After a Pyrenean weekend of two very distinct halves, Sky manager Dave Brailsford was keen to accentuate the positives at his team's press conference at La Baule on the first rest day of the Tour de France. With the yellow jersey resting firmly on Chris Froome's shoulders, Brailsford has ample reason to view the Sky glass as being half full but there must be genuine concern, too, at how empty so many of his riders had appeared on stage 9 to Bagnères-de-Bigorre.
Richie Porte, so impressive 24 hours earlier at Ax 3 Domaines, slipped from second to 33rd overall after losing almost 18 minutes, while Vasil Kiryienka struggling so much that he finished dead last and was eliminated for finishing outside the time limit. And yet despite being isolated from his team for over 100 kilometres of racing, Froome withstood Movistar's collective offensive to retain the overall lead.
"With a boxing analogy, he's taken the biggest right hook on the chin that he's going to take and he didn't flinch," Brailsford said of Froome. "We've learned a lot to take into the rest of the race."
Porte's collapse captured the headlines on Sunday evening, but Kiryienka's défaillance was arguably equally dramatic. Just how did the Belarus rider, with two mountain stages at the Giro d'Italia on his palmares, fail to keep pace with the gruppetto and wind up eliminated from the race?
"He absolutely buried himself to try and bring Richie back, and then he blew," Brailsford said. "He thinks that heat is a factor. A lot of guys have suffered from racing most of the season in ridiculously cold situations and now that has flipped totally in the last month or so, and I think that's catching a few people out to be honest. That would be my take."
Brailsford's repeated refrain through the opening part of the press conference was that "lessons had been learned" after Sunday's stage but he was reticent to divulge precisely what they were and how they would be applied. "I'm not going to go into the detail of the changes we're going to make and the things we're going to do. We learnt some lessons yesterday in how we rode and maybe a different way we could have rode and handled the situation," he said.
"I haven't got a crystal ball, this is sport. We've got a team of committed riders, some strong opposition, and we'll try and adapt our riding to best manage the rest of the race."
Leinders question lingers
Brailsford became more effusive, however, when the subject matter changed to the doping questions that are by now a de facto part of the responsibilities of holding the yellow jersey. The curious decision to hire former Rabobank doctor Gert Leinders - accused of facilitating blood doping during his time at the Dutch squad - continues to haunt Brailsford months after he quietly ended their association at the tail end of last season.
"The whole Leinders thing is my responsibility, and I take that squarely on the chin," Brailsford said. "I made an error of judgment, but when someone looks you in the eye and went through all your process and lies to you - I'm pretty angry about it quite frankly. I think that decision by myself and the rest of the management staff has put Chris in a position where he has to answer these questions. But that's not his fault. It's my fault, isn't it?"
Cyclingnews put it to Brailsford that in answering those questions, Sky and Froome still ultimately do little more than what Leinders did to protest his innocence - they look us in the eyes and ask us to believe. Surely there is something more they can do to demonstrate their good faith?
"We invited some of you [journalists] to Mallorca and showed you in detail what we do, we showed all of our power curves and we gave you as full an amount of time and information as we could. We felt that was trying to be as open as possible but obviously that hasn't hit the spot," Brailford said.
"There's been a lot of debate about whether we should release power data and SRM data, but there's also a question of interpretation. Believe you me, interpreting power data is not as simple as it seems. We find a lot of variation in the data we collect ourselves and some of it is quite hard to understand, so I think it would have to be done by a panel of experts recognised by everyone as being fair and whose opinion collectively we will buy into.
"I think that would be a positive thing because then you would have people who would interpret data and give an independent, objective view, as against maybe giving the nuances of how we train or what we would consider to be some of our areas of competitive advantage."
And therein, perhaps, lies the rub. With Sky reluctant to sacrifice competitive advantage even if it means helping to dispel the innuendo that their performances have met over the past two seasons, the cycle of questioning looks likely to continue ad infinitum.
To illustrate the point, Paul Kimmage asked Brailsford precisely how Peter Kennaugh had managed - by his own admission - to lose five kilograms since he lined up at the Tour de Romandie in late April.
"Through calorie deficit," Brailsford said bluntly, before then expanding slightly on his answer. "Why not speak to Nigel our nutritionist? It's a good question to ask. That is a lot of weight to lose and I totally agree with you. What do we do to get to that kind of weight loss? They're the types of questions that would be legitimate to answer. I don't think there's any great secret in that."
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