In 2010, Dave Brailsford, the performance director of British Cycling, and general manager of Team Sky set out a simple goal: a clean British winner of the Tour de France within five years.
No Briton had ever won the Tour de France. Let alone, won it cleanly.
On Sunday, Brailsford achieved his goal three years ahead of schedule. Riding for Team Sky, the British dominated the Tour. Bradley Wiggins won the overall race, Chris Froome came second, and Mark Cavendish won the final stage in Paris.
Next stop for Brailsford and Britain’s cyclists is the Olympic Games. At Beijing in 2008, they won eight golds.
Brailsford holds both a degree in civil engineering and and MBA from the University of Sheffield. His path to victory is a case study in long-term preparation and ruthless execution.
It can be broken down into five key elements.
- Everything can be done better.
- Don’t let numbers govern everything – balance statistics with informed observation.
- Hire the right people and give them space.
- Change takes forever – until it happens overnight.
- Hate to lose and expect to win.
1. Everything can be done better.
Brailsford applied a system he calls the “aggregation of marginal gains”.
Jamie Staff, the US track sprint manager, was part of the Team GB team that won gold in Beijing in the team sprint. Greg Bishop described the team’s approach to improvement in the NY Times on Saturday:
“Staff was scheduled to go first in the event. When he started, his time stood between 17.4 and 17.5 seconds for one lap. He knew the world record was 17.3 seconds. His set his goal at 17.0 seconds and worked out the percentage he needed to improve; by his calculations, 2.78 percent. Staff then examined every factor that influenced performance, dozens in total, and set about to improve each by 2.78 percent. In the gym, he wanted to top his personal best in the squat (530 pounds) by 2.78 percent. He wanted to lose 2.78 percent of his body fat. Other factors included tire tread, wheel design, bike-frame design, skin suits and helmets, along with his diet and his body position on the bike.
By 2008, Staff’s thighs were so thick his wife’s skirts fit snug around one of them. He wore a watch with a sensor that measured movement (or, hopefully, lack of it) when he slept. He worked with nutritionists, psychologists and sprint coaches. He trained in a wind tunnel. He tested recovery drinks developed specifically for cyclists through a company called Science in Sport (chocolate, initially the worst flavor, became his favorite).
“When you break it down, it’s actually really small gains in all those small things that when added together make a huge difference,” Staff said. “It just makes it easy. Really. It was. We set a world record, and it was easy, because I put the attention to any bit of detail I could.”
Brailsford says that clear goals, both small and large, motivate riders. “People want goals, they want rewards and they want clarity. They can’t all win the Yellow Jersey but they can contribute to a winning team.”
2. Don’t let numbers govern everything – balance statistics with informed observation.
Brailsford was deeply impressed by the account of Billy Beane’s management of the Oakland Athletics in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, and tried to apply the same numbers driven approach to cycling. He’s known as a numbers geek, but he balances that with close observation by true experts.
A profile in Cycle Sport last year quoted him:
“People think we’re all numbers here. We’re not. Shane Sutton [the team coach] is the least ‘numbers’ person you’ll get. He will work with a rider and he’ll see something that we can’t see. He’ll spot something and we’ll go and have a proper look at it and he’ll be right. It’s as if he’s watching colour television and we’re watching black and white. He doesn’t get that from numbers.
“The danger with numbers is when people think they are being misused. We got to the point in the Beijing Olympic cycle where the numbers became scrutiny. For the team pursuit we’d worked out how much further they would have to travel and how much time they would lose if they rode just four centimetres off the black line. We said: ‘You have got to get on that black line.’ But in the end, they weren’t enjoying it. Every time they got on their bikes they were being scrutinised and they were thinking more about the black line than anything else. One day Shane just said ‘Right, we’re putting away all the video and the rest of it, just go and ride’. The team came out and did a 3-59 and we were away. Numbers are a guide but they don’t govern everything.”
