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Interview: Team Sky's Rod Ellingworth

Sky's head of performance talks about his journey to the Death Star, British Cycling and making it through the winter...

It's not often you get to beat yourself up round a windy closed road circuit, whilst Team Sky's head of performance barks instructions at you from a Jaguar team car. In fact, I'd go so far as to say as it's never happened to me before. And probably never will again. It certainly makes you want to try your hardest.

That head of performance is Rod Ellingworth, a founder member of the Team Sky management and the man who was instrumental in bringing the GB squad together for Mark Cavendish's 2011 World Road Race Championship win – there's a good book about that if you want to know the full story. He's also the man responsible for initiating the British Cycling Academy programme that developed Cavendish, among others, into a world beater.

We caught up with Rod at the final day of Jaguar's Ride Like a Pro series, which started with group rides from Jaguar dealerships around the country and culminated in a time trial and driving skills day in the wilds of Lincolnshire. Thirty or so riders had been picked, and the top man and woman would be off to Mallorca for a training date with the team, so for all the friendly chat between participants, this was serious.

Rod and the Team Sky team were on hand to offer the riders encouragement and advice on their seven laps of the windy Blyton Park test track. They'd even brought the death star with them. There's only so much knowledge one man can impart to 30 riders in the space of 25 or so intensive minutes of riding, but just hearing the team car coming up behind you is worth a couple of extra mph.

Rod's known for his tenacious attention to detail and a fierce belief in discipline, famously making a young Cav wash all the team bikes after he was late for a race. But face to face he's a friendly, affable northerner with a dry sense of humour. "Kurt Asle [Arvesen] was supposed to be here," he tells me. "He says he's done something to his back. I've just been texting him to find out if he's conveniently been getting out of it." You grew up racing and you were a professional for two years. Were you interested in the training side of things when you were racing?

Rod Ellingworth: I was just racing, but I always enjoyed the social side, and what comes with that is that there always needs to be someone to lead things. Someone has to take hold of a group and say, "we're going left" or "we're going right" and I always tended to do that. It was a natural draw for me, and even when I lived out in France all the local French guys would come and meet at my house and I'd take them out. I remember thinking it was a bit odd, but I used to find different routes, they'd always end up doing the same roads.

it wasn't until I got back from France at the end of 1999 that I really thought about coaching. There was an opportunity at British Cycling within the talent team and I started doing some voluntary work, weekend stuff with the kids. My dad, my brother, everybody's involved with cycling; they run races, my dad was always the guy who led the club runs and smacked everyone on top of the head when they were doing something wrong. I think it was just a natural progression for me. But I never thought I'd be doing this job. When did you realise that you wanted to take it further than just the voluntary help and make coaching a career?

Rod Ellingworth: Actually, I always wanted to be a fireman. That was always my goal: I'd do the cycling for as long as I could and then go and be a fireman. But I went to the fire station and they told me that they weren't interested in people who bum around the world and they would never take me as a fireman. So I was forced into it a little bit, and it just built from there. I just enjoyed it, to be honest. Getting involved with the British Cycling talent team as a volunteer gave me a taste for it, and from there I went to do my coaching course.

In my last years of racing, my role was really to help the younger guys, and I enjoyed that as well. So I think it was just a natural thing for me to want to do.

I spent two years doing bits and bobs of voluntary work with the talent team before they took me on. At weekends they'd have what they called expert riders come in and do sessions with the kids, I used to come in and do that. I found it quite restrictive in some areas; we weren't teaching the kids all the technical and tactical side of things, it was all about the physical side of the sport. I thought there was a lot more we could do.

I started with the talent team in early 2002 but by October or November I'd already moved up to assistant national endurance coach, working with the elite under-23 team. I wasn't really with the talent team for long at all.

I started as the assistant national coach working under Simon Jones. I was mostly observing for the first seven or eight months and I was given a group of riders who I didn't feel had the ambition or the passion, the guts for cycling. They were athletes who'd been told they could be good at cycling, rather than cyclists, and I really felt that needed to be changed. It was then that I wrote the idea of the academy program, linking with the junior program, with bigger goals: setting the sights really high.

It was quite challenging. In cycling, juniors is a crucial part of development. For other sports, it's different: if you're not doing football at five, six, seven you're not going to learn the ball skills and you'll never be a footballer. In cycling, between the ages of 14 and 19 or 20 is key, and 18 is the point where riders have to make a decision on life: school, or sport? I challenged quite a lot of them to leave university: it's this, or nothing. You can go back to university afterwards. Maybe that's just my outlook, because I never took the university route. But I didn't see it as necessary to do that job.

We set up the academy program and I threw myself at it, I was living 11 months of the year with these young lads, not giving them a millimetre to move, and I wanted really high discipline, army style. It worked for the majority; it didn't work for some. But I think what it did do was set the standard really high. Before we started the program the riders were living at home, but we moved it to a more university-style regime: you're in, and then you can go home for certain periods of time.

That system has changed quite dramatically since I've moved on, I think. Fundamentally it has the same basic aims. I ended up moving to Italy with the riders for the racing season and we'd stay in Manchester for the winter and do the track season. When I left Italy it stayed for another year, then it moved back to the UK. I think that's one of the fundamental elements that they need to get back again. The young lads need to go and experience living in Europe, because that's where the heart of cycling is. You're right next to all the racing; you don't have all that extra travelling. Now you're with Team Sky. Where does your role sit within the management of the team?

