For Dave Brailsford the path towards Tour de France glory in 2015 starts with a blank piece of paper. Neatly tucked into his top pocket for the best part of a fortnight it symbolizes the way forward for Team Sky as they reassess, analysis and plot their challenge for the Tour next season with Chris Froome at the spearhead.
From Team Sky’s Mallorca training camp, to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards in Glasgow, back to Mallorca and then onto the final leg of this recent journey at Chris Froome’s residence in Monaco, Brailsford has begun to map out and piece together the team’s goals for the new season.
“Rather than talking about tweaking things it’s more of a belt and braces, blank sheet of paper, let’s start again way of thinking,” he enthusiastically tells Cyclingnews as he navigates through Palma airport on route to Monaco.
“And I’m thinking a lot about what 2020 looks like and what the best team in the world might look like then. It’s quite fun when you think about it like that and how a team might work in five years time in terms of structure and training. It’s about going to talk to a lot of guys from leading sports teams in America and the world and seeing what everyone is doing because there’s some fantastic stuff that’s going on out there that we could bring into our sport.”
Over the last fortnight Brailsford and Team Sky’s management have locked themselves away in their Mallorca retreat and as the riders have trained and formed new bonds with several key signings. Brailsford has assessed the team’s strengths and weaknesses, analysing what has gone right for the team and what and why things have gone off the rails at times.
“We’re going into our sixth season and at certain points we’ve evolved during that time but every now and then you have to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes. That’s what I’ve tried to do in terms of looking at what we do, how we do it and there’s been a lot of analysis. Then it’s a case of putting it all together for the start of the new season,” he explains.
“There are changes in personnel, we’ve brought a few people in who will question things but in the main it’s about taking a really fresh look at the situation. I try and imagine it’s like walking into a new team rather than thinking about an evolution of an existing team. It’s about looking at things as if it was day one and then looking at how we move forward.”
Froome for the Tour, Porte for the Giro
The team’s full race schedule has yet to be officially released but Froome has already declared the Tour de France as his major ambition. It’s understood that a possible tilt at the Vuelta a Espana could follow, while teammate Richie Porte is likely to be handed another chance at leading the team at the Giro d’Italia before returning to his domestique deluxe role for Froome at the Tour.
Such a scenario would put to bed the speculation and the folly surrounding a triple Grand Tour challenge and give defined targets to Team Sky’s ambitions for 2015. Froome had previously mentioned a tilt at the Giro d'Italia and revealed his dislike of the 2015 Tour de France route but he has quickly defaulted to the aim of winning the sport's biggest stage race once more.
“We as a team decided that it [the Tour] was the right one to go for. Chris is a brilliant climber and a brilliant time trialist and I don’t think he has anything to be scared of and ultimately if you want to be seen as a great stage race rider you’ve got to take on all terrains and parcours to do that. We don’t need to worry about the outcome in terms of winning, it’s about the approach to maximise the outcome of winning that’s important,” Brailsford says, offering his rider almost a public pep talk.
“When you look at the Tour for next year with Chris, Quintana, Nibali and Contador, all going head to head, it’s massively exciting and it’s what everyone wants and may the best man win.”
What is next for Wiggins?
With Froome and Porte already on their paths towards 2016 the next logical rider to focus on is Bradley Wiggins.
The British athlete had a diluted road season in 2014 but still came away with the overall at the Tour of California and a time trial world title in September, with one of the most powerful performances of the entire year.
The former Tour de France winner will end his professional relationship with Team Sky at the end of the Spring, which means a ride at the Giro d’Italia is unlikely to be on the cards, but before he walks away from the WorldTour team and begins to focus on the track for Rio 2016 with his own development team, he will target Paris-Roubaix. Having tasted unrivaled success on the track, morphed into a Tour de France winner, the next logical yet unprecedented step in modern cycling would be to win a Classic.
“It’s impressive when he’s on it and he’s really on it with Roubaix,” Brailsford says.
“The way he’s thinking about Roubaix and what he needs to do is as impressive as ever. If he wins there he will cement his place as one of the true greats of the sport.”
It seems therefore that Brailsford’s piece of paper is not so blank after all. The finite details on Team Sky’s plans will be put forward and announced in the new year as Brailsford lines up his ducks over the winter and publishes race schedules for the rest of his team.
