How Team Sky guided Bradley Wiggins to Tour de France victory
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Monday, July 23, 2012

How Team Sky guided Bradley Wiggins to Tour de France victory

by Ben Atkins at 1:16 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Tour de France
 
Marginal gains, plus a massive chequebook, deliver the first ever British winner

bradley wigginsWhen Team Sky was first presented in January 2010, team principle Dave Brailsford predicted that the team would have a clean British winner within five years. Many laughed at Brailsford’s bold claim but, as the man that masterminded the most successful Olympic cycling team in history four years ago will know, they all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the World was round…

While road racing is a very different beast to that of the track, the same focus, dedication, and obsession with the details - or marginal gains - was brought into Team Sky and, two years early, Brailsford’s prediction has come true.

Bradley Wiggins has become the first British rider to win the Tour, by a 3’21” margin over his own teammate Chris Froome, and a massive 6’19” over Liquigas-Cannondale’s Vincenzo Nibali. What’s more, the team took six stages in all, with Wiggins taking both long time trials, Froome one mountain stage, and World champion Mark Cavendish taking a lower-than-usual three sprint victories.

So how has Team Sky gone from nothing to Tour winner in less than three years?

What has helped - in a bigger way even than special skinsuits, and filling the vents of their helmets - has been the fact that British Cycling’s resources and experience have been backed up by the chequebook of Europe’s biggest satellite broadcaster. The team has managed to pull together a team of veritable Galacticos and, more importantly, got them to work together towards a common cause.

The result of this was a team that was able to dominate the race in a way not seen since the US Postal and Discovery Channel teams of Lance Armstrong. With the ongoing US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) investigations into Armstrong’s Tour reign, this is perhaps not the best comparison to have made, but this is where the similarity ends.

It may not be pretty, but the method of riding a strong tempo in the mountains is the surest way of securing victory for a rider like Wiggins, who lacks the fierce acceleration of the best climbers, but whose diesel engine can go on revving all day. With mountain domestiques riding at threshold, one by one before dropping off, means that anybody attacking will immediately be in the red. Liquigas-Cannondale rode the Giro d’Italia in a similar way for Ivan Basso, but the two-time winner did not have the legs to see it through; Wiggins did.

Every rider in the nine-man Team Sky line up had a specific role to play and, with Brailsford’s meticulous attention to detail, a plan to stick to. The plan was to guide Bradley Wiggins to Paris in yellow, and these are the riders that did it.

Bradley Wiggins (1st overall; 2 stage wins)
2009 finally saw the multiple World and Olympic track champion finally show his potential on the road, as he finished fourth behind Alberto Contador. Team Sky managed to extricate the Londoner from his contract with Garmin-Slipstream in 2010, but all did not go well that first year as he flopped to 23rd in the Tour. 2011 was better, with a Critérium du Dauphiné victory before the Tour proving that he would be one of the riders to beat, but a broken collarbone on stage seven put paid to his chances.

Fast forward to 2012 and, via a third place in the previous year’s Vuelta, Wiggins arrived at the Tour’s Liège prologue off the back of a second Dauphiné win, as well as victories in Paris-Nice, and the Tour de Romandie; he’d got through the dress rehearsal, and was ready for the real thing.

“Bradley was the team leader and in the end he delivered on every level,” said directeur sportif Sean Yates on Team Sky’s website. “What more can you say that hasn’t already been said? This performance has been a culmination of the hard work and the belief which has grown over the last six months, not only in Bradley but as a team.

“He’s grown so much in stature over the last six months. It’s amazing and we’ve not seen the best of him yet. Everything else will follow and it will all sink in over the coming months.”

While not as explosive a climber as some of his rivals, Wiggins was able to use the power of his team, along with his World class time trialling ability, to take the yellow jersey on stage seven - the point that he’d crashed out the previous year - and never looked like losing it.

