basic idea was that we were a nation of losers,” Brailsford said. “People just accepted that countries like Australia were more resolute and tough-minded. We Brits were jolly good sports, but we couldn’t really cut it. I never bought into any of that. I believed that if we applied science and teamwork we could take on the world.”
The science is Team Sky’s famous philosophy of ‘marginal gains’: examine everything that might have an effect on the riders’ performance, and find a way to make it slightly better. By assembling a crack team of sports scientists whose expertise includes ergonomics, nutrition, physiology and psychology, Brailsford has turned Team Sky into a seemingly-unstoppable Tour de France juggernaut.
“People often associate marginal gains with pure technology, but it is far more than that,” Brailsford said. “It is about nutrition, ergonomics, psychology. It is about making sure the riders get a good night’s sleep by transporting their own bed and pillow to each hotel. It is about using the most effective massage gel. Each improvement may seem trivial, but the cumulative effect can be huge.”
Even Team Sky’s blue and black bus - nicknamed the Death Star - is entirely organised around making life better and more comfortable for the riders. But what of Sir Darth Brailsford himself? How does he handle the most visible job in British cycling?
“After our success in Beijing, people kind of assumed we would dominate in London. The expectation was huge and I could feel it pressing in on me. I knew that if we failed my reputation would be shattered. At times it was scary and I definitely had moments of huge self-doubt.”
Most of the time, though, Brailsford says he thoroughly enjoys his job, though he sometimes forgets to celebrate the successes. Team GB sport psychologist Steve Peters calls him a ‘dead goldfish’ person.
“When certain people experience emotional events, good or bad, they cope by busying themselves,” said Brailsford. “They will set about organising the funeral, but will not give themselves time to grieve. Then, days or weeks later, they come downstairs and see that their goldfish has died. And that is the trigger for everything to burst out. It is a delayed reaction.”
That happened to Brailsford weeks after the London Olympics. “I was on a plane, on my own, and I picked up the in-flight magazine and started reading a story about British Cycling. Suddenly, I started welling up, this feeling bursting through my chest. My eyes started watering. It was like I was reading about somebody else and the enormity of what we had achieved suddenly registered. I was completely overwhelmed.”