3. Hire the right people and give them space.
In the same Cycle Sport interview, Brailsford is asked who thrives in his system:
“Guys who take responsibility. Guys who will talk about ideas and they’ll put their spin on it and come back with something of their own. I like that. People who don’t need their hands holding. People who aren’t scared to speak the truth. People who don’t want to go with conventional wisdom all the time. People who are open, honest, people who have passion.
“The thing is, there are constantly things going wrong. Every day. If people are coming up to you with problems all the time, they’re not going to last too long. If people just want to moan, that doesn’t chime very well. I hate moaners. But I don’t want people who are overly optimistic either. You can write as many mission statements as you like but what you want is people who are on a mission.”
His own job, he says, is like that of an orchestra conductor:
“I am comfortable in a room getting a group of people together to thrash things around so we know where we’re going. The greatest danger for me is that I am a bit of an orchestra conductor. If I think the violinist isn’t quite in tune, the worst thing I can do is grab the violin and say ‘this is how you do it’, play a little tune which probably isn’t any better and hand it back. I’m not going to make things better and that person is going to feel totally undermined. When I see something not working, I find it very hard not to dive in. So when I was at the races, I found I got caught in the 24 hours that you are in and it just keeps rolling along. You want to get out of it and start looking at the medium term but unless you stop and come up for air you’re almost trapped.”
Caring for riders was the key to keeping them clean. In 2007, he told Richard Moore, the author of Sky’s the Limit, a terrific book about Brailsford’s adventure:
“We’ve got to a set philosophy about doing things at British Cycling 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.”
It is also, thinks Brailsford, one reason why a doping culture is so prevalent in professional road cycling; the theory being that expectation/pressure coupled with absence of care/responsibility equals ideal conditions for such a culture to develop. He’d do it differently, he says. “If we did anything it’d be 100% clean. We’ve got this young generation coming through, riders who don’t want to cheat. And there’s wider enthusiasm; untapped potential. We saw it in London and on the road to Canterbury; the crowds, screaming by the roadside … despite all the doom and gloom and the negativity around the doping stories.”
Having incredible athletes to manage also helps.
A wonderful documentary about Wiggins was broadcast on ITV this week.
4. Change takes forever – until it happens overnight.
The transformation of British cycling from also-ran to powerhouse took 20 years. It is a story of numerous small wins building up into bigger ones over time.
It began in 1992 when Chris Boardman won gold in the individual pursuit at the Barcelona Olympics. It was Britain’s first cycling gold in 72 years.
In 1994, Britain opened its first indoor velodrome in Manchester, as part of bid for 2000 Olympics. This coincided with a deluge of government money from the National Lottery funds into sports.
An ambitious plan called World Class was put together to focus Britain’s cycling efforts on track cycling, where there was less competition than road racing, and the opportunity of more medals.
In 2000, when Jason Queally won gold in the 1km time trial at the Sydney Olympics, the president of British Cycling, said: “It took 61.609 seconds for the perception of this place to change from white elephant to gold medal factory.”
In 2003, Dave Brailsford arrived and promptly spent millions on new helmets, lycra skin suits and bike technology. In 2007, the Tour de France hosted its first stage in Britain. It is a spectacular success.
In 2008, Britain won 7 of 10 events and 12 medals in track cycling at the Beijing Olympics. The emerging Bradley Wiggins won gold in the 4000 meter individual pursuit.
(Interestingly, it was the much maligned James Murdoch – son of Rupert – who provided the financial backing for Britain’s assault on the Tour, with Team Sky. Murdoch may have been drummed out of Britain by the phone hacking scandal, but the country should thank him for Wiggins’ Tour.)
5. Hate to lose and expect to win.
“We are driven by not wanting to lose more than wanting to win,” says Brailsford. “We’re not bad losers, we just hate it.”
Phil Liggett, the British cycling commentator, said Britain’s cyclists now expect to win: “They have all these measurements. So when they get to the actual events, they feel there isn’t anybody that can match what they do. They feel it should be a formality to win medals. Now, they’re expected to win.”