Chris Froome (2nd overall; 1 stage win)
chris froomeAfter last year’s Vuelta second place, the Froome-dog was always going to be the plan B that Sky lacked in last year’s race; should Wiggins falter, or crash out again, the Kenyan-born climber would be ready to step into the breach. Wiggins’ superior time trial however, meant that Froome would always be working for him.

A better - or more explosive - climber than Wiggins, Froome could have gone for more personal glory in the race, even than his one stage victory and, and his second place overall; but he didn’t. Froome didn’t leave Wiggins behind at the finish in Peyregudes, and came back when he was called on the climb to La Toussuire, because that was not part of the plan and, if there’s one thing that Team Sky - and British Cycling - does, it’s stick to the plan.

Exactly what was said on the Sky bus, we will likely never know, but there was more likely more bitching and polemics in the media - particular the social media - about Froome being able to ride for himself. Had he deliberately left Wiggins behind, and put the yellow jersey in danger as he tried to get it for himself, it would have likely shattered the strong team spirit at Sky and handed much of the team’s advantage to its rivals.

Froome knew this, and performed his job perfectly. Had he attacked Wiggins, he might well have finished above his compatriot in Paris. That action would very likely have destroyed the close-knit team spirit in the Sky camp however, and he may still have been second; behind Nibali.

“He took a superb second place,” said Yates. “Up until this year no Brit had done as well as that. Froomey’s day will come. We stuck to our guns and we weren’t swayed in backing Brad. He wanted to take time out of [Cadel] Evans and Nibali in the mountains to make sure of his place on the podium but we had to think about conserving yellow.

“He backed up his performance at the Vuelta and showed exactly what he can do.”

Michael Rogers (23rd overall)
After sitting out much of last season with mononucleosis, Dodger has managed to regain the form that made him one of the best week-long tour specialists in previous years. Rogers’ job was to ride tempo in the mountains until he cracked, wearing down as many of Wiggins’ rivals as possible, and preventing the others from attacking. This done, the Australian would sit up and get to the finish, using as little energy as possible.

“Mick was the leader on the road as road captain and the only guy who was able to have the role both on the flat and in the high mountains,” Yates said of the former three-time World time trial champion. “His form has come on in recent months and his experience was invaluable.

“He keeps Bradley and the team calm in those mountain situations where we need to stick together.”

Richie Porte (34th overall; 5th stage 20)
Porte’s role was to take over from compatriot Rogers in the mountain stages, and keep the tempo going for as long as he could. Like Froome, the Tasmanian could have been the leader of virtually any other team in the race, and was likely looked upon with envy by former boss Bjarne Riis at Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank, as it has lacked a real contender since the suspension of Alberto Contador; for whom Porte performed this role at last year’s Giro and Tour.

Only when Wiggins was all-but guaranteed overall victory did Porte finally ride for himself, and finished fifth in the final time trial, confirming his general classification potential.

“Richie really came into his own in the mountains,” said Yates. “I said to him at the beginning ‘you’re here to ride in the mountains. You don’t need to stress in the stage finishes and be involved in lead-outs and things like that. You just have to chill and if you lose time you lose time. The day will then come and you’ll be a massive help to the team.’

“He was happy to be part of this Tour squad and he will win bike races in the future.”

Edvald Boasson Hagen (56th overall; 3rd stage 1, 2nd stage 3, 3rd stage 13)
Boasson Hagen was arguably the rider that suffered most after the withdrawal of Kanstantsin Siutsou on stage three. Any ‘wlidcard’ aspirations the powerful Norwegian champion may have had in coming to the race, and any dreams of repeating his two stage wins of 2011, were quashed as the Belarusian’s absence meant that Boasson Hagen would have more work to do on the front of the peloton.

Boasson Hagen’s role came early in the mountain stages, generally riding tempo on the penultimate climb, before handing over to Rogers and Porte for the business end of the stage.

