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Tour de France: From training methods to expensive technology, understanding factors behind Team Sky’s rise

Team Sky are sitting pretty in this year’s race, with their riders occupying the top two positions in the overall standings. With their present form and the lack of a strong challenge from the peloton, they seem on course to achieve a rare “one-two” at the Tour de France podium. Of course Sky’s dominance is not a rarity in recent years, as they have won five of the last six editions of this race. Further, if Geraint Thomas maintains his lead till Paris, he would be the third different Sky rider to win the race, which speaks volumes for the team squads’ strength.

All this by a team which launched just eight years back in 2010, with a declared aim to win their first Tour within five years. At that time, with no significant British pedigree in the competition, that target was considered laughably ambitious by almost all in the cycling community. However, those very people were made to eat their chamois, when Sky won their first Tour within three years and ended up winning one more within the target period of five years. So, it’s natural to wonder what the mantra for success is for this relatively young team, which has overachieved so much in such little time. Here we analyse the gears that make the Sky cycling machine whiz across so smoothly and speedily.

Team Sky riders Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas (right) in action during the 2018 Tour de France. Reuters

Team Sky riders Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas (right) in action during the 2018 Tour de France. Reuters

Doping

Let’s get the controversial bit out right at the beginning. Ever since Sky have established themselves as a force to reckon with, allegations have never stayed far behind. Most of them are a hangover of the legacy of a certain American team that bossed the Tour a few years back and Sky are just at the receiving end of the trust deficit. However, the British team are also partly to blame, with their lack of transparency and an arrogance that alienates them.

The “jiffy bag” affair during Bradley Wiggins’ time and more recently Chris Froome’s “salbutamol scandal”, have given voice to the doubters. But the team has a self-proclaimed zero tolerance policy to doping and have strict contractual rules to discourage the practice. Further, with the current speeds of the peloton, doping seems to be out of the race. Hence, I feel we can give Team Sky a pass on this aspect.

Money

Sky are estimated to generate $550 million in advertising value and boast an annual team budget of over $40 million, which are both unheard of figures in road cycling. This provides them with the financial muscle to buy the best equipment, hire the best support staff, access advanced wind turbine testing and a whole lot more.

But the most important advantage of their deep pockets is the rider pool this money can attract. Wiggins and Froome may be exceptionally talented riders, but they would not have won half as much without the super-domestiques (a cyclist who races for the benefit of the leader of the team) around them — more on that later though. It’s suffice to say that whilst money can’t buy happiness, it surely can clear the path to Tour success.

Tech

This may be a result of Sky’s insane budgets, but it’s also on how and where they invest their money. Sky have pushed the technology envelope in equipment, diet, training methods, apparel and every aspect of cycling which can be enhanced by technology. We have all gaped wide-eyed at their hi-tech outfits, including the special aerodynamic cushions which aimed to shave vital seconds during time trials. The philosophy of team principal Dave Brailsford has been on achieving “marginal gains” in all aspects of the sport, and technology is a major enabler for that philosophy.

Team composition

We mentioned above how Sky have signed up some of the best talent in the world. Road cycling is a team sport, and a group of talented and motivated riders are an essential for any team harbouring winning ambition. So every year we have seen Team Sky set a wrenching pace during brutal climbs, with rider after rider doing long high tempo turns at the head of the field. This “offensive-defence” has often knocked the wind out of competitors’ sails and hence they have not been able to mount any lasting attacks. Brailsford has also been ruthless in his selection of riders, and has not flinched in removing big names like Wiggins and Mark Cavendish from the team, when he felt that he had better options.

Race management

You can have the best racers in your team, have the best tech, plan out each tactic in detail, however it all amounts to nothing if you don’t get the race management spot on a hot day in the mountains, especially when your leader is not having the best of days. This weakness has plagued several riders and teams — Andy Schleck immediately comes to mind. But astute race management has been a hallmark of Team Sky.

On one hand, they are the masters of high tempo riding in the mountains, while at the same time, they are also experts in saving energy through conservative racing when the time comes for it. This provides their leader with the shield he might need at times and saves his energy to attack when the other teams are lacking in strength.

Training methods

In keeping with the philosophy of marginal gains, Sky focus on evolving novel training methods that aim to obtain the maximum benefit for their riders. They were the team to introduce ideas like “warming down” and “post-race eating protocols”.

These might seem obvious, but before Sky no team followed these techniques in a scientific manner. Again money helps here too, with Sky having the resources for regular high altitude training camps. Brailsford also introduced the surprising concept of preferring his riders to spend their energy in training camps rather than actual races. He insists that riders often coast in smaller races, while during training he can make them rehearse tempo riding or practice controlling the peloton. These novel ideas have been implemented in race conditions to impressive results.

Desire and motivation

All the above factors are of no consequence if the riders do not have the desire and motivation to be the best in their sport. This is where Brailsford has nurtured a culture of excellence, always having his riders challenge the incumbent captain. Being a new team, the desire to prove everyone wrong was naturally present during the initial years, however Brailsford has succeeded in keeping that fire alive by changing his team composition and challenging his riders internally. They say winning is a habit and Sky are surely making a habit of winning the Tour.

We have tried to capture the crucial factors that have made Team Sky such a formidable force in a short span of time. Many teams criticise Sky for their deep pockets and arrogance, but it is up to the competition to learn from the British team and topple them at their own game. If the other teams cannot lift their game, they can’t blame Sky for not cooperating and have only themselves to blame. I will leave the last word to Team Sky’s former sports director Sean Yates, who finely encapsulates their fiercely competitive culture, “The Tour isn’t a popularity contest. But if it was, the chances are that Sky would adapt and win it.”


Updated Date: Jul 25, 2018 11:59 AM

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