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Sky's The Limit, by Richard Moore

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Skys The Limit

Title: Sky's The Limit: British Cycling's Quest To Conquer The Tour De France
Author: Richard Moore
Publisher: HarperSport
Pages: 314
Year: 2011
Order: HarperCollins
What it is: An account of the first year of the Sky Pro Cycling team, aka Team Sky.
Strengths: Good solid reportage, balancing the compliments with necessary criticism and scepticism.
Weaknesses: Could probably have done with a bit more about the post-Tour autopsy.

* * * * *

"Some people say this team's all about marketing, flash and razzmatazz, and all the rest of it. But we'd talked that finish through. That's what we do. The race was predictable. Not the win, but the pattern the race would follow - a break going, and being brought back at the end. We knew what was going to happen, and that it'd come down to the last couple of laps. So you plan for that. You have to have a plan."

Thus spake David Brailsford after Sky Pro Cycling's Greg Henderson won a pre-season critérium in Adelaide in January 2010. Team Sky's first race had produced Team Sky's first win. And, over the course of the 2010 season, another twenty-two wins would be added to the team's palmarès. Brailsford seemed to be in full Captain Sensible mode that day in Australia: Happy talk keep talking happy talk, talk about things you'd like to do. You gotta have a dream, if you don't have a dream, how you gonna make that dream come true? The dream of landing a Briton on the top step of the Tour de France's podium before the half-decade looked like being a goer.

But Brailsford's loving it when a plan comes together in the end hid a flaw at the heart of his philosophy: there is no plan B. And, as guys like Robert Förstermann and Felix English have demonstrated on the track when faced with the single-minded Chris Hoy, putting all your bets on Plan A coming off can leave you with egg on your face. And Brailsford's dream really did need a plan B.

There are a few different threads running through Sky's The Limit that are worth pulling at. One of them is how David Brailsford was all but bounced into signing Wiggins as his lead rider when Mark Cavendish got the hump with repeated claims by Shane Sutton that the Manxman would lead the new British team. So, before the 2008 Tour started - and before Team GB headed off to Beijing and started collecting their haul of bangles and baubles there - Cav signed a new three-year deal with Bob Stapleton. According to Moore, "When Brailsford and Sutton found out, their reaction was one of shock, disbelief, and horror."

At this point attention turned to Wiggins. He was then a team-mate of Cavendish's at Columbia, and didn't seem to enjoy the prospect of just being a rocket booster in the Manx Missile's sprint-train. Consequently he was giving serious consideration to a two-year contract beong offered by Jonathan Vaughters. Shane Sutton tried to convince Wiggins to sign for Vaughters for just one year, or - better still - to not sign at all. The Sky deal was more or less signed, sealed and delivered and the new team would be launching for the 2010 season. All Sutton and Brailsford wanted of Wiggins was that he give over one more year of his life for Queen, country and the promise of jam tomorrow. Before flying out to Beijing, Wiggins decided that jam today tasted much nicer and put his name to the two-year deal offered by Vaughters.

By the time it came to signing riders in 2009, Wiggins - the rebound choice - was looking a lot more attractive. He'd slimmed down and was finally looking like a Tour de France contender, not just another make-weight. And, during the 2009 Tour, Wiggins and Brailsford had a rest-day lover's tryst in which they sealed their affection for one and other. All that remained was for the British rider to get his decree nisi from Vaughters and he and Brailsford could be united at Team Sky.

Now, having finally got his man, you'd think that Brailsford would have been content. Would know that if you can't be with the one you love the least you can do is love the one you're with. But no, Brailsford might know more management-speak bolloxology than anyone else involved in cycling but it would seem he couldn't get Mark Cavendish out of his mind. And so, having wooed Wiggins, Brailsford set about wooing Cavendish too.

How he did this was to demonstrate to the Manxman that the Team Sky sprint-train was just as fit at the HTC-Columbia one. Race after race they strutted their stuff for the Manxman to see. That five members of Team Sky were graduates of HTC-Columbia can't have hurt when it came to doing this. How this love story works out long term ... well that's one of the good bits about the construction of Sky's The Limit. Moore has a narrative thread waiting to be picked up in the sequel.

