Interview: Cycling coach Dave Brailsford’s secret to success and why he isn’t ruling out a move into football

Cycling coach Dave Brailsford. Picture: Getty
Cycling coach Dave Brailsford. Picture: Getty
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THERE is arguably no coach in world sport who currently occupies a loftier perch than Dave Brailsford.

Only this summer, as Team Sky principal, he led Bradley Wiggins to a first ever British win in the Tour de France, then, in his other role as British performance director, followed a near flawless collective performance at the 2008 Olympics with an identical haul of eight gold medals at the London Games. The knighthood is as good as in the post.

Not that you would necessarily realise this when you bump into the soon-to-be Sir Dave as he wheels his bike out of the Manchester Velodrome on a dank Thursday evening.

In his trademark GB tracksuit top, jeans and trainers, Brailsford stops at his car, removes the wheels and packs the bike into the boot, but continues chatting. “I ride in the morning,” he says, as the day darkens and chills. The only bling is the bike: a Team Sky Pinarello worth around £5,000.

Earlier, Brailsford had been kept waiting for 25 minutes by a distinguished visitor from across the road. Roberto Mancini arrived fashionably late and attired, trailed by a posse of translators and press officers. Having endured a torrid Champions League encounter against Borussia Dortmund the previous evening, there were doubts as to whether the Manchester City manager would appear at all, yet here he was, in sky blue open neck shirt, medallion, jacket and smart jeans.

It was interesting that Mancini’s visit, as well as being an opportunity for the football and cycling managers to meet, was an event to which the media were invited. After the Beijing Games, another visitor to the velodrome was Sir Alex Ferguson, who came with members of his coaching staff, but preferred not to broadcast the fact.

Ferguson was keen to hear how Brailsford had done it. And Brailsford was keen to know the secret to Ferguson’s longevity; how he built and renewed teams. Sitting in his office, he asked him and Ferguson replied that it was quite simple: “Get rid of the c*nts.” By which he meant disruptive elements. Brailsford took note.

He has certainly needed some of Ferguson’s ruthlessness this year, while also learning to deal with the kind of scrutiny more familiar to him and Mancini.

At the Tour, while Wiggins was triumphant, Brailsford had his hands full with Chris Froome, who finished second but was unhappy at having to sacrifice his own chances, and Mark Cavendish, bitter at the lack of support and now, one year into a three-year deal, on his way out at Team Sky. Added to all that was the white noise of doping suspicion and innuendo that inevitably accompanies any phenomenal performance at the Tour.

Then there is Victoria Pendleton. The two-time Olympic gold medallist’s autobiography, published recently, makes plain her unhappiness at the way she was treated by British Cycling when she began a relationship with one of the coaches, Scott Gardner, just before Beijing. Her book is full of barbs aimed at Brailsford and his coaching staff, with only the psychiatrist, Steve Peters, spared.

Was Brailsford unhappy that she went public with her criticisms? “I don’t think so,” he says. “At the end of the day our responsibility is performance.”

Pendleton felt that British Cycling, far from being the supportive, happy set-up that is often portrayed, was cold and heartless, and that she and Gardner – who was given a choice: his job or his girlfriend; he chose Pendleton, and they are now engaged – were unfairly treated.

“It’s a tough world,” Brailsford shrugs. “You don’t always win a medal by all holding hands and walking off into the sunset. You have to push people and they will sometimes push back.” Pendleton, he points out, has now retired with a gold and a silver medal from London 2012 and moved on to Strictly Come Dancing, among other things.

Brailsford is not moving on, despite friendships with other figures from the world of football, including Damien Comolli, former director of football at Liverpool, the club he supports. His interest in football has led to speculation that he may seek to emulate Sir Clive Woodward, who tried to move from rugby to football to, more recently, Olympic sports.

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” says Brailsford when asked whether he might switch sports. “But I’d never see myself as a football manager, because you need to understand the sport. I have got a lot of unfinished business in cycling that is going to occupy my time, certainly up to Rio [in 2016].”

Brailsford has compared his role to that of a conductor, with an orchestra made up of the athletes, coaches, sports scientists, performance analysts, nutritionists, and the rest. All his job entails, he claims, is finding people who are experts in their field, and letting them get on with it.

“I understand most areas of the job and the jobs that other people do, but it’s not my job to do their job,” as he puts it. “I like to be the guy who comes along and tries to reflect some truth on the situation, without being critical. My job is to support people so they can be better.”

The meeting with Mancini was an opportunity to learn. Yet it also highlighted the differences between the pair. Apart from the sartorial contrast, Mancini, a keen cyclist (“Of course, I am Italian,” he explains), who grew up following Felice Gimondi and Francesco Moser, and rides to work on his Bianchi “three or four times a week,” appears aloof and detached, while Brailsford is intense and passionate. As they tour the velodrome, it is Brailsford who is all expressive gestures, while the Italian’s hands remain in his pockets.

