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Team Sky's road ahead

James Witts
14 Feb 2017

We join Team Sky at their pre-season camp in Mallorca to find out what's new for 2017...and what's still the same.

Tucked away in the southern Mediterranean, the island of Mallorca is the perfect escape for some winter sunshine. For Team Sky, however, it is providing little in the way of sun and absolutely no escape.

The team has pitched up to the town of Port d’Alcudia, which in the off-season and under slate-grey skies has all the holiday appeal of Chernobyl. The Irish bars, kebab joints and TexMex outlets lie empty behind metal shutters. The silence in the town is only broken by workmen placing concrete plasters over apartments hastily erected during the 1960s tourist boom. It’s all pretty dreary. 

Then there’s Sir Dave Brailsford, Team Sky’s general manager, who’d probably settle for dreary right now. There’s certainly no escape for him as he faces an onslaught of questions about the package delivered to Bradley Wiggins prior to 2011’s Critérium du Dauphiné. Alongside Cyclist at the press event are sports journalists from the national papers, including Matt Lawton of The Daily Mail, Matt Dickinson of The Times and Tom Cary of The Telegraph. Under the constant quizzing about TUEs, Jiffy bags and deliveries of asthma drug Fluimucil, Brailsford resembles cartoon character Charlie Brown, weighed down by the rain clouds above. 

‘Let’s face facts, this is role play,’ Brailsford retaliates to one question. ‘I know what you’re going to ask. You know what I’m going to reply.’ 

Lawton looks particularly frustrated by the answer. It was he who broke the TUEs and Jiffy story, and I can’t help thinking the Mail would revel in the opportunity to denunciate Team Sky – aka Rupert Murdoch’s marketing machine.

With the UK Anti-Doping investigation ongoing, Brailsford’s hands become animated, collecting the questions into an imaginary box and positioning them to one side as he tries to contain the situation. He certainly looks like a man who is uncomfortable with his newfound notoriety, especially after years of being fêted as a managerial genius, and he would plainly prefer to change the subject to more familiar territory – his plans for victories in 2017.

Old meets new

On the morning of the camp, before Brailsford meets his inquisitors, the riders gather for a training ride. James Morton, Sky’s leading nutritionist, jests that this is his favourite time of the year because he can work with overweight cyclists. Overweight is a relative term – in pro cycling it means a body fat level of 8-12%, which will need to be whittled down a mid-season Grand Tour range of 5-8%.

Not that the riders look as though they are carrying much Christmas flab. Uber-domestique and 2016 Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner Wout Poels is as slender as a broom handle. He’s in training group two for the 120km out-and-back ride to the climb of Sa Calobra. Pouls is flanked by six riders, including 2014 World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski and Diego Rosa, the team’s recent acquisition from Astana, who grabbed second place at last October’s Il Lombardia.

Training group one is a similar mix of proven talent and fresh blood, featuring Olympic omnium gold medallist Elia Viviani and the powerful pole Lukasz Wisniowski. Baby-faced Pete Kennaugh is also in the group, though he’s an old-timer compared to neo-pros Tao Geoghegan Hart and Jon Dibben. Along with Owain Doull, the youngsters are already tagged as the next generation of Brits to follow G, Froome, Wiggins, Cav and co in cementing their reputations at Team Sky. So no pressure then…

‘That’s what some of the press have said but being bottom of the pecking order is a motivator,’ Geoghegan Hart says. ‘There’s also a huge knowledge base to tap into. My first roommate here was Christian Knees and he’s not far off twice my age [21 vs 35]. To have someone with that experience to learn from is incredible.’

And so Geoghegan Hart and his Sky teammates set off, though without Froome, who’s training in Australia, and Geraint Thomas and Luke Rowe, who are racing the Tour Down Under. Then old-man Knees plods out, a neckwarmer concealing his mouth and the occasional splutter. ‘I fell ill on Sunday,’ the German rouleur says. ‘I took yesterday off but am well enough to go for a recovery ride today. I need to see something other than my room.’

Knees has been placed in quarantine to prevent the whole team becoming infected. Food is delivered to his room – presumably by Rod Ellingworth in a biohazard suit – and only now the other riders have departed can he be allowed out. This solitary confinement is all part of Sky’s new ‘Zero Days’ initiative.

‘The Zero Days concept is the team’s new target that no rider will miss a day’s racing or training through illness,’ says coach Tim Kerrison. ‘We had an expert in infection avoidance come in – she’d won awards – who assessed the team and our processes. We thought we were pretty good in that area – we were wrong.’

The hygiene auditor discovered the team was a breeding ground for germs, despite their best efforts. ‘Take your phone,’ says Kerrison. ‘It’s better not to use a cover because germs can accumulate in the corners. It’s the same with watchstraps. Bos [Ian Boswell] even had to cut off his albeit rather dirty wriststraps.’

Common contact points also came under the expert’s germ-detecting UV light, including the surface beside the coffee machine, where riders typically place their left hand when serving an espresso. Door handles came under fire too. 

‘It’s now common to see riders stretching their cuffs over their hands before opening doors,’ says Geoghegan Hart. It may seem like overkill, but the likes of Kwiatkowski will be hoping that the policy pays dividends in 2017. The Pole shot out of the blocks early last year, winning E3 Harelbeke in February. ‘But then he repeatedly got ill,’ says Brailsford. ‘This season we’ll start him off easier.’