Rod Ellingworth: As one of the founder members of the setup, you end up getting involved in loads of different areas, but fundamentally my role is all about performance. I'm in the heart of the coaching, studies on how we can get better in different areas, looking at the races, looking at the demands of the calendar, what's going to catch us out.

I work a lot on the hurdles that we have to get over. We're going over there, but if just head straight down there we're going to get caught out and if we don't recognise these three or four things, then they're going to trip us up. So I need to look at the bigger picture, how to aim for the goals and take the hurdles into consideration too. What's going to slap us in the face? We always want to be prepared.

I'm also involved in areas that affect performance in other ways. I manage all the clothing from a performance point of view. I manage the support staff and the carers, the mechanics, to make sure that from a performance standpoint we're all working towards the same goals. Anything to do with the team that might have an impact on performance comes through me. So rider appearances, media involvement at races, partners staying with the team, all of that has to come through me first to make sure we have a proper plan. The logistics too: ways in which we travel, making sure we have the best flights, ensuring we have everything we need in place to make it the best that we can. It's quite diverse, really.

I monitor the race programme. I don't come up with the programme, and I don't pick the team, but I look after it: what to do when riders are sick, all the reserve riders, what happens if there's a major crash somewhere and we've got a guy down, who do we get in... I do that side of things. I'm also involved with the outline discussions with race organisers: if there's something that we need or something we don't understand, I'll be the person to bring a performance point of view.

I'm not the one that makes all the decisions: we have very much a collective approach, and ultimately Dave Brailsford makes the final call if we can't decide on stuff. But I'm the one that will organise a lot of it to make sure we're all going the right way

It's quite a bit to get stuck into! And of course I'm still working for British Cycling as well. Since the team started often it's quite difficult to say who I'm working for at any one time: I very much see it as all one role. Obviously I work with foreign riders as well, and I try to commit to both just as deeply. With Dave Brailsford now finishing his role at British Cycling, how do you see the future of the two? Will they still be working so closely together?

Rod Ellingworth: Sky sponsoring British Cycling, the pro team... the benefits of the pro team are massive for British Cycling. We only have the success on the road because of the pro team. I don't think Bradley would have won the Tour de France without Team Sky. Not that we gave him anything extra physically, but I think he really believed in the structure, it gave him an extra drive. Cav's win at the Worlds was hugely influenced by this team. I think Cav could have won the Worlds – at the end of the day it's about getting the fittest guy to the line – but the structures at Team Sky helped to achieve that. It's a great collaboration between the two. Obviously Dave Brailsford is now 100% Team Sky after leading both of them for so long but I think we'll try very hard to keep it together. It's in everyone's interest. This is the team's month off, then it's back into the training regime. Has it changed a lot since you were racing at the turn of the century?

Rod Ellingworth: Things are changing, certainly. I think people used to switch right off and do a steady build through the winter, but we're learning different techniques. Now, I think if a rider's racing in the Tour Down under in the third week of January – even if they finished at the Vuelta or the road Worlds at the end of September – it's not that long. Once they come off the training the weight can go on on and the intensity goes, and the energy they have to expend to get themselves back up to that level is something that will cost you down the road. It probably won't cost you immediately, but three or four months of racing later it'll catch up with you.

The way I look at it, you've got a big battery. This time of year you've got to work to get to Christmas time with that battery full. If it's depleted at that point then you don't have enough time to get yourself ready for the early season. And over the year you'll run yourself down.

These are full-time athletes, and the demands are different. The season is longer. It's not the same for amateur riders, because the season isn't long like that. And it depends on your goals. The Chris Froomes of this world, the guys targeting the big GCs later on in the season, they can switch off a lot more and approach this time of year very differently: take a bit more of a mental break.

The skill to winter training is to be on schedule, but mentally switched off. The rider just knowing that every day they can put their leg over the bike and know what they're doing but not stressing themselves. There's certain sessions that will stretch you, and others that are easier to do. For instance, if you're a track sprinter like Chris Hoy or Jason Kenny, if every day they're on the clock, down to hundredths of a second, it's mentally tough.

Sometimes, I know Shane Sutton says, "no clocks today, just get the effort done". So straight away it's not so taxing on the brain, you're not against the clock or your expectations about how fast you can ride. and it's the same for the guys on the road. Sometimes it's best to take the numbers off, put them in the back pocket and don't worry about what you're doing numbers-wise, just ride your bike.

Some people can switch off and some people can't. You can see it. Even on an easy day, some people will always want to know what number they've done. Some riders will say, "well I didn't even bother putting the box on today", although we like them to keep it with them so at least we can keep a record of volume. You've got to try to get that balance right.

Some riders will take two weeks off, and they'll get to near the end of the two weeks and I'll get a phone call, and they're not mentally ready. You need to be flexible: sometimes you'll set a date and it won't be the right date. You've got to be ready to go. Some riders don't ever switch off. they like to keep riding the bikes because they've got a really good social scene on a Saturday or Sunday with a club run. One of the guys yesterday said to me he's just going to keep riding his mountain bike. No problem: they're still pedalling, aren't they?

Thanks to Jaguar, official partner to Team Sky, for the invite to the Ride Like a Pro final.

Dave is a founding father of, having previously worked on Cycling Plus and What Mountain Bike magazines back in the day. He also writes about e-bikes for our sister publication ebiketips. He's won three mountain bike bog snorkelling World Championships, and races at the back of the third cats.

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