A look back at the 2014 season
To some Brailsford’s approach to starting again from scratch may seem drastic. In 2012 and 2013 the British team was unrivaled in stage races and carried off two Tour de France titles in a row. The 2014 season, however, has seen the team fall from grace and to make matters worse their rivals have gained ground and in the cases of Astana and Tinkoff Saxo, leapfrogged them.
The marginal gains formula has been replicated, repeated and improved upon. No longer will a training camp in Tenerife suffice and as one Team Sky rider told Cyclingnews earlier this year, that approach and location was standard within a number of teams this season.
“It’s the same with training. We know that a lot of teams train like we do now so it’s up to go out and find better ways of training. It’s a lot of fun and it’s what it’s all about,” Brailsford says.
“I think we had a couple of years when everything went to plan. We won that series of races with Paris-Nice, Romandie, Dauphine and Tour, all back to back but if you look at the start of this season when Ian Stannard won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad we were all rubbing our hands thinking that this is it and that we’d win a Classic but then through no fault of his own he broke his back in a crash. And I think that summed up our season.”
“Richie looked great in Tirreno-Adriatico but then got really sick and had to skip the Giro d'Italia. Chris had his crashes. Geraint Thomas crashed out at Paris-Nice but in the middle of a challenging season there were some great performances like Bradley’s win in the Worlds time trial. It was one of the best performances of our entire life as Team Sky. Froome also won Romandie and Oman. And the character he showed at the Vuelta was a real boost to the team. When he was fighting and battling, clawing his way up those climbs like he did, that gave the team huge morale. I think that meant we ended up on a good note and that’s run with us through the off season.”
“I’ve been really happy with how the team camp has gone. We’ve had new riders coming in and that’s always a positive aspect and generally everyone has been energised and on it.”
“When you have seasons where you have a lot of success, and then maybe a season where you have some but not as much success, it always gets you going and puts everyone on their A game again.”
The Astana licence and Oleg Tinkov's opinions
While Team Sky builds for 2015 under the tutelage and guidance of Brailsford, the team boss has kept abreast of the developments at Astana, one of his major rivals in the WorldTour.
The Kazakh team have been rocked in the last few months and faced calls for their UCI WorldTour licence to be revoked. The head of the sport’s governing body, Brian Cookson, told Cyclingnews last week that the team were in the ‘last chance saloon’ and that they would be independently audited by the Lausanne University during 2015.
However under the UCI regulations the Licencing Commission could not remove Astana’s licence despite their current run of positive tests. At a time when professional cycling is searching for credibility and respect, the UCI – although adhering to their own rules, looked ineffective.
Brailsford would not be drawn into the specifics of the Astana case and would not give a yes or no on whether the team’s licence should be questioned. However he warned that the UCI and its leadership needed to make tough choices for the good of the sport.
“On a general principle the world governing body is there to govern and it’s their responsibility and it’s Brian’s responsibility to lead everybody and to make sure that the rules are in place with the right structures to govern properly. If the UCI’s comments are that the structures aren’t in place to make a decision that can affect teams that then you need to get to a place where they are,” Brailsford argues.
“And I don’t think that the UCI should hide behind administrative laws and that they might get into trouble with legal fees. That doesn’t wash with me at all. They’re there to lead and govern and the job is to find solutions and sometimes in order to find solution to bring the sport forward it’s going to be a bit bumpy. That’s what they’re there to do so it’s time for them to stand up and lead, for Brian to do what he said he was going to do. Lead the sport. Not hide behind some sort of legal or administrative excuses.”
“I’m not going to get drawn into specific instances but if I was in charge I think would do what was expected. This isn’t about the status quo. This sport needs to change and move forward and to do that it needs credibility and to get there you need to make some big decisions because there’s quite a bit of work to do. What I’m looking for from the UCI is leadership.”
Brailsford also has a a final word for Tinkoff-Saxo bank team owner Oleg Tinkov. The outspoken Russian again took shots at Brailsford in a recent interview with the Telegraph and seems determined to overshadow Team Sky in 2015.
Brailsford seems amused that Tinkov is so obsessed about him.
“I like Tinkov, he’s a real character and I think he does a lot for the sport. But to be honest I find it quite flattering that he talks about me so much. I don’t think about him at all but he’s entitled to his opinion,” he said succinctly.