Dave Brailsford, performance director of British Cycling insists that the nation’s cyclists will be in peak condition to challenge for medals come 2012, and has also revealed that Team Sky, where he is team principal, may relax its policy of not employing people associated with doping in the past.
Brailsford made his comments in a comprehensive interview published in today’s Guardian, in which he confirms that the team held discussions last year with the former Festina rider Neil Stephens over the Australian possibly joining the team in a managerial capacity.
Stephens admitted taking EPO during the investigation into the Festina Affair which overshadowed the 1998 Tour de France, although he claimed that he thought he was injecting vitamins.
The cyclist, winner of a stage in the 1997 Tour de France, retired shortly afterwards and was never subject to disciplinary proceedings. He was also directeur sportif at the Spanish team, Liberty Seguros, when the Operacion Puerto scandal broke in 2006.
When he was setting up Team Sky in 2009, Brailsford said that it would not employ anyone with an “association with doping,” which explains why no effort was made to sign David Millar, whose ban for doping resulted from police interrupting him while out at dinner with Brailsford in Biarritz, taking the cyclist to his home where syringes were found.
"There's no place for drugs in the sport and we like to think that we're at the forefront of promoting clean cycling," insists Brailsford.
"That philosophy will always stay. If we thought it wasn't possible then I'd be out. However, when you're trying to lift performance, and you look at the staffing side, if you want experience of professional cycling you have to go back a long way to find people over 40 who haven't been tainted in some way.
“You have your anti-doping policy but you need to weigh it up. And, actually, if the need of the team in performance was such and there was an individual that was generally considered in the 'positive' group, to excuse the pun, then he couldn't be ruled out."
It’s unclear whether Brailsford is referring to backroom staff alone, or whether that statement also includes riders, and is perhaps therefore an admission that that at least when it comes to more experienced riders, their early years in the sport will have coincided with widespread doping, where there is also the risk of guilt being attached through association or finger-pointing.
Team Sky’s Canadian rider Michael Barry, for example, has been named by Floyd Landis as one of the former US Postal Service riders to have used performance enhancing drugs, but Brailsford seems happy with his presence in the team for now.
"When we signed Michael Barry we took him on face value," he maintains. "You have to have experienced riders of that calibre in your team. They need to help the leaders. They need to be wise to the peloton and how it works.
“Michael came from a period of riding with Columbia and we were very confident in Bob Stapleton's set-up as a clean team. We took him on that basis. Who knows where these things will end up? If something comes out in the future then we'll review it. But Michael's got a lot of respect and people like his persona."
Turning to the season just begun, Brailsford reiterated the comments he made last November that the team would not repeat the ‘one rider, one race’ strategy it employed during 2010, built around hopes that Bradley Wiggins could improve on the fourth place he had claimed in the previous year’s Tour de France.
He also acknowledged that the publicly stated aim of getting a British rider to win the Tour de France within five years had created additional pressure, and that the razzamatazz that had accompanied its launch had perhaps been misguided.
"We've got to admit now there is a difference between having a dream, an aspirational goal, and specific targets. So what we need to do with individuals is to allow them to work towards specific targets – so it is something they can control.
"If I could wind the clock back we would have a much more humble arrival into professional road cycling. There was a real element of hype and I'll hold my hand up and admit I got caught up in that. We would tone that down if we could start all over again.
“The other key thing is we're not so focused on one rider and one event like we were last year with Bradley and the Tour. We want to race across the season – and to increase the priority on other races. That change will suit Bradley,” Brailsford continued.
"Bradley's fourth place changed his life professionally and financially. I don't think his gold medals at previous Olympics changed his life in the same way. He had a lot of recalibrating to do and there was this massive weight of that. That's a burden for anyone to carry."
Added to that is the fact that Brailsford does not see Wiggins as perhaps the ideal choice for team leader, the implication being that the rider most likely to challenge for a general classification place on a grand tour is perhaps not the ideal choice as road captain.
“I think you can get put into leadership roles because of your performance and attributes on the bike,” underlines Brailsford. “That doesn't mean you're automatically going to be a leader of men. There's a danger in that. We tend to do that with sports people. You think, 'Right, he's a brilliant bike rider or a fantastic cricketer – so he must know everything about life.' Of course he doesn't. He's just a bike rider.
“In Bradley's case it's important to have key riders around him who can take some of that responsibility and leadership role. His job is just to go fast on that bike."
Besides his role at Team Sky, Brailsford is of course in charge of the Team GB squad, and he rejects claims made last year by Beijing gold medalist Jamie Staff that his focus on the road had led to the track side of the sport suffering, highlighting Ben Swift’s two stage wins in the Tour Down Under last month, plus a strong performance by the Team GB development squad in the UCI Track World Cup in Beijing and a training camp on Mallorca that involved both Team Sky riders and the elite team pursuit squad.
"For the first time," claims Brailsford, "there was tangible evidence that this amalgamation of Team Sky and British Cycling is really working," Brailsford said.
The choice of words is an interesting one; since last year, the auditors Deloitte have been reviewing the relationship between Team Sky and British Cycling to ascertain whether conflicts of interest between what is on the one hand, a trade team and on the other, a publicly funded body.
With his British Cycling hat on, Brailsford is currently preparing for this week’s UCI World Cup Classics at the Manchester Velodrome, followed by the World Championships in Denmark next month, but as it has done since the moment Team GB returned from Beijing, the shadow of London 2012 looms large.
At Beijing, Team GB won seven of the ten track gold medals on offer and added another on the road through Nicole Cooke.
Changes to the event schedule in the velodrome plus a limit of one rider per nation and the resurgence in Australian track cycling means that the country us unlikely to repeat that success on home soil, but Brailsford insists that the team will be ready.
"Success is a funny thing," he explains. "You have to absorb it. It changes your life but, then, you need to get back to basics and get on with it. I think we're feeling now, across the organisation, real hunger and drive again.
“You can't keep the same intensity level for four years. You have to come down and then build again and peak at the right time. The challenge is difficult this time round but I think we're well positioned for 2012.
"Like everything else in life the goalposts move," Brailsford adds. "It's not impossible but it's highly unlikely we're going to get anywhere near the same volume of medals because we can't double-medal. On the other hand we still have 18 medals to go for and some of the world's best cyclists – so it's all to play for."
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.