Briton offers harsh assessment of Sky's growing pains
This is an abridged version of a feature that appears in the latest edition of Procycling magazine. Click here to find out how you can obtain your copy.
Team Sky went into the Tour de France with leader Bradley Wiggins intent on challenging for the yellow jersey. However, after finishing fourth in the 2009 race, Wiggins struggled to make any kind of impact, and came away describing his performance as "mediocre".
Looking back on it two months later, Wiggins says, "it just didn't happen, it's as simple as that" but he insists that he will learn from the mistakes and that he can still contend for the Tour de France podium next year. "My aim is just to do things my way," he says, as he sets out how he plans to turn things around in 2011.
The 30-year-old Londoner confesses that he and his team's directors were well aware by the time they had that debrief that they'd got quite a few things wrong in the build-up to the Tour.
"For instance, in hindsight riding the Giro d'Italia was perhaps not the best thing to do. Or the way we raced the Giro was a mistake anyway. It was a brutal race. The guys who did the Giro all seemed to fall by the wayside at the Tour - myself, Cadel Evans and Ivan Basso had a shocker," Wiggins says of what was undoubtedly one of the toughest grand tours of recent years.
Although Wiggins, [Dave] Brailsford and [Shane] Sutton decided it was in the Sky team leader's interests to ease off during the final week of the Giro with the Tour very much in mind, the damage had been done. "We'd already had two weeks of pretty intensive racing. So just trying to ride through the last week was never going to happen because it was so hard," he says.
"So we finished the Giro and the next mistake was not racing at all between the Giro and the Tour, which I didn't do last year when I was in the UK and raced domestically. Back then, I raced a Premier calendar, some local chippers and a 10-mile time trial.
"But this year, because we had our heads up our arses over the Tour de France, it was like: 'Well, you can't go and do domestic races now. Tour riders don't do that. Lance would never go and do a 10-mile time trial.' We were trying to be too smart about it, too pompous in many ways."
The problems continued when the team reached the Tour. "I had a disappointing prologue," Wiggins says of his opening day effort in Rotterdam, which saw him finish a lowly 77th. "We tried to be too smart about it and get one up on everyone with the weather reports. "We had this scientific camping car with all this weather shit and I got advised to go off early to beat the rain and it turned out to be the other way around.
"Again, it was over-complicating things. I should have just gone off with the other leaders and ridden around. Once again it was bullshit. We were trying to over-predict and over-think these things. We were always on the back foot after that. In contrast, last year I had a great prologue and then a great team time trial and, motivation-wise, that meant I was in there and on the front foot."
Looking at the upside
It wasn't all bad, though, as Wiggins rode well during the rest of the Tour's opening week and rose through the standings. Heading for the first key mountain finish at Avoriaz, he and his team had their confidence back, to the extent that their pace-setting on that day's penultimate climb of the col de la Ramaz saw off Lance Armstrong. But four kilometres from the finish at Avoriaz, Wiggins fell back just as it seemed he was set to move into the top 10. "That was the day I realised that I didn't have it in the mountains, that's for sure. There was no way back after that," he acknowledges.
Having had time to reflect on these setbacks, Wiggins believes that he and Sky made a more fundamental mistake that they are planning on correcting next season. "From our point of view we made the Tour de France such a goal that it became too big. It became this thing that just washed everything else away," he says.
He admits that, to some extent, Sky got carried away with their own hype in their pronouncements about podium finishes and winning the Tour within five years. But, he adds, doing so has taught them an invaluable lesson. Wiggins says that 2010 has been "a huge learning year in the sense of how not to do it and it showed what we can do differently next year. In terms of how I will approach things, I'm not going to be something I'm not, which means I'm not going to be this super 'everything by the book athlete', because that doesn't work for me. My biggest thing is just being relaxed and doing it my way.
"I was in really good form early in the year in Murcia and finished third and instead of moving on from that and going to other races like the criterium International and using that form, it was more a case of backing off, of saying: 'let's have a week off now and come down a bit and then start building again.' It was always done with a view to the Tour whereas the year before, because I didn't have any grand scheme of doing well at the Tour de France, I was doing all of the races I love doing like Paris-Roubaix, the Three Days of De Panne. I was just enjoying racing, and racing for results.
"We've already had long discussions about next year and the plan is for me to hit the ground running, to race early season to win races and then stop around April and have a break, and then start building towards the Tour," he continues. "Last year it was a whirlwind after finishing fourth in the Tour, the whole thing about changing teams going on through the winter, then joining this new superteam. All of a sudden, everyone was an expert on how to win the Tour de France. I had more advisers than the Prime minister. The year before, no one could give a monkey's about me."