The Wiggins-Brailsford-Cavendish love triangle is just one of the threads in Sky's The Limit that's worth tugging at. A second thread running through the story is the issue of doping. Or, more precisely, Brailsford's public position on doping. We all know that Brailsford's Babes are cleaner than the driven snow. Brailsford is so scared of doping that - apparently - Sean Kelly was over-looked as a possible directeur sportif because of his past. Personally, I'm curious as to which part of Kelly's past rules him out of involvement with Team Sky: is it really the two doping positives on his permanent record or is it his association with Willy Voet? My money's on it having nothing to do with doping positives and everything to do with Willy Voet, for as Brailsford has clearly demonstrated in the past, there's a world of difference between doping and a doping scandal, and it's the latter which scares him more than the former.

Would Brailsford work with someone with a doping positive on their record? As the 2010 season drew to a close, this was a question quite a few people were asking about Team Sky, after Neil Stephens put it out there that he was putting his name forward for a gig with the squad. One of the curious aspects of this story is how a lot of the people asking this question seemed to have conveniently forgotten that Brailsford already does work with someone with a doping positive on their record. And - for the moment - let's ourselves act like goldfish and forget all about Sean Yates' positive too. Instead let's consider the consequences of Neil Stephens' attempt to hop aboard the Sky bus.

Stephens, for those who've forgotten the story, was caught up in the Festina affaire but insisted he hadn't knowingly doped. And, despite the fact that he spent so much of his career riding for Manolo Saíz's teams, we have to believe him when he says this. Daft and all as his excuse is. Once Stephens let it be known that he wanted a job at Sky, the team's position of dopers was open for debate. Brailsford himself seemed to acknowledge that there was - possibly - space within Team Sky for someone like Stephens, as he explained to l'Équipe toward the end of the Tour:

"At the start [of setting up Team Sky] I didn't want anyone who'd been caught up in a doping scandal. But as soon as you look for someone over thirty-five with lots of experience, you won't find anyone without a few worries. Maybe I will have to reconsider my decision."

Moore tries to tease out this issue with Brailsford as the 2010 season nears its close. Brailsford talks to him of how the line between what's allowed and what's not allowed - between what's doping and what's not - is sometimes a bit blurred. Moore seems surprised by this, finding ambiguity in Brailsford's language that he's never noticed before, ambiguity he thinks is new. What this means in the long term for Moore - will Team Sky decide that winning clean isn't possible and, if so, will they then lower their goals or will they cross the line? - is left open. Another thread to be picked up in the sequel.

A third thread worth considering is Brailsford's micro-management of things. There's little bits of this evident throughout Sky's The Limit. Take the Academy's base in Quarrata, and the manner in which Brailsford had "agonised over the positioning of the kitchen furniture." Some would call this attention to detail. And in a team whose ethos is all about the aggregation of marginal gains, detail matters. But there is a problem with being a detail-oriented manager: you tend to piss off those to whom you have delegated the tasks you're now poking your nose into.

If you want an example of how that worked out at Team Sky, look at how directeur sportif Scott Sunderland got axed and Brailsford and Sutton began to spend more and more of their time micro-managing things with the road warriors. Which has, inevitably, lead to some complaints coming from the track squad. Complaints which seem destined to only get louder the closer 2012 comes. As with the doping and the wooing of Cavendish, this is another narrative thread waiting to be picked up - and picked at - whenever Moore gets around to writing a sequel to Sky's The Limit.

And Sky's The Limit deserves a sequel. Whatever you think of Team Sky, their story is practically perfect. All that money, all those high hopes. Will the Team Sky story ultimately be all about hubris or will it be about lessons learned and the success of hope over experience? Whatever you think of Brailsford - love him or loath him - you have to admit that the Team Sky story is worth following. It's got the potential to be one of the best soap operas in the sport in years.

What Moore offers in Sky's The Limit is a pretty solid piece of cycling reportage. One of the biggest problems with Team Sky - particularly during its first year on the road - has been the British media and the manner in which they chucked their objectivity in the bin and acted like they were all on the team's marketing payroll. While I was critical of Heroes, Villains and Velodromes for the manner in which Moore got far too close to his subject and lost all sense of objectivity, in Sky's The Limit he's managed to retain sufficient distance from everyone involved to comment honestly on what he saw. Even when what he saw necessitates doling out some criticism.

