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‘This team will always be judged on the Tour’: Steve Cummings on life as Ineos DS

In-depth
25 May 2022
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How sporting director Steve Cummings plans to give Ineos Grenadiers his own brand of attacking flair

Words Katy Madgwick Photography Alex Wright

Steve Cummings is preoccupied with change. It’s something he has had to deal with since he was forced to retire as a professional cyclist in 2019 after breaking his back during a crash at the Tour of Britain, a fate that reflects the fragility of living life at warp speed.

Cummings was only a few miles away from his home in the Wirral when the crash happened, cutting short his final season with Dimension Data and leaving him wondering what to do with himself once he recovered and it became clear that he wouldn’t have a team for the following season.

‘It was funny – I carried on training for six months, full gas,’ he tells Cyclist. ‘I didn’t really know what else to do, to be honest. And then one day I was like, “What am I doing this for?”’

He confesses that he’s still not entirely through the transition process. He may have been able to divert his physical energy back into the bike, but finding a focus for his mental energy would prove to be trickier.

‘Fifteen years of being a professional bike rider and enjoying what I did on a daily basis? Yeah, it was tough,’ he acknowledges. ‘But you have to reset. It’s an opportunity to do something else.’

However, it took Cummings some time to decide just what that something else was. He studied a degree in Business in Sport while he considered his options – ‘University saved me,’ he says. He was interested in staying within the sport but wasn’t sure in what capacity.

‘I looked at other jobs I could do. I tried TV but didn’t really enjoy it. I didn’t feel comfortable giving opinions based on assumptions, so the answer was often, “I don’t know.” Now I’m not in the limelight and I like that.’

The art of the baroudeur

During his racing career Cummings became renowned for his maverick solo breakaways, which secured him some memorable victories, including two Tour de France stages and one at La Vuelta.

Perhaps the greatest of these was on Stage 14 of the 2015 Tour, when he soloed across to the breakaway pair of Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot before jumping past them to seal the first Tour victory for South African team MTN-Qhubeka. On Mandela Day of all days.

That may have been a quite spectacular highlight, but Cummings takes greater pride in the way he improved continuously throughout his career: ‘I always got better, and not many people do. I learned a lot about myself and eventually got the rewards. That’s probably the main thing I was proud of.’

It didn’t come easily though. Cummings admits that he struggled as a support rider and always had a nagging desire to transcend the role of domestique.

‘I tried for many years to be a team player,’ he says. ‘I tried to find a niche in the sport. Ultimately, all I wanted was to get the best out of myself and unless I thought about winning, my motivation would dwindle.

‘I didn’t want to drift through my career. That meant I needed opportunities to race to win. I guess that’s why I changed teams a lot – finding that balance of responsibility to help the team but also to take your own chances. Eventually I found it.

‘I was always thinking about winning, for many, many years. “How can I win? How can I win?” Because it wasn’t obvious. I wasn’t a fast sprinter or fast climber. Eventually the only real way was to win alone and that’s really complicated at WorldTour level.

‘At the Tour there are maybe five to seven stages where you could say, “OK, I’ve got a chance.” You’re reliant on how the race will go – you don’t individually have control over that, but with experience you can predict how it will go.’

As a specialist in the art of the escape, does Cummings have an explanation for the noticeable increase in breakaway wins at the Tour in recent years?

‘I think there are a few reasons,’ he reflects. ‘One, fuelling has improved. Last year people were winning from quite far out, whereas perhaps in the past they would blow up as they weren’t able to fuel themselves as well.

‘Also, Sky were so dominant for so many years, whereas with UAE in 2021 it was different, they didn’t have the same sense of control, so the race was more open.’ He adds with a smile, ‘I like seeing it when the breakaway wins. It’s good.’

Cummings says he noticed the change in the way teams were racing even while he was still riding. ‘There were no easy races anymore. Before, you would start the year, say, going to Algarve and maybe everyone took it a bit easier. But towards the end of my career, in every race someone was absolutely flying, ready to try to win the race.

‘If you go into races and you’re not quite in shape you just go downhill because you can’t recover. So you need to be within a few per cent of your best all year to be able to do your job properly. It’s a lot of pressure.’

Cummings agrees that the rapid rise of young star riders has precipitated this to some extent. ‘It seems the trend is pro teams signing riders earlier and riders winning earlier,’ he observes.

‘Perhaps that’s because of the advances in sports science, nutrition and training filtering down to junior level. These guys are already at altitude camps when they’re juniors whereas for me, I wasn’t really behaving like a pro until into my early twenties or probably even after that. Young riders today seem so polished already.’

New direction

Where many ex-pros view the passage from rider to staff as the logical next step, Cummings never saw it as an inevitable outcome. ‘I used to think, “There’s no way I could ever be a DS. No way.” Even when they offered me the job, I didn’t think it was going to be right for me.’

It helped that when Cummings explored the option of becoming a sports director, he found he was in good company: ‘I went to the UCI centre for the DS course and half of the people there were ex-teammates.’

Following Sir Dave Brailsford’s call in November 2020, Cummings has quickly settled into the job of DS at Ineos Grenadiers. He describes spending 2021 in a back-seat role, both physically and metaphorically: ‘I was just observing, very much in the background. This year I’ll feel like I’ve got bit more ownership and influence. Rather than sitting in the back thinking, “Why are they doing this?”’

The ownership Cummings refers to is the coveted position of lead DS at the Tour de France.

‘After the 2021 Tour, they said, “If you were going to lead the Tour, how would you do it?” So I wrote it up for them. And now I’m going to lead the Tour this year.’

He’s self-effacing, almost dismissive of the significance: ‘I don’t like to say I’m lead DS. I just see it as a team.’

