I don't know if it's Gavia's coffee or Chris' frites, but Richard Moore has popped back into the Café again, just a few weeks after his last visit, when we chatted about Slaying The Badger. This time out, we're talking about the other book Moore has out this year, Sky's The Limit, the story of Sky Pro Cycling's first year of mixing it up with the big boys. We pick up more or less where we left off last time out ...
Podium Café: We closed out last time around talking about the recent history of British Cycling and some of the story you told in Heroes, Villains and Velodromes. Sky's The Limit really is HVV II: What Dave Did Next. But this one has been written without buy-in from the key protagonists - it's not the authorised or officially sanctioned version of Team Sky's first year on the road. Did that restrict your access in any way, particularly after the Tour ended and the team began to reflect on what they'd got right and where it had all gone wrong?
RM: No, not at all. I told some of the people behind Team Sky back in December 2009 that I'd be writing a book about their first season, and then I mentioned it to Dave Brailsford at the Tour Down Under in January 2010. But he had other things on his mind at the time, as was demonstrated when, in September, during the Tour of Britain, I mentioned it to him again and he seemed not to know what I was talking about.
Access was never a problem. I actually didn't want to be too close, so I never asked to be ‘embedded.' I really just wanted to go about my normal work as a journalist, but in a more intense way, and gathering more information than I usually would. I suppose I've got to know Dave and Shane Sutton over the years, and I think they trust me to report what they say accurately, and to be fair and objective. In any case, they were open and helpful throughout the year.
PdC: You weren't embedded with the team. Paul Kimmage was supposed to be embedded with the team, for the 2010 Tour. A repeat of his 2008 adventures with Jonathan Vaughters' boys at Garmin. Then, at the last minute, he was effectively turfed off the bus. Because - if I understand it right - he was going to reveal that (gasp!) Bradley Wiggins was having a crap Tour de France. Control freakery?
RM: I think Paul's ejection had more to do with the questions they suspected he would ask Michael Barry, after Floyd Landis's allegations during the Giro (when Landis claimed he'd discussed EPO with Barry prior to the Vuelta one year, when both rode for US Postal; accusations Barry has denied).
Actually, as I suggested above, I have a bit of a problem with the idea of being embedded. I mean, I'd say Paul - for whom, I should point out, I have nothing but respect - is a special case. For one thing, he is never going to be anyone's mouthpiece or propagandist, nor is he going to compromise.
But speaking personally, the idea of being embedded... I think I would feel uncomfortable being treated as a special case, and I think I'd find it quite difficult to then be objective. Maybe I'm just soft. But I'd rather not get any special treatment, and feel free to write what I want.
PdC: The access you had - as usual with your books, there's some great interviews underpinning the story. Outside of the team, there's some good input from the likes of Bob Stapleton. You got some pretty good insider stuff from the likes of Scott Sunderland (before his axing), Rod Ellingworth and a few others (before the Tour anyway). They were open with you, not just feeding you the officially sanctioned platitudes. Wiggins though was doing his turtle routine a lot of the time, refusing to come out of his shell. Maybe that's because he was saving up all the best bits for his own book, On Tour. Or maybe Jonathan Vaughters was right when he told you the guy is just the shy and retiring type. Or was he just suffering performance anxiety?
RM: You're right. Wiggins was/is difficult to deal with. I've always found that as a journalist. You don't know where you stand with him. It could be shyness, as Vaughters suggested.
For all that I say above that I don't want ‘special treatment' or to be get too close, as a journalist you still have to forge relationships with people, and, like any relationships, they're based on trust. I don't think Wiggins trusts many journalists - only one or two, perhaps. I really don't know why. I think he feels that some of the coverage of his move to Sky was unfair (even if it was true), and I know he got fed up in ‘09 with being asked questions about drugs (mainly by French journalists). But to treat all journalists with suspicion and wariness - that's throwing the baby out with the bath water. It's self-defeating.
