We caught up with Sky Team Principal Sir Dave Brailsford at the team training camp in Mallorca earlier this year. With so much success within the team we wanted to discuss performance and how the team is able to perform at a high level, a winning level time and time again.
What does it take to perform at the highest level of the sport, to stay there and to continue to bring in fresh talent that can win? Further, where do you see the sport of cycling heading and how does indoor racing fit into this?
This is a condensed version of the conversation we had.
Wahoo: Let’s get into your role a little bit more, what does it mean to be the team principal of Team Sky?
DB: I think I’m trying to set the tone, trying to set the direction for how we want to approach looking at high performance to the very, very detail of how we bring that into reality. I think one of the big challenges for people in my role, is this recognition of the difference between strategy and writing things down, having a performance strategy, etc., and then the actual delivery and execution of it.
Normally, we only deliver and execute on a certain amount of the strategy. I guess there’s a gap between the two and I think constantly about trying to minimize that gap between what we say we’re going to do and what we actually do on the road when we’re tired, when it’s difficult, when it’s raining, when it’s hot, when it’s cold. I think of my years of working in high performance this would be the one thing where I think I can make a real difference.
“It seems to me that actually there are great opportunities and greater gains to be made by improving execution then actually moving forward with knowledge.”
So we’ve got to continue to improve, continue to innovate, there’s no doubt about that. But what about why don’t we execute the last idea or the last three great ideas if you like that we had rather than having to think of a new idea. And I think there’s something about delivery and the science of delivery if you like, which is you don’t need to necessarily innovate or have more knowledge, but you could improve your delivery of what you already have and your improved performance.
Wahoo: How do you take the vision, the goal and impart that to the riders and staff while considering their individual goals? How do you create an environment that everybody is moving toward one goal?
DB: From a performance point of view, I think we’ve always got to start with really understanding what it is we’re trying to aim for and trying to get as much information as possible about what winning looks like in our world. Firstly, you analyze the demands of the event, try to break that down into all of its component parts and truly understand what is it we’re trying to do, what does that look like, what would we need to achieve it.
Secondly, you need an alignment if you like amongst the people who are gonna try and deliver that. So in our case as in most sports, you’ve got the athletes and then the support staff. And for the athletes, they need to aligned insofar as they’re committed internally, driven towards the goal. I think there’s a difference between being driven towards the actual goal that I’d like to be a Tour de France champion, I’d like to be an Olympic champion, whatever else and having the commitment it takes to do it. Who wouldn’t quite frankly want to be a champion like that?
You can’t reach inside somebody and turn a switch on and make them committed to the work, and willing to do it. It has to come from within. Of course, you need the talent, but fundamentally you need the talent and the hunger and the drive to work together, then you can minimize all the distractions as much as possible and off you go.
Wahoo: How does the growth of the indoor cycling fit into the future of cycling?
DB: I think one is that we’re seeing a whole new sport develop to be fair. I think in the past, the whole of the home trainer notion was to try and replicate outdoor rides when the weather was bad, and then I’m thinking, “Okay, well I’ve got no choice, I’ve gotta do this at home,” whereas that’s totally shifted. We’re right in the middle of the shift where people are actually choosing to become specialists if you like, and it’s a preference for some people now to train at home and have the trainer ecosystem if you like, I do it myself. At my home, I’m set up with my KICKR, my KICKR CLIMB, my HEADWIND Smart Fan. You can immerse yourself totally in the experience, and it’s very, very different from my experience when I first started out.
I’m actually immersing myself in this experience (indoor cycling) for the sake of this experience. I think that is a key moment and key change in the sport as if a whole new branch of cycling as a sport is being created both for training purposes and racing. There’s another training or racing experience I can have, and I’ll choose between both. It’s not weather dependent, but it could be time-dependent or it could be mood dependent or it could be actually I really want this session to be a training session, to be very specific, very precise, and I want to know exactly what I’m gonna get out of it.
“Actually, I think I’m better off doing it now on my Wahoo setup than I am going out on the road to do it.”
Wahoo: How does this translate to the use of indoor training for the riders on the team?
DB: We all know that the mental component of delivering a training effort and performing a two-three hour ride at home or whatever session it may be, the mental component is massively important. If you can really relate what you’re feeling physically and experiencing mentally to the physical components of what you are doing, then I think you create a greater belief in what you’re doing. For these guys, when the pros are training, they need to believe in their training. Fundamentally they need to believe that what they’re doing is gonna make a difference.
If they’re not 100% believing in what they’re doing, it seems to me that you don’t optimize the adaptations needed to perform at the highest level.
Wahoo: What are the 2019 goals and how do you keep the team performing at such a high level?
DB: We have won the Tour de France now with three separate riders, which has been terrifically exciting and very rewarding. I think one of the challenges first and foremost if you look around the world in most sporting to look at the big championships, the big cups, the big trophies, the leagues, the World Series, whatever they may be, it’s difficult to go back and win and come back and repeat and repeat and when you look at the various sports, you think, “Well, why is that difficult?” Or, “What makes it difficult?” Sometimes you get a win at a big event, then for whatever reason, there’s a little drop-off, I don’t think … People say, “Oh, well you get complacent.”
“Because you’ve gotta train hard, it’s hard work. You’ve gotta do hard yards to be able to win these events.”
Collectively, I think one of the big challenges for the last couple of years and going into 2019 is to make sure that we hit the ground with that same desire, as a collective, as a team as we always have had. So that’s number one, and that’s a goal in itself to be honest because you have to think of how would you do that? What’s to stop the riders going, “Okay, well I’ve gotta go run now.” Because you’ve gotta train hard, it’s hard work. You’ve gotta do hard yards to be able to win these events.
There are various individuals with obvious goals. Chris (Froome) would like to win his fifth Tour de France, and Geraint (Thomas) surely would like to go back and defend his first as it were. Then we’ve got a rider like young Egan Bernal who has developed fantastically well last year and it’d be great to see his continued development and progression.
Across the board, I think we’ve still got our Grand Tour ambitions, but we’ve got the Ardennes, the Classics, and the World Championships being held in Great Britain, in Yorkshire at the end of the year. It’s hard not to think about, even though everybody will be there in their national jerseys, it’s still hard not to think about it (World Champ) somehow being a British citizen.
“But really for me, this idea of maintaining the performance of these guys, developing the performance of these guys is how I’ll look back at the end of next year and asses how do we get on.”
Team Sky has been using the KICKR Indoor Training ecosystem of products since 2014. Using a smart trainer to warm up and cool down at races was something no one was doing at the time and with the help of the KICKR, the team made this a normal practice that is widely accepted by athletes inside and outside of cycling. Wahoo has been on the cutting edge with products like the CLIMB Indoor Grade Simulator and the HEADWIND Smart Fan that enhance the training of world-class athletes like Team Sky and athletes who are trying to reach their full potential. We are proud to support champions all over the world, both those who wear the winning jersey at grand tours and those who are champions in their children’s eyes only. We can all be Champions in one way or another.