He admits the clamour and increasing attention affected him. He insists it wasn't a case of succumbing to pressure, internal or otherwise, but more of losing his bearings, of forgetting why he had performed so outstandingly in 2009. "I wasn't as relaxed and as happy to be around," he says. "I'm at my best when I'm relaxed and just go out and do the job without making it too big a deal."
Garmin versus Sky...
During the interview, Wiggins regularly harks back to his time with Garmin, with whom he made his breakthrough into the Tour's big league. "In 2009, no one would ever have made me a contender during the early season. I was just doing the stuff that I thought I was good at. I won the time trial at De Panne, I was top 20 at Roubaix. I was just racing and enjoying it.
"After that I went into the Giro team just to help Christian Vande Velde and it developed from there really. There's a lot to be said for the way I approached that season and I think I need to do that next year really. Cycling is not an exact science, there's no textbook on how to do it. You have to find out what works for you and what doesn't, and to do that you have to fail sometimes. We got it to a fine art with the track and this year was essentially the first year of doing it on the road.
"The difference going into this season was that I felt like I was being pulled left and right. I was thinking: 'Right, you're going to have be like Lance and Sastre and all those guys in how you approach the Tour.' So obviously I was going to go to the Tour of Murcia, build up through the Basque Country and the Ardennes classics. but that was everyone else's way of how to do it and not mine. It wasn't a case of 'What did you do last year, Brad, because something must have worked for you?'" Although it may sound like Wiggins has regrets about leaving Garmin, this is far from the case. He wouldn't want to be anywhere else but with Sky.
"This team has made massive strides this year and it's been brilliant being part of it," he says. "To have been in another team and seen all that from a distance would have been hard to take. "but this year we just didn't have the same kind of spirit [as Garmin] at the Tour, although we had it at the Giro. At the Tour it was just tense. You're in a £1 million bus and there's only one way to act in a £1 million bus. So every time the music was blaring someone would want it turned down," he says, acknowledging that Sky's approach was at times too sensible.
The road ahead
Wiggins explains that he and Sutton are "going back to what we used to do and he's going to try to guide me through this." That process will start towards the end of this year when Wiggins returns to British Cycling's track programme with a view to competing in next February's World Cup event in Manchester. After that, he explains, "I'll race right from the early season without any specific view towards the Tour de France. I'll try to hit the ground running and race well at Tirreno-Adriatico and the criterium International, the Three Days of De Panne and Paris-Roubaix, where I can help the team and Juan Antonio Flecha.
"I'll stop after Roubaix and have a bit of a break, and then start building up towards the Tour with perhaps the traditional Dauphiné run-in. So there will be two parts to the year and I'll be thinking of taking opportunities early in the season rather than thinking about the Tour de France in March. That works for some people, and obviously Lance is the master of that. But that's not the type of rider I am. I'm not really Lance. I just love riding my bike and I need to focus on that. Next year I'd like to get some early season wins."
One way that he hopes he might be able to do that is by attempting altitude training for the first time. "That was the other thing that came out of the Tour," he explains. "The tests showed that I had the power and I was at the right weight, and that power didn't diminish in the Tour through what we saw in that last time trial.
"I just thought I was lacking over a certain altitude, four or five kilometres from the summits. It was the one thing we didn't do this year. We didn't go to altitude because we did the recon of the race in between the Giro and the Tour. The Giro took up three weeks, so there was never any time to explore altitude training but I know a lot of the other guys do it. It's something we're going to look at doing next year to see whether it works for me or not. That could be the one thing that maybe makes the difference."
Of course, the route of the 2011 race could make a difference as well, but Wiggins plays down its significance. When asked what he was hoping for, Wiggins says: "A team time trial with the sort of team we have will be brilliant for us, and just as much time trialling as possible. "but," he adds, "every Tour is different and you just work with what the route is and try to do your best. There's always going to be climbing in the Tour de France, but getting physically right is the main thing."
He is confident that his own and his team's experiences this season will enable him to be on top form when the 2011 Tour de France comes around. "I think that when I look back in two or three years' time I will look at this year as a huge plus in many respects.
"It was hard to deal with at the time, but if I do get it right in the next few years I think I'll look back and think of this year as beneficial in terms of learning. I think if we had gone on to get the podium this year then it would have been almost too much of a fairytale, almost too easy, and next year would have been even harder," Wiggins says. "Sometimes you do need big disappointments in sport. Sometimes you have to fail at something to realise how to do it."
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