Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford is in Colombia overseeing his team's effort this week in the Tour Colombia 2.1, where the team's Egan Bernal is ready to defend his 2018 Oro y Paz title and where Chris Froome is starting his season.
Although Brailsford had plenty of praise for the country, its people and its cyclists, he was tight-lipped when Cyclingnews asked about his hunt for a new sponsor after Sky announced in December that it was ending its partnership with the team after this season.
Brailsford and the team have been linked to several options, including partnering with Israel Cycling Academy's owner, billionaire Sylvan Adams, but Brailsford declined to knock down any rumours when Cyclingnews asked him on Sunday at the teams presentation in Medellin.
"When you're a team like Sky, you're going to get a lot of rumours, that's for sure," Brailsford said. "When you're having important meetings like we are at the moment, I think you've got to respect the confidentiality of the partners involved, and you've got to respect that.
"It fills me full of enthusiasm to engage with everybody that's been in touch with us," he said. "It's quite an interesting process, but I'm not going to discuss it or give any commentary."
Asked if the UCI's new rule that teams wishing to apply for a 2020 WorldTour licence must do so by April 1 would pose a problem for him and the team, Brailsford again declined an answer.
"I'm not going to discuss it," he said. "Like I said, I'm not going to say another word."
Team Sky's Colombian connection
Brailsford is actually in Colombia to do more than watch his team at the race. Team Sky has a well-established Colombian-rider connection, having first hired Rigoberto Uran in 2011 and then Sergio Henao in 2012. Although both riders have moved on, the legacy continues with the latest additions of Bernal last year and Ivan Sosa this year.
"I had this kind of image in my mind of kind of a romantic Café de Colombia era and all of that," Brailsford said. "Both of them [Uran and Henao] were very, very successful with us and made great contributions to Team Sky."
But Brailsford said that he and the team realised that they could get more out of their Colombian riders by better understanding the culture they grew up in and live in. His trips to Colombia last year for Oro y Paz and this year for Tour Colombia 2.1 are part of that effort.
"It's a different continent, you know, and it's a big mistake to try to create a team culture, like a European or Anglo Saxon culture, and then expect to get the best out of Latin Americans by bringing them into that culture and saying, 'Right, you're going to fit in. We're going to squeeze you into this culture.' But it doesn't work," he said.
"So with us, we're trying to get the best out of individuals, so really the onus is on us to invest ourselves in educating ourselves in learning about their culture and immersing ourselves a little bit in their culture to truly understand how they might work, and what is important to them, and to just understand how to support them so they can be the best that they can be."
Brailsford said he's focused on not just being an observer of the culture while in Colombia, but he's tried to really absorb it and engage with it.
"There's a difference between observing and really trying to educate yourself," he said. "So I put my mind to it, and it's been a real pleasure to see how the riders fit in to the fabric of society, how their families fit in to the fabric of society, where cycling fits as a sport in the overall culture and society here in Colombia.
"I'm trying to see what does it all look like: the colours, the music, the passion, and all of it. It's important to try to understand the differences and embrace it. I find it hugely exciting, personally."
Brailsford said he believes the country is on the cusp of cycling greatness.
"The wealth of talent that exists in this country is second to none," he said. "There can't be another country with the talent that Colombia has. To me, it's just one step away from what Brasil is to football, Colombia could be the same thing to cycling. It's there for them."
Taking it easy with Bernal and Sosa
Two of the most promising up-and-coming Colombians in the pro peloton are already in Team Sky colours in 22-year-old Bernal and 21-year-old Sosa, whose tenure with the British team started only after a fouled-up transfer from Androni Giacattoli that reportedly had him signing with Trek-Segafredo. That deal fell apart and Team Sky stepped in.
"There was a bit of a misunderstanding, shall we say, during the signing process," Brailsford said. "I think it was regrettable for everybody. Certainly from our point of view. We didn't want to upset anybody or tread on anybody's toes, but it happened like it happened.
"Ivan's a great young talent. He's a bright, intelligent young man. He's very serious about what he's doing, and I think he just needs time now to... When you come into a structure like Sky, it's quite a change; it's quite a big structure. So I think for him, for Egan, for all these young guys, you have to be realistic – you have to let them settle down and learn at their own pace."
Brailsford said both Bernal and Sosa need to forget about winning or losing and prioritise learning as much as possible – that too much weight placed on winning early in a career can actually be an impediment to learning.
"It's a very early single year in their overall career, and everyone needs to remember that," he said. "I think Ivan and Egan – both of them, really – just need to go out, give 100 per cent of themselves and just learn. It doesn't matter whether they win, lose or draw – just learn."
That said, Bernal played a key role in helping Geraint Thomas win the Tour de France last year, and he's slated to line up with Team Sky for the Giro d'Italia this year in a leadership position.
"When we selected the team, we looked at it, and I just think we need to keep everyone's feet on the ground," Brailsford said. "The important thing for Egan is that he learns, that he's trained.
"When Geraint Thomas finally won the Tour de France, he didn't do it at 22 – he did it at 32. That's a decade of learning, and you've got to just remember that's where Egan is. He's 10 years behind Geraint."
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