Dave Brailsford concedes that it may have seemed cheeky in 2009 to proclaim that the fledgling British team Sky planned to win the Tour de France in five years.
Yet here he is just three years later, with Bradley Wiggins the odds-on favorite for the top step on the final podium in Paris.
“I think if you’d asked us a while back where we’d want to be at this moment in time then we’d be happy where we are, with both the Tour and Olympic preparations,” said Brailsford, general manager of Team Sky and performance director for British Cycling, the man who is considered largely responsible for bringing British cycling to the forefront of international bike racing.
With the Tour set to kick off Saturday and a solid season already under Sky’s collective belt, it seems the team’s long-term vision may be about to pay dividends.
“It’s always interesting to ask yourself on the eve of the Tour, with the benefit of looking back at the way things have gone in the lead-up, ‘Is there anything we could have one better, anything we should have done?’ But to be honest I think things have gone as well as we could have hoped for and expected,” said Brailsford.
A decade ago a true British Tour contender seemed little more than a distant pipe dream. Yet now a rider from the track, of all places, has ridden off the boards and into contention.
“I always thought it was possible,” said Brailsford. “I regret how we came across when we first started out with Team Sky, and am sorry that it seemed arrogant. But now I can’t say that it’s a surprise and that I was wrong, because it’s here now.”
Sky and British Cycling took a very methodical approach to the challenge, Brailsford said.
“We did a lot of analytic work, very detailed, looking at every aspect of what was required to contend for the Tour de France, and seeing what it would take to win,” he said. “Then we had to look and say, ‘Well, what (or who) have we got that could achieve that?’”
One rider’s data stood out from the rest.
“We’ve known Bradley for a long, long, time, and we thought, ‘You know what, yeah.’ It was very ambitious and a big call, but we couldn’t say that he could not do it, so we decided to go for it. We could have just aimed at a top 10, but we decided to at least go through the process of building a good team and aiming to win.”
Now Wiggins and Sky are in precisely that position.
The early stages of any grand tour are often fraught with danger for riders, especially the contenders, as Wiggins and Sky know all too well. And with the world champion and defending green jersey Mark Cavendish in Sky colors there’s the potential for conflict within the team.
But Brailsford doesn’t anticipate any division.
“We’ve thought through this long and hard. We decided that we couldn’t go for everything, because it’s likely that you’ll come away with nothing,” he said. “So we’ve had to prioritize, and tilt things at the Tour towards yellow, and Mark will have to ride slightly differently than he has in the past couple of years, with his full train.
“He’s an amazingly talented rider and I’m sure he will be going out and fighting for every stage, and will then switch his focus straight to the Olympics. So, I think having Cav’ on the team is something that needs to be considered and balanced.”
Last year’s GC battle started almost from the get-go, an unusual yet successful approach to the race for BMC’s Cadel Evans, something that’s not lost on the Sky planners.
“I think it’s interesting to look at how Cadel won last year, how his team kept him at the front for a long time, riding on the front for huge amounts of time in the early stages,” said Brailsford. “There’s a lesson to be learned there. Whether you’ve got a sprinter or not you have to expect to ride on, or near the front, a lot every day.”
With Wiggins and Evans clear favorites for the Tour title, could that rivalry open up things for an outsider?
“The key thing is not to let the race get out of control. If we did allow things to get on the back foot, that’s when it could go wrong,” said Brailsford. “There are a lot of guys who could go away given the opportunity.
“(Ryder) Hesjedal rode very well in the Giro. He chipped away at it day by day and won in fine style. He didn’t dominate, but it’s a great illustration of the need to be vigilant. There’s Jürgen Van Den Broeck and (Vincenzo) Nibali who could do that. And when you think about it there are a few guys who, given the right day in a three-week tour, could do the same thing. We need to be vigilant and make sure the race is kept manageable.”
And Brailsford must be vigilant on two fronts. He’s charged with directing his pro team toward what would be the first-ever Tour win by a British rider and his nation’s Olympic team toward another first — gold in the men’s road race in London — all within the space of a few weeks.
“It’s a lot easier than most people expect, really. It’s about getting the right people in the right places and delegating down,” he said.
“My job is really to manage people more than anything else. I try to surround myself by the right people. For me it’s about the philosophy of how we approach things that’s key, and as long as I can get that right then it’s pretty safe water. There are people managing companies with 20,000 people, so by comparison it’s pretty small scale, really.”
Britain has enjoyed success on the track and in the women’s road events at the Olympics, but the men’s road titles have always been just out of reach. This time around things are looking a little different, with Cavendish focused on the road race in London.
“Mark has really been working hard in building himself up to the challenge of the Box Hill circuit. People say it’s not a hard climb, and it’s not, per se. But nine times up there is going to be tough, and you cannot be sure if it’s going to be a really hard race or end in a sprint, which we’ve considered.”
The British men’s road selection also boasts some of the fastest time trialists in the pro peloton. But who will be awarded those two prized starting slots?
“Obviously we’ve got to say Bradley will get the first slot, and the second will be decided at a later date. I think that makes sense.”
Meantime, it’s off to the Tour for Brailsford and Team Sky, with a heavy suitcase laden with the hopes of a nation. For the return journey a little space has been left for a yellow jersey.