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Inside Team Sky

Craig Cunningham
1 Aug 2016

We take a look beneath the hood of Team Sky, Britain's most successful cycling team, to see what keeps them rolling.

Since its inception in 2010, Team Sky has gone from strength to strength, winning three Tour de France titles in the time they’d planned to win just one. At the helm stands Sir David Brailsford, and while his star riders, men like Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas grab the headlines, there’s a medley of people beyond the glitz and glamour who keep the boys in black and blue on top of that podium. BikesEtc took an exclusive look behind the scenes. 

Logistics

There was a palpable hum of activity echoing around the cavernous warehouse that makes up Team Sky’s service course in Deinze, Belgium when they kindly invited us for a glimpse behind the wizard’s curtain of their enormous operation. Showing us around was Head of Technical Operations and Commercial, Carsten Jeppesen. From organising race logistics to choosing the bikes, Jeppesen is the man who keeps the cogs turning. And one of the biggest challenges he faces, he tells us, are the riders themselves.

‘They go out on a ride with an Allen key and make their own adjustments to the saddle or handlebar and then complain that their set-up isn’t right come race day! Getting the measurements right is always a bit of an issue.’ With ‘marginal gains’ famously playing such a big part in Team Sky’s success, there’s clearly a lot of pressure on the conscientious Dane to get every detail right. Marginal gains is a philosophy that Jeppesen is keen for Froome and co to understand fully. ‘We have all kinds of programmes and are trying hard to educate the riders,’ he told us, before revealing that the application of these principles doesn’t only apply when the riders are on the bike. 

The team has what Jeppesen calls the ‘Hotel set-up’ which sees Team Sky staff members scrub the rider’s hotel rooms from top to bottom before the likes of Geraint Thomas even step foot inside. ‘When you stay in hotel rooms some of them are pretty grim, so we clean them up so they’re in a good state for the riders.’ Nothing is left to chance, not even the bedding. Every rider has their own pillow and mattress couriered from hotel to hotel to ensure relaxation is maximised.

‘The riders get set up with different mattresses and different layers of softness,’ he told us. Like the Princess and the Pea, researching the best pillow and mattress combination may seem like an absurd indulgence but when you’re tackling a three-week race that traverses 3,519km and burns 124,000 calories, a perfect night’s sleep is pivotal. ‘Sleep and rest for the riders is key. The more chance we can give them the same environment to sleep in every night, the better they can recuperate,’ explains Jeppesen. ‘We spend a lot of energy on that. Actually making it happen is a real logistical challenge.’ 

Travel

Even just getting riders to ride races is a whole lot of work. Greet Verhulst, Operations Manager, is solely tasked with getting rider to and from races. Simple, right? Wrong, as she explains. ‘It’s a huge task as we are often competing in different races at the same time. So, just recently we had teams at the Criterium du Dauphiné, Tour de Suisse and Tour of Slovenia all within a couple of weeks.’

Getting to the airport on time just to pick up a family member can prove an expedition, so imagine organising a whole team, with kit galore, to fly to multiple locations. However, Verhulst is as dedicated as she is organised and her work is just another vital piece of the jigsaw that allows Froomey to concentrate on looking at his stem without worrying about things like travel documents and transport. ‘Travel can be a pretty stressful business,’ smiles Verhulst, ‘so we try to make things as simple as possible for the riders and staff.’ 

Ah, the staff. In an operation this size, it’s inevitable that it isn’t exclusively the athletes who need support. Chris Slark is one of the team’s drivers and has to drive across Europe in a bus known as the ‘Death Star’ for its uncanny resemblance to a moon-sized-planet-destroying-space station. Much like the riders he chauffeurs around, Slark spends hours on the road.

‘The most challenging part is the concentration that’s needed to drive the bus on difficult roads,’ he told us. Anyone who’s had to negotiate small, winding Italian roads or the kind of blind bends the high Alps often throw up will know what he’s talking about. As is the Team Sky way, though, Slark isn’t simply a bus driver – his pedigree is astonishing, having worked at Honda’s F1 team for six years. ‘Before I came to Team Sky I was a freelance motorsport technician,’ he told us, ‘working in everything from touring cars to F1.’

Nutrition

Getting the riders rested and in the right place is one thing but to keep them energised and riding is another discipline entirely. Enter Dr James Morton. With a history of working with professional boxers and Liverpool FC, the Northern Irishman has found himself at the helm of nutrition for Team Sky since last year. ‘One of the reasons I was approached for the role was the research we’ve been doing at Liverpool John Moore’s University for the last 10 years.’ Covering research in exercise metabolism meant Dr Morton and Team Sky were a perfect match.