He's complex. At times he can be a brilliant interviewee - intelligent, funny and good company. At other times he can seem suspicious to the point of paranoia. I don't feel I've ever been able to form a really positive professional relationship with him. Maybe it's my fault. But I find it a shame.
PdC: That whole Wiggins-to-Sky soap opera. Wiggo's former Garmin team-mate and BFF, David Millar, has resurrected that saga in his new book, Racing Through The Dark, and he continued the war of words in the lead up to the Tour. Now I'm not going to ask you to criticise Millar - he's the sensitive type and isn't used to criticism - but what's your take on the whole thing? I mean it's not just Wiggins - Sky nicked Scott Sunderland from Cervélo and Ben Swift from Katusha. And they themselves lost Brian Nygard to Team Leopard. This sort of thing goes on all the time in other team sports - time for everyone to just build a bridge and get over it?
RM: Yeah, I didn't want to go on too much in the book about this. I found it pretty boring after a while, as, I'm sure, did everyone else. Bottom line: Team Sky needed either Wiggins or Cavendish, didn't they? They had to do all they could to get one of them - and they did. Hindsight is 20:20, and Wiggins didn't make the podium in 2010. But he finished fourth in 2009 - nobody knew what he was capable of: not Wiggins, not Team Sky, not me - and not you. Imagine if he'd won the Tour, or even finished on the podium, with another team in 2010.
I completely understand Millar's view, though. With him, it's more personal - he felt, justifiably from what I understand, that Wiggins was disrespectful towards his team, and the guys who helped him finish fourth. Millar, as you probably know, can be an absolute trojan in the service of a team-mate, as he was for Thor Hushovd in the first week of this Tour. I remember standing on the slopes of the climb to Verbier in 09, seeing Garmin and Millar on the front, working their asses off for Wiggins. I can understand why Millar would be pissed off. It would be odd if he wasn't.
PdC: The Peters Principle. Steve Peters has famously taught Team GB's riders to spank the monkey, how to take control of their inner chimp and stop it from making them miss their goals. Peters now performs the same role at Team Sky. Something that struck me watching the 2010 Tour unfold was how Wiggins wouldn't give up on the objective of a podium finish. Which is laudable in and of itself - quitters never win and winners never quit and clichés like that come to mind. Except that Wiggins was clearly in denial and sticking with the podium objective seemed to be a clear case of pig-headedness. And sticking to that objective denied the team a chance to salvage a stage win from the Tour. How well do you think Peters' approach transfers to road cycling?
RM: Now, now Feargal. I see what you did there. As Steve Peters would tell you, it doesn't matter to him what the person does - track cycling, road cycling, football, tae kwon do, knitting. But I think there's a danger of over-emphasising Peters' influence when it comes to the setting of targets. He's not remotely involved in the setting of performance targets - he's anti-them. He's all about process, as you know.
I'm sure that, when Team Sky debriefed after last year's Tour, one of the main conclusions would have been that having Wiggins aim so publicly for the podium was a mistake. It did Wiggins and the team no favours - as we saw.
As for what the Peters' approach can bring to road cyclists, there are certainly unique challenges. And yes, I can see the logic in the argument that the techniques Peters works on with, say, Chris Hoy or Victoria Pendleton, might be more easily applied by them - because their events are short, and there is so much more that they can (theoretically at least) ‘control'. In the Tour de France there's a lot of thinking time, there are more variables and uncontrollables. Again, though, to discard Peters' input completely would be to throw out the baby with the bath water.
It's also missing the bigger picture of what he does. I've never had a diagnosis from him (despite the hints), but what impresses me about Peters is his apparent detachment from the sport/event, and even - in a sense - from the athletes with whom he works. It can seem to me, when I've talked to him, that they're not people at all - they're just a set of characteristics/personality traits/experiences over which we have very little individual control. He seems to be about helping people to understand themselves - and those hard-wired traits/experiences - better. For most people, that probably helps them function better, whatever they do, whether it be riding the Tour de France or reviewing books.
Or maybe, in some cases, it doesn't... Would it ‘help' Lance Armstrong to understand his anger better? Might it help the person, but not the athlete? Discuss...