Despite his understated approach, he’s ready for the challenge, but taking on such a key role for a team that has been synonymous with the Tour de France for some years is quite the responsibility. How do you tell a team what to do when it boasts no fewer than four Grand Tour winners among its ranks?

‘A lot of this team have been there and done it before, and I haven’t,’ he admits. ‘My job is to try to give them the best information I can and ask the right questions, because more often than not, they’ve probably got the answer.

‘As lead DS your role is to listen to all the information. Then there’s a sweet spot in the middle of it all, which is the best logical solution. You have to try to explain that simply to the riders the next day on the bus.’

His extensive racing experience stands him in good stead: ‘I understand very well how the race moves. I understand strategy and tactics. Again, that’s about asking the right questions at the right time to the right people. Creating a shared strategy to ensure that everyone’s got buy-in, clarity, acceptance…’ He gives a wry smile. ‘And then we’ll just go and smash it.’

Theory of evolution

The 2022 incarnation of Ineos Grenadiers is a somewhat different proposition to the Team Sky of old. However it’s a transformation that Cummings is positive about.

‘In the past the team always led, so it was quite straightforward,’ he says. ‘The complexities come when we’re not leading; that’s when there’s more opportunity. In the past this team has been criticised for being too prudent.

‘We have to find that risk-versus-reward. If we don’t have responsibility to control the race, then we’ll have more opportunity to potentially go for winning within the race.

‘This team will always be judged on the Tour de France. It’s inevitable really – they’ve set such high standards that they’re a victim of their own success. People say, “What’s happened to Ineos? Why is it so bad?” But they won the Giro and arguably had one of their best seasons ever in terms of other victories last year.

‘Because they always raced the Tour with the favourite, it was quite predictable. It was good, but it was like a machine. Now they’re trying to be less predictable, so they’re not always prudent. Sometimes there’s an element of risk. But obviously it has got to be calculated risk.’

The incoming personnel have brought a new energy to the team, Cummings says, and the change extends beyond the style of racing to encompass the kinds of races at which Ineos hope to succeed.

‘If there’s one area where this team can definitely improve it’s the Classics,’ he says. ‘But that culture of always trying to control a race… it’s so hard to control a Classic, so we’re trying to evolve into that way of racing when it’s appropriate.’

When teams rebuild it’s inevitable there will be a shift in priorities. Might this lead to a wholesale change in ethos for a team that had a clear identity for so long?

‘People talk about change. Ineos didn’t really need to change because what they did was so effective. They don’t need to lose that, they just need to be ready to evolve. They don’t have to be the favourite, they can take a few more risks when it’s appropriate, and it’s not going to be to the detriment of other objectives. I think that’s it: evolution.

‘So, in terms of ethos, what does that mean? Just constantly looking for opportunities. Even if we’re leading, just trying to win more. But not recklessly – with logic.’

With an array of young talent, not to mention a clutch of seasoned pros, Cummings grins when he considers the resources he has at his disposal.

‘We’re blessed in this team. We’re spoiled with talent,’ he says. But it’s not necessarily the headline-grabbers that Cummings is most excited to work with. ‘I enjoy working with riders where you know that potential is there, but you’ve only seen flashes of it. People like Eddie Dunbar, where you can see such talent.

‘When there are so many superstars in the team, often those guys get forgotten and it’s trying to help them get the best out of themselves. Those riders who’ve been so good over the years in supporting the team, but they’re also capable of winning. Trying to identify the days when they can? That’s the bit I find really exciting.’

Cummings may still harbour doubts over his own personal evolution, but there is one thing he is certain about: his unshakeable commitment to bike racing. ‘I knew I was passionate about it,’ he concludes. ‘I tried not to be, but I am. It’s just in you.’

Steve Cummings’ new book, The Break: Life As A Cycling Maverick (Atlantic), is out now

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Against the clock

The cycling career of Steve Cummings

1981: Born 19th March in Clatterbridge on the Wirral, Merseyside

1999: Shows early signs of promise by winning the Junior Road Race National Championship in Corby

2005: Finishes second in his first attempt at the senior road race title

2008: Caps breakthrough season with Barloworld by finishing runner-up at the Tour of Britain

2010: Signs as a domestique for Team Sky, and finishes both the Giro and Tour in his first season

2012: Now riding for BMC, tastes Grand Tour success with a stage win at the Vuelta

2014: Wins a stage and the overall at the Tour of the Mediterranean

2015: Takes a maiden stage win at the Tour with an impressive solo display on Stage 14 to Mende

2016: After stage wins at Tirenno-Adriatico, the Dauphiné and the Tour, caps a fine season by winning the Tour of Britain

2017: Doubles up at the National Championships with victory in both the road race and time-trial

Cummings on…

…Work-life balance

‘A lot of riders are either at a training camp, altitude camp or at a race, and you question how sustainable that is, especially when you start having kids and family.

‘I moved to Tuscany. It was really beneficial for me to train in 35-40°C heat and humidity so whenever I went anywhere else I felt like a parachutist. It felt easy. My wife was there, she was happy, we had a little pool, it was a really good time. For me it was very sustainable.’

…His autobiography

‘I found it quite emotionally draining at times, because there’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t want to talk about and that I’d forgotten about. I’ve got a selective memory – I only remember the nice stuff.

‘But yes, it’s really good, I think. I’ve given it to a few people and they say it’s honest, informative and fun.

…Current riders

‘Egan Bernal is pretty impressive. You see where he comes from and then you’re even more impressed. He’s a hero in his hometown. They’ve got murals on the walls of him, on all the buildings.

‘Filippo Ganna is just a machine. I admire him because he’s a level above everyone else. And who’s my type of rider? I like Matej Mohorič. He’s really good.’