Wiggins tried to repay the Norwegian, by leading him out at the end of the 13th stage in le Cap d’Agde, and he was finally granted freedom to go in the break on stage 18 into Brive. If he hadn’t done enough work for his teammates already though, he was also charged with leading out Mark Cavendish at the end of that stage, and in the final one in Paris.

“Eddy was like the assassin!” Yates exclaimed. “His role was similar to the one we asked of G [Geraint Thomas - ed] last year. If you need a job done you ask Eddy!

“He knew what he had to do and he’s a dream guy to work with.

“We all love him to bits, he’s fantastic. It says a lot that he’d be a leader in any team but we used Eddy here as a domestique!”

Christian Knees (82nd overall)
Knees was another rider that suffered after the withdrawal of Siutsou. The former German champion’s job was to ride on the front of the peloton at the beginning of stages, and control any breakaways that might be of a danger to Wiggins overall. With the team strength down to eight in the first week, Knees took up the standard and did even more than had been initially expected.

“He’s been magnificent for the three weeks,” Yates said. “Helping Bradley, keeping him out of the wind for kilometres after kilometre, 100km after 100km. He stayed in the wind so Brad could save his energy for the crucial moments.

“He rose to the occasion even more after we lost Kosta. He’s a machine! The tower of power!”

Mark Cavendish (142nd overall; 3 stage wins)
mark cavendishWorld champion Cavendish came into the race in the full knowledge that, despite being the (almost) undisputed “fastest man on wheels”, he was to get virtually no support in his bid to add to his already considerable total of 20 Tour stage victories. To the Manxman’s credit, he took this news in his stride and, seeing the bigger picture, was willing to put much of his personal ambition to one side to be part of the race winning team.

Cavendish was undoubtedly “disappointed” not to be able to challenge for more stage wins, or to properly defend his green jersey of 2011 but, if he felt any stronger than this, nobody heard him say so. While the sight of the World champion using his rainbow jersey to carry bottles up to his teammates may have upset many purists, but the Manxman did the jersey credit by maintaining his dignity, despite his disappointment.

When the chances came however, Cavendish took them, and in the final two road stages found himself delivered to the line by a Wiggins keen to pay him back. Much as they were at the 2011 World championships, Wiggins and Froome will be right behind Cavendish’s bid for Olympic Gold on Saturday, which - should he win it - will be ample compensation for a quiet Tour by his own incredible standards.

There will be no Olympic Games in 2013 however so, whether Cavendish will still be a Sky rider into what would be a similar Tour, remains to be seen.

“The objective was the yellow jersey and it was different circumstances for Mark than in recent years where the teams were built around him,” Yates explained. “He came up with three victories and he would have had more if not for a few bits of bad luck.

“We had to do what we had to do to win the yellow jersey and he can now say he was a part of that.”

Bernhard Eisel (146th overall)
As Cavendish’s “minder” throughout the last few years of his career - on and off the bike - Eisel was the one concession made to the World champion in a team built around Wiggins. Despite his usual role of shepherding the sprinter through the mountains however, the Austrian also played a vital role in the team’s overall success.

“Bernie has come in for this Tour team and he’s been great,” said Yates. “He’s a leader on the road and a really dependable guy. He knows every trick in the book and it’s great to have someone like that.

“It was a real pleasure and Bradley liked having him on the team,” Yates added. “He was willing to do what he said when we spoke before the race. He said he would do everything that I asked of him and he stuck to his word.”

Kanstantsin Siutsou (DNF stage 3)
Who knows how dominant Team Sky could have been, had the Belarusian not fractured his femur in a crash on stage three. The work that he would have done was picked up by the others in the team, but a nine-man Team Sky would surely have been even more invincible.

“Everyone in the team was really sad to lose Kosta after he crashed out,” said Yates. “It would have made things easier if we’d been able to continue with nine riders but we are such a solid unit we could overcome it.

“His role was to ride on the front in the medium mountains but everyone stepped up collectively to fill that hole.”

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