PdC: Rod Ellingworth is one of the key interviewees in Sky's The Limit, one of life's straight talkers. Prior to joining Team Sky he headed up the British Cycling Academy. You describe his role there as being a little like Muriel Sparks' Miss Jean Brodie, only without the undertone of fascism. His approach to moulding young riders seems to be a throwback to football's boot-room culture: discipline and respect need to be instilled, as much as the rider's talent needs to be nurtured. You seem to have some doubts about how the Academy is coping without him.
RM: He is old-fashioned in that respect, you're right. His work with the academy was extraordinary. It was Geraint Thomas who summed up this best, telling me that Ellingworth adopted different roles with different riders - to Ed Clancy he was a father figure, to Cav he was like an older brother, and to Geraint he was ‘the boss.' That, to me, makes him a very good manager - he could adapt, depending on the individual. Certainly he could be hard and a disciplinarian, but what Rod was - and still is - above everything else is an enthusiast. He loves what he does, and that's very infectious.
In that sense he is the prototype Brailsford coach. Though I suspect you may disagree, what I sense running through Brailsford's British Cycling and Team Sky ‘empires' is discipline, structure and enthusiasm. Thomas described Ellingworth as a teacher - but he meant the kind of teacher who you always remember, who leaves the biggest impression. Remarkably with Rod there is no discernible ego, either. He doesn't seem to be in it for personal glory at all - on the contrary.
I felt, when I visited Max Sciandri at the academy house in Quarrata in March 2010, that it had lost its way a bit. There was the fact that the big year planner, above Sciandri's desk, was the previous year's... I felt Rod's intensity, attention to detail and enthusiasm were missing. And that Max's more laidback approach might not be working. That impression was backed up by a couple of conversations I had with academy riders later in the year. Now Max has gone and Chris Newton has taken over.
PdC: Entry to the Academy is largely based on numbers, hitting the correct numbers in performance tests. Which, the experience of Mark Cavendish has demonstrated, can be misleading. As Einstein put it, not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts. What's your take on cycling - particularly on the road - as a numbers game?
RM: Again, I'm sure ‘numbers' have their place. I guess it would be correct to say that, to make it at the top level, you need the right physiological "tools" - the rest can be worked on and improved.
But - as I say in the book - I don't think the Moneyball, stats-based approach will ever assume the importance that it has in baseball and, increasingly, football. Personally, I find stats pretty dull. I think Brailsford gets labelled as a numbers man - and I think he'll use them whenever he feels they can be valuable. I supposed he'd be silly not to. But I think it's wrong to see him as being only interested in numbers.
Yes, Cavendish didn't "hit the numbers" for academy entry (though the entry criteria were set by Brailsford's predecessor, Peter Keen), but he still got in - and the British Academy, principally through Rod Ellingworth, did have an important part to play in his early development. It would be churlish to overlook that.
PdC: David Brailsford is - publicly at least - fixated on his teams' clean credentials, Team GB and Team Sky. On being seen to be clean. Says he doesn't want to work with people caught up in doping scandals. Rejected Sean Kelly as a Team Sky directeur sportif because of his history. Two names I'm curious about here: Max Sciandri and Sean Yates. Sciandri never tested positive, but was a famous client of Luigi Cecchini - and has maintained his links with the Italian - whose notoriety is such that even Pat McQuaid has seen fit to criticise him. Yates tested positive twice in his career, both in 1989. The first was wiped when he was given the benefit of the doubt, the second is, to the best of my knowledge, still on his permanent record. Sometimes, Brailsford's words and his actions just don't seem to match up when it comes to his commitment to a transparently clean team, wouldn't you agree?
RM: Without getting into the particulars of the cases you mention, again, I think there are different ways of handling this. And I don't think Team Sky got it right. I think Bob Stapleton got it right. No one doubts his commitment to clean cycling, or that of his DSs, yet several of them have either tested positive or admitted to doping in their own careers.
