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"Sky's the Limit": the story behind Sky's first attempt to attract Cavendish

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Mark Cavendish (HTC Highroad) sat up before the sprint

Mark Cavendish (HTC Highroad) sat up before the sprint (Image credit: Sirotti)
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Team Sky works to defend the lead of Bradley Wiggins (Sky)

Team Sky works to defend the lead of Bradley Wiggins (Sky) (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Race winner Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky)

Race winner Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) (Image credit: AFP)

When Dave Brailsford first discussed his plans to set up a British professional road team, during the 2007 Tour de France, it was apparent that Mark Cavendish - then making his Tour debut with T-Mobile - was foremost in his thoughts, along with another British Cycling Academy graduate and Tour debutant, Geraint Thomas.

“The lads here know I want to do this [set up a pro team] and they’re all absolutely mad for the idea,” said Brailsford in Bourg-en-Bresse, after stage six, which was won by Tom Boonen after a long solo attack by another British rider, Bradley Wiggins, was foiled almost within sight of the finish.

“We’ve got a set philosophy about doing things at British Cycling,” Brailsford explained, “with the riders at the centre. But look at a lot of teams here at the Tour – that’s not how they operate. Between races they don’t even see their riders. They don’t know where they are, never mind what they’re doing. It’s bonkers.”

One of the questions was whether the ‘old guard’ - Wiggins and David Millar - would be involved in the new British team. This was two years before Wiggins’ breakthrough as an overall contender, when he finished fourth in the 2009 Tour. But his and Millar’s involvement was uncertain - because Brailsford imagined that the team would launch in 2013.

“You’d like to think it’d be possible to do this before they’ve retired,” said Brailsford. But it was clear that the British Academy graduates held the key. “It’s dependent on these riders progressing and coming through,” he said. “But knowing what I do of these young lads, there’s plenty of talent. That’s not the issue.

“And with Cav [Cavendish], we’ve got a winner. He’s your goalscorer.”

By mid-2008, with Brailsford having secured the backing of Sky, and with his plans accelerated - the team would now launch in 2010, not 2013 - Cavendish still seemed set to be the rider around whom the new squad would be built.

The following extract from my new book, Sky’s the Limit - with extra relevance given this week’s news that Cavendish is set to join Team Sky in 2012 - takes up the story.


Celtic Manor, Newport, 24 July 2008

Shane Sutton and Dave Brailsford were discussing Mark Cavendish. Though they found themselves in the sumptuous surroundings of Celtic Manor, the five-star golf resort in Newport, Wales, their minds were frequently in France. It was difficult for them not to be.

Cavendish, their prodigy, golden boy, natural-born-winner, product of the British Cycling Academy and the rider around whom a British professional team would one day logically be constructed, had become the sensation of the Tour de France with four stage wins in his second attempt at the world’s biggest race.

“I believe I’m the fastest sprinter in the world,” he had said the day before the Tour started, and he had now proved it. Four times.

The cream of British Cycling thus occupied parallel universes for much of the month of July 2008. In Newport, holed up in Celtic Manor, was the British track team, now in ‘lock-down’ mode, and almost to a man and woman recording world-class times while training on the nearby Newport Velodrome, with the Olympics only weeks away. And in France was Mark Cavendish: the hottest property in world cycling.

Following stage fourteen, on 19 July, Cavendish abandoned the Tour in order to remain fresh and fit for the Olympics. He would ride the madison with Bradley Wiggins in Beijing, though at this point, and unknown to all but a few people, Wiggins’ participation in the Olympics was in doubt due to a virus that left him bed-bound for six days.

Brailsford and Sutton had a lot on their plate. The deal with Sky was done, and on 24 July the satellite broadcaster was announced as the new ‘principal partner’ of British Cycling. A five-year, ‘multi-million pound partnership’ encompassed every level of cycling, from encouraging participation to grassroots, to talent development, to elite; and every discipline, from BMX to mountain biking, track and road racing.

The wider goal was to get Britain back on its bike – to continue a process that London’s 2007 Grand Départ may have started, of transforming the country’s cycling culture. “I believe this partnership will create a step change for cycling,” said Brailsford. “Working together, we can take elite cycling to new heights and get more people involved in the sport at all levels.”

The track sprinters Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton – both of whom would go on to win gold medals in Beijing, in Hoy’s case three – fronted the launch of the Sky partnership. There was no mention of the sponsorship extending to a professional road team.

But Brailsford and Sutton both knew – despite their later assertions to the contrary – that the partnership with Sky was a forerunner to a professional team. Wiggins knew. And Cavendish knew. All were clear, too, that Cavendish would be the leader, the talisman.

Cavendish’s four stage wins at the Tour, which followed two stage wins in the Giro d’Italia, confirmed the wisdom behind a plan that would see Britain’s first major league professional team led by the world’s best sprinter, and most prolific winner. One of Brailsford’s trump cards was Rod Ellingworth, Cavendish’s coach.