Moore has himself described Sky's The Limit as being the sequel to Heroes, Villains and Velodromes. That book was an account of Team GB's build-up to the Beijing Olympics, with Chris Hoy the prism through which much of the action was seen. To stick with the same formula for Sky's The Limit would see the book being as much about Bradley Wiggins as it would be about Team Sky. But Wiggins already has his own Boswell - Brendan Gallagher - and his own publishing deal, which has seen In Pursuit of Glory and On Tour hitting the bookshop shelves. And Wiggins seems to have a bit of an attitude problem when it comes to the British media.

There's a story about Wiggins that Moore tells in Sky's The Limit. It's from October 2009 and Wiggins is blotto at some charity do in Kilmarnock. In the wider world beyond Wiggins' little party for one, the tug of love between Garmin and Team Sky for his affections is playing out in the media. Wiggins should be top of the world, but instead he's drunk as a skunk and giving those journalists there at Kilmarnock a piece of his mind: "You lot just want to see me fail! You wanna see me fall flat on my face!" A few weeks later, at a track meet in Manchester, Wiggins dismisses his words that night: "I was pissed." So, was it the drink talking, or was it really a case of the mask slipping and Wiggins letting the world know what he really thinks of British sports journalists?

Quite where Wiggins' apparent paranoia about the British media comes from I'm confused. Oh for sure, the British media in general loves nothing more that putting people on pedestals and then chucking coconuts at them and laughing as they fall off. But wanting him to fail, at this stage, when he hasn't actually succeeded yet? That's hard to understand. Surely they want him to win the Tour before they take him down a peg or two?

Does the absence of Wiggins hurt the book? Not really. Look at his own book, On Tour, and how lacking in revelations that was. Look at his various interviews throughout 2010 and see how little was really said in them. Was Moore likely to get genuine honesty out of the guy? I just don't see that happening. And that's not a criticism of Moore, simply a comment about Wiggins himself.

* * * * *

Team Sky went into the 2010 Tour de France with an objective - a podium finish for Wiggins - and a plan to achieve that objective. The race was actually pretty predictable and ran close to those predictions. The pattern of the race was true to form. We knew what was going to happen, and that it'd come down to the last couple of days.

Planning in an environment like that isn't all that difficult. All you have to do is deploy your resources and reap your rewards. And that's what should have happened for Team Sky at the 2010 Tour. Except for one problem. They'd mis-calculated their resources. Wiggins wasn't firing on all cylinders and couldn't play with the big boys whenever the road starred pointing upwards. And everything in Team Sky's plan required Wiggins to be firing on all cylinders.

In the absence of an alternative plan, everyone sat back and waited for Wiggins to come good. They waited and they waited and all the while the opportunities to achieve something - a stage win - slipped away. Until finally it came down to Bradley Wiggins, time trial specialist, and the penultimate day's ITT. No more eggs, no more baskets. And what did they come out of the ITT with? More excuses and a novel way to rank performances in races.

Where did it all go wrong? How could a team as well resourced as Team Sky, as rich in track and road experience as Team Sky, as sure of themselves as Team Sky, get it all so wrong? Here's Brailsford:

"I think people generally judge success or failure by the expectations they start with. The expectations around us were high, and some of that we generated ourselves. I think that and some of the media that built up around the team created this massive weight of expectation. And against that weight of expectation, we didn't succeed, that's for sure. But if we take the expectation out of it; if we think of ourselves as a new team going straight into the premier league, we've done well."

So it's all about managing expectations then. All they have to do from here on in is portray Team Sky as the little team that could. Sure doesn't everyone love the underdog? But the mismanagement of expectation doesn't really explain where it all went wrong. It does explain why the failure was greeted the way it was - numbly by the fans, warmly by the critics - but expectations were a symptom, not the disease. Is there one lesson in there to explain the absence of a Plan B in Team Sky's début Tour?

The best Brailsford can offer is that, in Team Sky's first year, setting things up detracted from concentrating on performance. Of course, he doesn't quite put it like that. No, this is David Brailsford, a man who is fluent in management-speak bolloxology. Here's his real explanation of where it all went wrong:

"If I can sum it up, I think this year we focussed too much on the peas and not enough on the steak."