As Sebastian Coe once said, in a different context, some situations "make honest people dishonest." Who knows - I don't - but there could be riders/directors with Team Sky who'd like to speak out about things that have gone on in the past, but are prevented from doing so - or faced with the prospect of losing their job, which would be enough of a disincentive for most people.
I think David Millar has done enormous good as an anti-doping campaigner, and I think that people like Rolf Aldag, Brian Holm and Allan Peiper are hugely positive influences. That's ‘positive' in the sense of ‘good.' Yet none of these guys could be hired by Team Sky, under the present rules.
As for the team's commitment to being clean, one of the most interesting aspects of their first year, for me, was to observe how some staff members - who perhaps knew little of pro road cycling beforehand - had their eyes opened to the (historic?) doping culture.
I also - as I explain in the book - detected a shift in the language they used over the course of the year. I realised, too, how difficult it must be to keep on the right side of the ‘the line' - and that it is every team's responsibility to know where that line is (which isn't always clear) and - you could argue - to go as close to it as possible. That inevitably entails some difficult decisions and judgement calls.
I was always looking for comments or tell-tale signs that the commitment to anti-doping may be wavering, or compromised. Steve Peters told me that any doping scandal, or positive test, would "wreck credibility for every single one of us." I found that fairly convincing.
PdC: Brailsford can come across as a bit of a bullshit artist sometimes. There was that thing a few months about not sending any Team GB riders to Australia, stuff like that. How much of that do you think is just an act, him doing the sort of thing Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho do all the time, deflecting the media's attention?
RM: I'm sensing a bit of anti-Brailsford-ism here. Even a bit of anger. Would you like to speak to Steve Peters about it?
I don't think Brailsford casts himself as Ferguson or Mourinho, even in his wildest flights of fancy. I really don't.
I do get that some people think he's a ‘bullshit artist,' on account of his fondness for certain buzz phrases and a tendency to management speak; but that comes across to me, most of the time, as a manifestation of his enthusiasm. He's always searching for analogies - some of them are pretty leftfield, such as the stuff about the doctor in Accident & Emergency with a patient on a trolley, which he shared with me at the start of the Tour last year. But I always feel these things are born of his curiosity, and the quest he's on to try and figure out and understand, and apply understanding.
I understand that some don't like him, or don't trust him. I must say, though, that I don't understand some of the vitriol that's directed towards him.
PdC: Some of Brailsford's bullshit is a direct follow on from Team GB and all that Secret Squirrels shit, getting the media off the riders' backs and talking more about super-dooper skin-suits and all the marginal gains aggregated. For Team Sky there was all sorts of silly distractions, from blue M&Ms through to those iPillows. It filled an awful lot of space. But never - ever - has so much been written by so few about something so stupid as that bloody bus. Even l'Équipe got sucked into drooling over it. And then in On Tour Wiggans comes out and says he thinks they got the bus wrong: that it inhibited team interaction, turned a team into a group of individuals. There's no doubting the team's attention to detail, but that does sometimes leave them missing the big picture, no?
RM: There you go again Feargal! Seriously, I've got Peters' number...
As someone told me, "Dave [Brailsford] likes a bit of bling." He loves all the kit: he's a gadget man, I'd imagine. I don't even think the bus was anything special, was it? Not really. But they certainly got the idea out there that it was - and some would consider that a stroke of PR genius.
As for all the GB stuff about the secret squirrels' club, the skin-suits, bikes, etc - it captured people's imagination. And by doing so, it took cycling to an even bigger audience. Perhaps it helped create new fans. I remember, even before Beijing - in Palma at the 2007 track worlds - Chris Boardman told me about all this ‘secret' stuff they were doing, and spying and whatnot. To some extent he was having a bit of fun. But the Guardian, who I was covering the championships for, loved it - and put a story about it on the front page of their sports section. And this is a bad thing...?
As for the accusation that, by focusing on details, you can miss the big picture. Are they mutually exclusive? Is the big picture not made up of all these little details? Would Wiggins have done any better in last year's Tour if there wasn't the hype around the bus, and if he'd had to make do with non-Sky-branded M&Ms? Questions, questions.