Though Cavendish rode for Bob Stapleton’s Columbia-High Road team – a team that Stapleton, the Californian millionaire, salvaged from the ashes of the old T-Mobile outfit – Ellingworth was still the man he turned to, still the big brother figure, who managed his training and gave him tactical coaching.

Ellingworth was also the man who, when Cavendish was at the Academy, instilled in him the understanding that, in order to win, he had to lead; and that in order to lead, he had to act like a leader. It meant accepting the responsibility, and handling the pressure, of having eight teammates sacrifice their own chances for him. “There aren’t many who can take on that responsibility,” says Ellingworth. “But Cav can.”

But in the run-up to the Tour, and before the British Olympic team departed for the Newport holding camp, Cavendish and Sutton, both combustible characters, had one of their fairly frequent bust-ups.

It owed to Sutton’s repeated assertions, in public and in private, that Cavendish would lead the new British team. Cavendish took exception to the assumption. He felt his involvement was being taken for granted. The upshot was that Cavendish travelled to the 2008 Tour in a fiery, belligerent frame of mind. “Shane had bawled him out and Cav was asserting his authority,” as one insider puts it. “The team was to have been built around Cav. But he went to the Tour with a 'f*** you' attitude towards Shane and British Cycling.”

And it was this, perhaps, that proved decisive when, midway through the Tour, Cavendish was offered a new two-year contract by Stapleton. It was a contract that would also give his team an option on a third year (taking him into 2011), and it was worth 750,000 Euros a year. When it was offered to him, Cavendish signed it. He told no one.

“He’s done what?!”

Brailsford and Sutton were walking across the Celtic Manor golf course when they found out. Cavendish, having arrived in Newport, admitted a little sheepishly to having signed the new contract. When Brailsford and Sutton found out, their reaction was one of shock, disbelief and horror. It would mean – after Beijing – going back to the drawing board.

Then there was Wiggins. In what could almost be a metaphor for his and Cavendish’s respective status at the time, while Cavendish was basking in the glory of having won four stages in the Tour, Wiggins was bed-bound fighting a virus.

And when he wasn’t ill, Sutton, who had long acted as a father figure to Wiggins, was keen to persuade him to commit to the new team, too.

Wiggins was by now a teammate of Cavendish’s at Columbia-High Road. They had ridden together at the Giro in May, Wiggins as a member of Cavendish’s lead-out ‘train’ – the group of teammates that organised themselves at the front in the closing kilometres, forming a team pursuit-style line, with Cavendish positioned at the rear, ready to unleash his sprint in the final 200 metres.

It was the kind of riding in close formation, and the kind of fast effort, that Wiggins was brilliant at. Great track rider that he was, he was blessed with the speed and bike-handling skills that only come from hours spent riding in circles around a velodrome. No question, he could be a valuable member of Cavendish’s train.

And in some respects that made sense for Wiggins, too. At the Giro he appreciated having a specific role and an actual job to do – something he hadn’t had in his French teams. But there was a problem: Wiggins did not want to become a member of Cavendish’s train in a team that he feared would become ‘the Cav show.’ He did not regard that as career progression.

In Newport, as well as having to fight a virus, Wiggins faced a dilemma. There was an offer on the table from Garmin-Slipstream of a two-year contract. With the Olympics approaching, and Wiggins very publicly aiming for three gold medals – in the pursuit, team pursuit, and finally with Cavendish in the madison – there was always the possibility that success in Beijing could increase his earning power.

Then again, in the world of professional road cycling, Olympic track medals might be worth a little, but not very much. In the meantime, the offer from Garmin was good, the security of a two-year deal appealing; but Sutton urged Wiggins not to sign – or to sign for only one year. Brailsford even showed him a fax from Sky, to prove the money would be there to set up the team.

But, to Wiggins, requesting one year instead of the two on the table from Garmin seemed counter-intuitive. His career to date, in which he’d resolutely focused on pursuit racing for the best part of a decade, suggested he was not, by instinct, a risk-taker. Now, as he prepared to fly to Beijing, probably did not feel like the time to start gambling. He had to make a decision before the Olympics. So in Newport, in early August 2008, Wiggins agreed to spend the next two years with Garmin.

In Beijing, Brailsford and his team were lauded. They won as many gold medals – eight – as Italy won across all sports, and one more than France. Wiggins won two of the three gold medals he’d set his heart on, with the only disappointment – indeed, the entire team’s only disappointment – coming in the madison.

There, a tired Wiggins, riding his third event, failed to fire, and he and Cavendish were never in the race, finally finishing ninth. Cavendish ended the meeting as the only British track cyclist not to win a medal; and he was disgusted, saying he felt "let down" by Wiggins and by British Cycling. He wished he’d never pulled out of the Tour de France.

Sky’s the Limit: British Cycling’s Quest to Conquer the Tour de France, by Richard Moore (HarperCollins, £16.99)