Sir Dave Brailsford on marginal gains and that Froome-Wiggins rivalry

“We are not running a marriage guidance service here,” says Team Sky boss

by John Stevenson   September 23, 2013  

09 Dave Brailsford at the TDF 2013 launch © Simon MacMichael

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.”

13 user comments

Oldest firstNewest firstBest rated

I bet dealing with the egos of two consecutive Tour de France winners is an issue most teams wish they had

posted by jarredscycling [457 posts]
23rd September 2013 - 15:07


"seemingly-unstoppable Tour de France juggernaut"

Hmm, without Froome on that last tour, they'd have been nowhere. I think he'd have won in any of the other teams.

posted by DrJDog [203 posts]
23rd September 2013 - 18:15


DrJDog wrote:
"seemingly-unstoppable Tour de France juggernaut"

Hmm, without Froome on that last tour, they'd have been nowhere. I think he'd have won in any of the other teams.

Agreed. Sky need Froome more than Froome needs Sky. In the Vuelta they were nowhere. Be interesting to see what Porte can do next year with Wiggins concentrating on the track.

posted by Alan Tullett [1492 posts]
23rd September 2013 - 19:08


Of course it is a good problem to have.

I suspect that Wiggo's own motivations might make it an easier problem to solve in future seasons. Froome is well and truly set in as the #1 now after that Tour.

posted by Speedy Gilby [6 posts]
23rd September 2013 - 19:52


DrJDog wrote:
"seemingly-unstoppable Tour de France juggernaut"

Hmm, without Froome on that last tour, they'd have been nowhere. I think he'd have won in any of the other teams.

No he wouldn't have won it on ANY other team. Not Euskatel not AG2r, not a whole host of any other names, perhaps not on any other team. I am no big Sky fan but the teams results are second to none this year and not just because of the tour win. It is a team sport and you cannot just say Froome would have won it anyway, that is frankly ridiculous. Porte and others rode themselves into the ground supporting Froome for his wins this season, and a lot of work goes into building the psyche of a GT winner. Just because they have Only won the TOB since the Tour finished I would hardly write them off. 35 team victories this year only bettered by Cannondale (Sagan) and OPQS (Cavendish) You could say the same about both those other two teams, or could you? But what's the point none of them do ride for any other team.

Rant over!


posted by stevemarks [438 posts]
23rd September 2013 - 20:00


Marginal Gains, bla, bla - about the best marginal gain these articles ever come up with is the old pillow and mattress crap! Can a journalist please grow a pair and ask this guy what particular 'marginal gain' did Lienders bring to the table, and then challenge the BS answer that comes back.

posted by daddyELVIS [498 posts]
24th September 2013 - 1:00


And when he gives you a satisfactory answer about that, what will you then choose as the target for your scorn?

posted by Pondo [19 posts]
24th September 2013 - 9:02


I'd be more interested to know what would constitute a satisfactory answer. Is there ANYTHING that DB could say that would be satisfactory? Other than "oh yeah, you got me there - we charge them all to the eyeballs!"?

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice...

posted by notfastenough [3592 posts]
24th September 2013 - 10:08


I spy with my little eye 'another anti-Sky' comment!

Do I win a prize? Pair of socks perhaps?

No?! oh well, I guess it's because everytime there is a possiblity to dig at Sky someone does!

I wasn't particularly a big Sky fan but I am now, if nothing else but to go against the grain of negativity.

It's wrong to wear the kit, support the team, etc, etc.

Never heard anywhere near the level of comments (although there was debate, don't get me wrong) about Chris Horner. Or what about the Giro win by Nibali and the 'history' Astana have?

posted by Super Domestique [1661 posts]
24th September 2013 - 10:38


Pondo wrote:
And when he gives you a satisfactory answer about that, what will you then choose as the target for your scorn?

I've heard (read) his reason for appointing Lienders, but frankly, it doesn't stack up. But, I doubt he'd ever do a Q&A with Kimmage, so there's no one to press him further on the subject.

posted by daddyELVIS [498 posts]
24th September 2013 - 19:35


Why do people constantly do this? We have a succesful British team at last and yet everyone wants to knock Sky. I've supported the team since it's first race and will continue to do so. I've bought the books and I've bought the kit. If that makes me some kind of wanker, then so be it. I'd rather be the supportive kind of wanker than the ones who constantly chip away at superb achievement.

Rant over (but may resume)

posted by darren13366 [59 posts]
25th September 2013 - 9:33


I'm firmly with you darren13366.
I dont have the team kit or the black bike but Sir DB and teams have dragged british cycling out of the backroads and put it right on the world map
So to the detractors I say if you could do better the get off your backside and do it


posted by alg [143 posts]
25th September 2013 - 13:18


darren13366 wrote:
Why do people constantly do this?

...because many cycling fans are honest. If we're calling out foreign riders for working with dodgy doctors (sometimes only an alleged link to such doctors has been enough), then would it not be hypocritical to ignore the fact that a whole team employed the services of a dodgy and discredited doctor, just because that team is British? I hope you're not burning your kit in shame a decade from now.

posted by daddyELVIS [498 posts]
25th September 2013 - 21:00