I think, as I hope the book describes, last year was an enormously steep learning curve for everyone involved in Team Sky. It was also, once they'd set off, incredibly difficult to make changes. In the interview I did with Brailsford at the end of the book, reviewing the year, this was one of the things he reflected on. They rode sixty-four different events, two hundred and sixty-two days' racing, in fifteen different countries. It's insane. And they suffered the tragedy of the death of their soigneur, Txema González. There was a lot to deal with.
PdC: Thanx for the offer of Peters' number, but as Freud wrote the Irish off when it comes to psychoanalysis I'm not sure it'd be a good idea. I'm not actually anti-Brailsford. I'm not pro him, by any means, I'll accept that. Colour me sceptical if I have to have a label. I'm trying to understand what makes Brailsford tick, when he's supposed to be taken at face value and when he's not. Sometimes, doing this through the prism of the British media can be difficult. Because there's a lot of contradictions there - some of which we've touched on here - and I think you have to accept that not many of your colleagues bother questioning them, no?
RM: I'm not sure if that's fair. Of course there are contradictions, but we're all contradictory at times. I'm more suspicious of people who never contradict themselves. Where does their certainty come from?
"The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves." So said Oscar Wilde. Being Irish, you'll appreciate that.
If you really mean hypocrisy, rather than contradiction, then of course any journalist's job is to question that and expose it. But there is a subtle and important difference between being contradictory and being a hypocrite.
PdC: The other book you have out this year, Slaying The Badger, is about the 1986 Tour. Now I doubt that would have been as good if you'd written it in the immediate aftermath of that race - this is no criticism of the teenaged Richard Moore's writing ability, honest. Rather it's about the perspective time brings to the story, how people open up more the further they get away from things. You'd have still had a bloody good story about the 1986 Tour, just not as good as the one you did get to tell. The Team Sky story - even as it relates to 2010 - is still being told, with Wiggins recently revealing that he got a bollocking from Brailsford over the way things turned out, something he didn't even reveal in his own book, On Tour. Since you delivered the manuscript of Sky's The Limit to Harpers you must have had quite a few moments when you learned something new and wished you'd been able to include it in the book.
RM: There haven't been too many moments like that, I don't think. It was mildly irritating, from a purely selfish point of view, that Brailsford, Wiggins et al, were so open after last year's Tour about where they thought they'd gone wrong. They were almost self-flagellating in their analyses.
But they are very different types of book, as you say. People are more open about events in the past, the longer ago the better. Sky's the Limit relies more on reportage, which is also a form I really like, both writing and reading. When done well it paints a picture of a scene; it's observational and can be more open-ended, steering clear of making hard and fast conclusions. Which is ok, I think.
PdC: Let's talk about objectivity. You're a British journalist. Team Sky's a British team. There's been a massive hype bubble surrounding them, particularly last year. At its worst, it's made some of the excesses of Planet Armstrong seem tame - there's one or two British sports journalists out there who really should be given Team Sky-issued ra-ra skirts and pom-poms. How difficult was it to detach yourself from the whole thing, to step back and try and deliver the warts and all story?
RM: As a matter of fact, I look very fetching in a ra-ra skirt, especially one with a Union Jack design.... But let me stop you there, Feargal! Let me turn the tables.
First I should say that I think your reviews are phenomenal: incredibly detailed, intelligent and with integrity dripping from (almost) every word. Your knowledge of the sport is astonishing. I am also in awe of your ability to absorb and critique so many books with such an impressive level of engagement and thoroughness. That said, I think on occasions you are guilty of allowing a personal agenda to colour some reviews.
So let's talk about objectivity! I think you read my earlier book, Heroes, Villains and Velodromes - which you slammed, you bastard - with the preconceived idea that I was banging the drum for track cycling over road cycling. I think you read David Millar's autobiography having made up your mind long ago that you don't like the guy, and that you weren't going to believe his story, or not fully. When a reviewer's personal agenda is so detectable, I distrust the review (let me also say, by the way, that I happen to think David Millar's book is nothing short of a masterpiece).
