With the start of the Tour de France in North Yorkshire now less than two months away, excitement is mounting. In the first of a weekly series building up to the Grand Depart, Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson profiles Team Sky.
WHEN the founders of Team Sky declared their ambition to produce a “British winner of the Tour de France within five years” upon the team's creation in 2009, they were derided for being unrealistic.
In truth, their timescale has proved to be somewhat askew. Instead of taking five years, achieving the seemingly impossible only took three.
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When Sir Bradley Wiggins wore the yellow jersey down the Champs-Elysees in 2012, he completed one of the most remarkable feats in British sport. Yet to those around him in Team Sky, most notably general manager Sir Dave Brailsford and performance manager Rod Ellingworth, the success hardly constituted a surprise.
“This is the start of something big,” said Brailsford back in 2009, when the vision of Team Sky became a reality. “We know what we are capable of, and we know what we're going to have to do to get there.” Rarely can major sporting success have been either as prompt or preordained.
Born out of the British Cycling track squad, Team Sky has always adhered to the guiding principles that helped turn the track team from perennial underachievers to the most successful unit in British Olympic sport.
Brailsford's messianic adherence to the pursuit of “marginal gains” has proved as effective on the slopes of the Alps as it did on the curves of the velodrome.
Regularly hailed as one of the pioneers of scientific and technological advancement in sport, Brailsford preaches that a number of extremely small improvements can quickly add up to produce a seismic leap in performance.
By assembling an army of sport scientists, whose areas of expertise include physiology, psychology, nutrition and ergonomics, he has been able to transform Team Sky's cyclists into the most well-organised and well-supported group of riders in the peloton.
As a result, the successes just keep on coming, from Wiggins' historic Tour triumph in 2012 to Chris Froome's follow-up success 12 months later and right through to Froome's 2014 victories on the Tour of Oman and Tour de Romandie.
“People often associate marginal gains with pure technology, but it is far more than that,” said Brailsford in a recent interview. “It is about nutrition, ergonomics, psychology.
“It is about making sure the riders get a good night's sleep by transporting their own bed and pillow to each hotel. It is about using the most effective massage gel. Each improvement may seem trivial, but the cumulative effect can be huge.”
The success is also down to recruiting the best riders of course, and while Team Sky has always attempted to promote and support the brightest British talent, there has never been a barrier to recruiting outside help in order to stay ahead of rival teams.
Wiggins and Froome might have hogged the headlines, but both have always been quick to pay tribute to the likes of Norwegian Edvald Boassen Hagen and Australian Richie Porte, who have played key roles in recent major victories.
Keeping such a talented group of riders happy has not been easy – witness the simmering rivalry that characterised Wiggins and Froome's relationship during the 2012 Tour – but in general, Team Sky's leaders have achieved the feat.
They have also consistently preached a zero-tolerance policy to drug taking, something that has earned them plaudits from outside cycling, but which has also left them open to knowing glances from inside the sport when their riders have outperformed their rivals so spectacularly.
When Froome powered up Mont Ventoux in last year's Tour, the accusations broke into the open, something that clearly angered Brailsford.
“The first thing that crossed my mind was not to punch the air,” he said. “I was thinking, 'That's my five minutes of joy – let's get on to all the questions about doping'. There is a tinge of frustration that we have to rack our brains to find an optimal way to prove we are clean.”
Yet while the whispering campaign might frustrate Brailsford, it has not dampened his desire to achieve even more with Team Sky.
Earlier this year, the 50-year-old left his position as the performance director at British Cycling in order to devote all his energy to running the road team.
“The Sky side of things has got bigger, more global, and that doesn't leave me a lot of time,” he said in April.
The immediate ambition is to achieve a hat-trick of Tour titles in this year's race, and the longer-term goal is to dominate road racing while continuing to prove it is possible to succeed without having to resort to illegal means. As the past few years have proved, it would be ill-advised to bet against any of that happening.