Obsession is the word that defines Brailsford. After the Olympics, he went on holiday to Majorca. When he returned and made an appearance at last month’s Tour of Britain, he seemed thrown when asked whether he enjoyed the break. “Er, I think so, yeah. No, I did, yeah. But I’m glad to be back. I like something to do.” With Brailsford there is never a sense that he is satisfied, and no suggestion of mission accomplished, despite Team Sky’s founding ambition being to win the Tour de France within five years. They have done it in three, and will now, he says, “try to do it again.”

For Brailsford the journey can be traced back not to 2010 and the formation of Team Sky, but to 2004, and the Athens Olympics. Specifically, to the immediate aftermath of Chris Hoy’s gold medal in the kilometre. “I can remember sitting on a step outside the velodrome with Shane [Sutton, British Cycling’s head coach and still Brailsford’s right-hand man] and everybody had gone home and we were the last two there.

“He was having a fag and we were just sitting there thinking, it’s massive. It was massive for us, and it was hugely satisfying and we were just happy for Chris. You go on from that, and all of a sudden we’ve won a lot of bike races.”

At the time, Brailsford was in the process of taking over as British performance director from Peter Keen, who began to lay the foundations in 1997. In the eight years since Athens, Brailsford has built an empire.

The velodrome in Manchester remains the focal point. Yet when it opened, in 1994, it struggled. Cycling events were cancelled for cat shows; it hosted a Conservative Party manifesto launch; and still the bills could not be paid. Finally it was rescued by a supportive and visionary local council, and, from 1997, occupied by the lottery-funded national team.

Fifteen years on, as well as being officially the busiest cycling facility in the world, expanded to include a BMX arena, busy cafe and bike shop. There are lessons, and inspiration, for Glasgow’s new Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome.

Yet none of this, or the success, makes Brailsford’s life easier, it seems. He had said that he thought the main lesson he could learn from Mancini was about “managing different cultures, different types of players, big characters, with lots of money” (Mancini said he was keen to impress upon his players how hard cyclists work in training: “Much harder than us”), perhaps because of the man-management issues he had at the Tour, especially when Froome accelerated and dropped his leader, Wiggins, near the summit of the Alpine climb of La Toussuire.

Froome had to be told to wait for Wiggins, in effect sacrificing his own chances, and there seemed to be an uneasy truce between them for the remaining ten days. It was, Brailsford agrees, a remarkable situation, “but I think it’s what made us win, though it might potentially have made us lose.”

His management skills were tested that night at La Toussuire. “It’s about being honest, frank, putting it on the table and not bullsh*tting, or saying, ‘OK, Chris, we’re not going to talk about this because it might upset you,’ or ‘Brad, we’re just going to ignore it.’

“Everybody needs clarity about their role,” Brailsford continues, adding that, at the time, Wiggins was leading Froome by a minute-and-a-half, and “on paper, [had] the best chance of winning.” Froome was therefore told to support him, and did, until he appeared to have another dig, and again dropped Wiggins, on the final stage in the Pyrenees.

“People need a clear understanding of what their role is,” says Brailsford. “They have to understand it, and then accept it. A lot of people go: ‘Yeah, I’ve got it, no problem, I’ll do it.’ They tell you exactly what you want to hear, but they go out and do something slightly different. And you think: ooooh. Was he thinking of himself there?” Contained here, perhaps, is a fascinating, albeit coded, deconstruction of what happened between Wiggins and Froome, with more light set to be shed in Wiggins’ forthcoming autobiography.

The other main talking point at the Tour was more serious. It was only when Wiggins came to appreciate that the questions about doping were the legacy of the race’s dirty past that he began to deal with the issue coherently, and, ultimately, convincingly. But the more recent revelations concerning Lance Armstrong have underlined how much work there remains in convincing people that it is possible to win the Tour clean.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about it,” says Brailsford of the case against Armstrong, and the US Anti-Doping Agency’s decision to strip him of his seven Tour titles. “You’ve got the past, the present and the future. I’ve seen it referred to as generation EPO. You can’t deny that happened. The more you read, and the more that comes out, and you sit there and your jaw drops, you think: let’s accept there was a past; let’s not try to deny it. There definitely was a past. And the tentacles of that past impact on the present.

“We set this team up to be a clean team and to try and use coaching and science. Our job is to try to make people go faster, and when you’re good at it, [some people] use that to substantiate that you’re doping. It’s unfortunate, but it is understandable that people will question it.”

Brailsford said during the Tour that at the end of the season he would invite the doubters to Manchester, where he would explain his methods. Does he still intend to do that? “Yeah, but we’re not at the end of the season yet. There’s this group out there, anonymous people who keep banging on, using pseudo science. It’s totally understandable why they have their opinions, and draw the conclusions they do, but I’d like to meet them and say, ‘right, fire away, what do you want to talk about?’

“The thing is, we’ve still got to win,” he continues. “We’re in a competitive environment. So on the one hand, you think, we’ll open ourselves up and show people what we do. On the other, we’d then be educating everybody else, who we’re competing against.”

It presents a dilemma. And yet there is only one answer, and Brailsford knows it. “Trying to be transparent is the only way we’re going to get rid of the tentacles of the past and get to the future we want. We want to be at the forefront of the drive towards clean cycling, and so it’s incumbent on us to not duck and dive and say, ‘Here we are, this is where we’re at.’”