In these two cases I mention, I detect the agenda - and the feelings behind it - less from what you write than in how it's written. Anger and emotion seep out. I'd dig out a couple of lines from the Heroes, Villains and Velodromes review as an example, but it'd be too traumatic. What I'm trying to say is that objectivity is a difficult thing to aspire to. Nothing ever written by a human being is truly objective.
Back to the question. I don't agree that the hype around Team Sky has made "some of the excesses of Planet Armstrong seem tame." That's an exaggeration, surely. The thing is, this word "hype" gets bandied about, and it's very loaded and emotive. But what it actually means is: coverage. I find it a little bizarre that we - as cycling fans - complain about coverage of cycling in the mainstream media, and I suspect that we'd be complaining even more if there was less.
OK, so some of the coverage of Team Sky in the mainstream media might not be critical, or particularly well-informed, and it may exaggerate the merits, or prospects of the team/riders - but if the alternative is no coverage at all, I'll take it. It's a process. We'll get there. And if we do, it will be thanks, in no small part, to the (delete as appropriate) British/Irish/American riders and teams who are performing on the world stage, taking the sport to a new audience. I know some like cycling to be their thing, almost like a cult, but I don't. I want as many people as possible to ‘get' it and love it as I do.
And on the subject of ‘objectivity,' I detect that some now take this to mean ‘criticism' - in a uniformly negative sense. But you can be objective - as objective as a human being can ever be - and still shower praise.
I was very conscious of this kind of phenomenon when I was writing this book - a little too conscious at times. As I've mentioned, there is an anti-Brailsford, anti-Team Sky lobby out there, and they're quite vocal. I did catch myself thinking, at certain points: what will they think of this? Will I still be deemed credible - and ‘objective' - if I don't go down that route of blanket criticism, and if Brailsford comes out of the book with - shock! - some redeeming features? But I clambered out of that hole, thankfully.
PdC: Have you had much reaction to the book from Team Sky's legion of fans? Do they see you as a traitor for daring to criticise?
RM: I'm only aware of positive reaction so far - though I'm writing this before I've read your review, Feargal.
I haven't had much reaction from within the team itself, though I know one or two have read it (Brailsford claims he hasn't).
The only reaction I've had has been from Matt Parker's dad pointing out that his son didn't play football for Falkirk, as I claim! That'll be corrected in future editions...
PdC: We mentioned briefly last time out the glut of cycling books to land this year. When I started doing these bookshelf pieces for Podium Café last year, I thought I'd have exhausted my bookshelf by now and could get back to reading thrashy thrillers and the new Eoin Colfer. Or even finally getting past page twenty-three of Finnegans Wake. Instead I'm struggling just to keep up with all the new cycling books released this year. That's not a complaint and this is actually good news for the sport, I think. But if a dedicated cycling site like this is struggling to keep up, then it must be a real struggle to get all these books - or even just the best of them - reviewed by the mainstream media, by newspapers and radio. And this must be doubly difficult for you, with two different books out within weeks of each other, Slaying The Badger and Sky's The Limit. How have you been finding it so far?
RM: Well, I think - and hope - my two books complement each other. I think all the books that came out this year - David Millar's, Ned Boulting's, my two, Herbie Sykes', John Foot's, Jeff Connor's re-published Wide-Eyed and Legless - complement each other. They're all very different.
And in fact Slaying the Badger, in particular, got a real boost from Millar's book, and the publicity around it. When Millar's came out, sales of mine went up - I think because people were buying one and having the other one "suggested."
I always thought Sky's the Limit would do better during the Tour itself, especially if Team Sky were doing well. As I answer these questions, Wiggins has crashed out - which is a real disappointment; it would have been fascinating to see how he'd got on this year. But the paperback edition, out in April, should have some good new material - with Cavendish joining Team Sky this winter (fact, not speculation).
On the other point, I try to make a big effort to publicise the books. I think you have to. Through Twitter, especially, you can "reach" your potential audience directly and easily. And you have to do that. People aren't going to just magically learn that there's a book out that they might be interested in - you have to tell them.