Sustaining success

In March 2016 Sky won Paris-Nice thanks to Geraint Thomas, but like Kwiatkowski his season tailed off. It’s something Brailsford recognises: ‘It’s a big season for Geraint and he needs a major target. That’s why he’s going to the Giro d’Italia. The course profile suits him.’

Thomas will be joint leader at the Giro alongside Mikel Landa, a move many argue could be disruptive. Clearly Brailsford sees it as complementary. If Thomas remains fit and strong, he’ll also head to the Tour in support of Froome’s quest to win his fourth Tour, which would leave him just one shy of Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Indurain. 

Brailsford also recognises that the team’s palmares is missing a cobbled Monument. Last year Ian Stannard took third at Paris-Roubaix and Luke Rowe got fifth in the Tour of Flanders, but Brailsford believes holding something back in the early races could eke out the extra 1% needed to enjoy A Sunday in Heaven.

As for Brit Pack v2.0 (minus Alex Peters, who’s rejoined the SEG Racing Academy) Geoghegan Hart and Dibben will make their debuts at the Vuelta a Mallorca in early February. Just like the old days, according to Geoghegan Hart. ‘I remember Jon won the first big race I competed in. It was around two football pitches at Yarborough Sports Centre, near Lincoln. Jon was around three times the size of me.’ 

‘I still am,’ Dibben retorts. 

Both are in good spirits, but both concede this season will be a big step up from Pro Continental level. It begs the question: in a team with a budget three times bigger than many of their contemporaries, how will they fit in? How will they develop in a team not renowned for nurturing younger riders? 

‘I’ve thought a lot about this during the winter,’ says Brailsford. ‘You have the big races for guys like Chris and G, but where does that leave the younger riders? That’s why this year one of our targets is to rack up wins. We won 39 times last year and our record is 52 when Cav was on the team. Now we’re saying to the younger guys, give us five wins, 10 wins, whatever it may be, at the smaller European races like Trentino. That’s massively important to their development. On this team you’re either winning, supporting victories or learning to win… and these guys must learn to win.’

As Cyclist scans the flotilla of carbon Pinarellos lined up outside the Vanity Hotel, we notice that one of the two water bottles loaded to each has a scrawled felt-tip mark on its lid. 

‘That indicates it contains protein,’ reveals one of the team’s masseurs. ‘The other bottle contains either water or carbohydrates.’

‘We believe more in protein on this team than other teams,’ says nutritionist Morton, the man who once taught fuelling strategies to Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard at Liverpool but has now been at Sky for two years.

Morton balances his Sky role with his work at Liverpool John Moores University, and it’s from ‘pulling muscle biopsies for the past 10 years’ that the Belfast-born doctor is such an advocate of not only protein but also carbohydrate periodisation. This is where you shift macronutrient content depending on the physiological improvements you’re searching for, and is why glycogen-depleted sessions are no fad – they are core to Team Sky’s progression.

‘I’m interested in signalling when a muscle contracts,’ Morton says, smiling at his geekiness. ‘We’ve seen restricting glycogen and glucose amplifies many of the cell’s endurance responses that you’re looking for: an upsurge of aerobic enzymes, improved oxygen delivery and increased fat use. Unfortunately, when you train in a glycogen-depleted state, you can break down your own muscle. So to prevent that we feed protein, which satisfies the muscle mass to give you the best of both worlds.’

Sky’s nutrition plans come with their own colour-coding system, with red, amber and green representing how much carbohydrate the rider should consume on a given day. This is delivered through Today’s Plan, which has replaced Training Peaks as Team Sky’s online coaching platform of choice.

Sky has been collaborating with the Australian software company for the past 15 months in an effort to make optimal use of the reams of data generated by the team’s riders. ‘It’s not just about what comes out of a power meter,’ says Kerrison. ‘We’re increasingly incorporating our race schedule data, body measurements… now we can have different data sets beneath the same umbrella.’

The switch to Today’s Plan comes alongside the change of kit supplier from Rapha to Castelli, as well as the introduction of the new bike from Pinarello, the Dogma F10. These are transitions Brailsford says need to be managed carefully. 

‘For 2017 I’ve implemented something called a Delivery Unit,’ he says. ‘It’s an idea I took from Blair’s government and Sir Michael Barber, who I’ve been working with. It seems to me that even if you change nothing but execute it better, you’ll go faster. The principle is to spread and sustain. Spread it across everyone in the team, which is a challenge for a geographically spread team like us, then sustain it. That’s how you get better.’

Brailsford gives an example involving tyre sealant, which he calls ‘milk’: ‘Let’s say we have two punctures. We say, “How do we stop that happening again?” Let’s say we use milk that goes into a tyre. Which is the best milk product? What are the weights? How might it affect performance? We test it with the riders, come up with a solution, and spread it through the team among mechanics, riders and staff, and make sure everyone understands what we’re doing.’

In the case of tyre sealant, Brailsford says some riders are keen, others are concerned about the extra weight. ‘But let’s take Richie Porte’s incident in the 2015 Giro when he punctured with 5km to go and lost over two minutes. If he’d had sealant in his tyres, he’d have deflated slower and might have made that 3km cut-off [where if a rider punctures in the last 3km he’s given the same finishing time as riders he was with at the time] and still been in the race. That’s the type of shit we talk about.’

In short, it’s another of Sky’s famous marginal gains, and it remains to be seen if it will make a difference to the team’s results in 2017. When it comes to winning races, once again it seems like Sir Dave Brailsford has considered all the angles and has all the answers – except when it comes to that damned Jiffy bag.