I've had a bit of a slagging from certain colleagues for publicising my books through Twitter - that would be from the people who use Twitter to publicise their magazine or website. It's the same thing. We're all trying to sell something. But it's all good natured, I like to think. They don't mean any harm, the bastards.
PdC: Let's move a little bit beyond the story told in Sky's The Limit, to Team Sky's second year. The hype's been turned down from eleven. The swagger is gone. Rather than over-promising and under-delivering, they've almost gone low profile. And they've actually had a pretty meaningful win, in the Critérium du Dauphiné. You happy with what you've seen, up to the start of the Tour?
RM: Sorry to throw another quote at you, but I included a good one from Simon Barnes, the Times sports writer, towards the end of the book, about when you fail, and "You have two options and the one you take depends on whether or not you are serious about improving. You can accept failure and seek to do it better next time or you can deny that you failed and then fail all over again."
I think Brailsford acknowledged many of the mistakes the team made in their first year, particularly in relation to the glitzy launch and - as you say - the swagger and bling and big talk. But it was funny to see this year's big new team, Leopard Trek, come in with an even glitzier, bolder launch than Sky's, with, perhaps, the same backlash.
There certainly seems to be a different atmosphere around Team Sky this year. They are going about their business more quietly, with less of an overt sense of ‘we're going to change the sport,' even if, secretly, there remains - certainly in Brailsford - a strong belief that certain ideas and innovations (marginal gains, if you like) are worth exploring, and adopting. This seems sensible - both the experimentation, and the more low-key public profile.
PdC: And the Tour 2011: a quick verdict?
RM: Well, an intriguing ‘what if?' concerns Bradley Wiggins, whose crash and broken collarbone deprived of us finding out what he might be capable of. It's impossible to know, but my instinct tells me that he would have still been in contention going into the Alps. The way the race was ridden would have suited him, I think. Would Cadel Evans have dropped him? Nobody knows. I do wonder, though, whether that crash deprived him of a genuine shot at the podium. Overall the race was more like 2009, when he finished fourth and the race was relatively controlled, than 2010, when Contador and Schleck blew the race to smithereens in the mountains.
I think the Sky attitude, post the loss of Wiggins, was pretty admirable. They got stuck into the racing, particularly Flecha. Uran showed what he's capable of, even if he had some bad luck and faded towards the end. Geraint Thomas was one of the strongest riders in the race, I felt. I asked Brailsford after Sunday's final stage whether it was time for Thomas to go away and have a serious think about what he wants to do with the rest of his career, and he agreed. Geraint is in the almost unfortunate position of being pretty good at everything, so it's tough to know what he should focus on. The classics? Week-long stage races, perhaps with a view to seeing what kind of stage racer he might become? Because he can climb on his day, too. One of the things in Thomas's favour is that he seems to relish racing and loves getting stuck in. Brailsford compared him to the kind of footballer who's always shouting for the ball. But it can mean that he's running around all over the pitch - so to speak - with a bit of a lack of focus.
PdC: Two final questions. One of the interesting aspects of Sky's The Limit is how you show that Cav was the rider Brailsford wanted first, not Wiggins, and how - throughout their first year - the team courted Cav by showing that the Sky sprint-train was just as fit as HTC's. Good enough, I guess, to win Cav over, with you saying that the Cav to Sky thing is a done deal. But ... well can yellow and green mix without producing a mess? I know Telekom doubled the two jerseys but Sky emulating the Germans ... that could be entertaining (on at least one front). Or does wanting Cav on board mean that the goal of landing a Briton on the Tour's top step before the half-decade is out is being pushed back in favour of more achievable short-term victories?
RM: Telekom managed both, but the sport's changed even since then, mainly thanks to Cavendish and his team. Really they have turned the practice of controlling flat stages, and setting up Cavendish for the win, into an art form. There's never been another team in history so committed to that, or so good at it. If HTC disappear, will Cavendish's new team be able to do the job as well? It's possible. The faces in Cavendish's train have changed quite a lot over the past four seasons, after all. I think a lot of it depends on how confident the team - riders and directors - are in their sprinter's ability to deliver. And, with Cavendish, any team can be pretty confident.
But Cavendish is also - rightly - very demanding. He's hard on his team if they mess up, and even harder on himself if he messes up. I think he'll expect any new team to work for him as HTC have worked for him, and I can only think that he'd only have agreed to join Team Sky if he was given certain guarantees. This, for me, suggests that the team's focus will change next year. But could you not have a team almost entirely dedicated to helping Cavendish, with one or two riders saved for GC? Say, for example, you had Wiggins and Uran exempted from lead-out duties and given free reign to pursue their overall ambitions. Would that work? It might even help Wiggins: less pressure, lower expectations. I don't know.
One final point: I did the story, pre-Tour de France, that Cavendish had agreed to join Team Sky. This remains true. But it would seem that he has yet to sign a contract. So - and given some of the rumours flying around the press room during the Tour - events could yet transpire to prevent him joining Team Sky.
PdC: Final Question. 2012 is Olympics year, the high point of the cycle in British Cycling's quadrennial programme. And it's not just any Olympics, it's a home Olympics. The pressure to justify British Cycling's lottery grant is higher than it's ever been, even as everybody tries to dial down expectations. This is where the real conflict between Team GB and Team Sky comes into play. Regardless of what Deloittes have said, there is potential conflict, and there's already hints of friction between the two teams. Have you any concerns about how it's all going to work out?
RM: Well, strictly from a performance point of view, I don't see conflict. On the road side, there would surely be more of a problem if the likes of Thomas, Wiggins, Cavendish, Swift et al, were riding for teams other than Team Sky, because their pro' team would hardly allow them to build their year around the Olympics, whereas at Team Sky their Olympic aspirations should be supported.
These aspirations will affect, of course, whether those riders - with the exception of Cavendish, if he's at Sky - actually ride the Tour. I understand Thomas is doing a test on the track next week to give an idea of how he might do at the London Games if he rides the Tour first. Not sure how useful that will be: surely the state you finish the Tour will vary depending on how you come out of it, which can be dependent on lots of (uncontrollable) factors.
But I think, in principle, that having ‘control' over British riders, through their pro' team, confers an advantage rather than a disadvantage when it comes to the Olympics.
You could say that one ‘conflict' is that Brailsford's attention is more taken up with Team Sky than with the British track team. But I think the trackies are pretty autonomous. How closely involved was Brailsford with the track team pre-Beijing? In the six months before those Games he was looking for a sponsor for his pro team! I think the coaches in charge of the track team had a lot of responsibility delegated to them, then and perhaps even more now. This doesn't mean everyone in that team is happy. But it's never the case that everyone's happy.
The bigger issue is that the results in Beijing were so phenomenal that they will be almost impossible to achieve in London. I could be wrong, but I don't think that has much to do with the existence of Team Sky - I think it's to do with the near-impossibility of repeating what was close to a perfect series of performances, coupled with big improvements made by other nations, in particular Australia.
Naturally, though, if Britain's cyclists win fewer than eight gold medals in London, and perhaps ‘only' win two, three or four, then I'm sure causes will be sought, explanations found, and scapegoats identified. Brailsford's toughest challenge yet could be managing expectations ahead of London.
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Photos: AFP/Getty Images
Richard Moore is the author of In Search of Robert Millar (HarperSport), Heroes, Villains and Velodromes (HarperSport), Slaying the Badger (Yellow Jersey Press) and Sky's The Limit (HarperSport). He also ghost-wrote Chris Hoy - The Autobiography (HarperSport).
You'll find reviews of In Search of Robert Millar, Heroes Villains and Velodromes, Chris Hoy - The Autobiography, Slaying the Badger and Sky's The Limit - along with two earlier interviews (2010 and 2011) - on the Café bookshelf.
Our thanks to Richard Moore for taking the time to participate in this interview.