‘I’ve worked in weight-making sports, so I know how to make people lose weight. But because I’ve also worked in football clubs, I’ve dealt with some pretty big personalities – and if you can handle those personalities, you can handle anyone,’ he told us. Froome and Thomas are probably a million miles away from the playboy pampering synonymous with millionaire footballers but that doesn’t mean Morton has had it easy. ‘It’s been a bit of a learning curve,’ he admitted. And with Dr Morton expected to maintain the same high standards of thorough planning as everybody else in Team Sky’s operation, we’re inclined to believe him. 

To get the reigning Tour de France champ into peak seasonal fitness, Chris Froome’s nutrition plan starts in deep midwinter. ‘We start in January in terms of weight targets, and we work towards those targets,’ Dr Morton revealed. ‘Day by day, it’s focused around training loads, so we have training plans worked out two or three weeks in advance.’ From there Dr Morton, the team’s coaches and chefs, work together to produce the right outcomes. ‘We work towards events but, of course, things change, so you’ve got to be reactive and be willing to be flexible.’ This was put to the test earlier this year when Mikel Landa, team leader in the Giro d’Italia, fell ill halfway through the race. With the focus shifted, it became about stage wins and Spaniard Mikel Nieve answered the call, taking a stage and the King of the Mountains jersey, with Dr Morton’s help. Morton was also instrumental to the team’s fantastic spring Classics campaign, including Ian Stannard’s podium finish at Paris-Roubaix. ‘Stannard in particular has done a lot of work – it’s clear to see that he’s the leanest he’s ever been, he’s fuelling better in races than ever before, and his performance summed that up. There’s no way he would have been in that final group if he hadn’t been as lean or as well fuelled as he could.’ 

So how does Sky’s fuel guru get the riders on board? ‘A lot of it is education and me building relationships with the riders,’ he told us. That relationship can be seen outside of results too, on social media outlets like Instagram, where the likes of Luke Rowe and Ben Swift show off their healthy meals. Not that this is just posing, as Dr Morton explained. ‘These guys are professionals, so a lot of them send me photographs of what they’re eating every day, we record diet logs, we work on specific targets. We’ll have every rider’s individual metabolic rate calculated and through some basic assumptions, you can roughly work out the energy requirements for different days. The big challenge on race day is to make sure we don’t overfuel, because we don’t want riders to put on weight, but also making sure we don’t underfuel because we don’t want to compromise performance.’ 

Getting the numbers right is vital for Dr Morton, and it’s this philosophy that’s been at the heart of the team’s success. Criticised in some quarters for taking the soul out of cycling, Team Sky’s supremo Sir Dave Brailsford best put the case for this approach when he argued, ‘You’ve got to work with evidence and facts, that’s the way the world works.’ And he’s right. 

Cycling by the numbers may not always be pretty but it gets results. Back In 2010, the plan was win the Tour within five years. They did it in two. Then won it again in 2013 and 2015. The system works, and Dr Morton is part of that, with his intricate plans. ‘We make video presentations for every race, where we break the race into segments. We try to emphasise that in the first 60-70km you should be using this strategy, then in the next 100km you should be doing this; for caffeine to have a specific effect it should be taken by this time. Riders know that on certain climbs, after so many kilometres, they should be doing strategy A, or strategy B, or strategy C,’ he told us. ‘There is a plan for every possibility.’ Team Sky are not only perfectionists but also realists who recognise the fundamental truth of Murphy’s law – ie that if something can go wrong, it probably will. 

When asked if he can take some of the credit for Team Sky’s success, the modest doctor replied with a laugh, ‘No, all I do is put the strategy into place – the riders are the ones who have to do all the hard work!’ Like a humble cog in a great clock mechanism, Dr Morton is another hidden hero who helps keeps the Team Sky boys ticking over. 

Helping to put that strategy into practice is chef Henrik Orre. ‘On almost every race, the guys need an intake of 70-75g of carbs every 60 minutes,’ he told us. ‘One of our rice bars contains 20-25g of carbs, and then they can drink their bottled energy drink which will give them roughly 50g.’ As the son of a former Norwegian national road champ, Orre knows what it takes to fuel the best. ‘At Sky we always give them an option between meat and fish, serving it like a buffet. They eat such big portions, it would look ridiculous piling it on a single plate,’ he grinned.  

Masterminds

Overseeing both Morton and Orre is Head of Athlete Development Tim Kerrison, who prior to joining Sky was a swimming coach who’d trained Olympic and Commonwealth champions. Kerrison has been vital to Team Sky’s success with his no-stone-unturned mentality fitting perfectly into its ethos. ‘Our objective is to produce clean performances that are incredible and we are not going to stop trying,’ he told us. ‘I think people out there putting limits on human performance are probably not the greatest visionary thinkers. One thing I am sure of,’ he told us defiantly, ‘is that we are not yet close to those limits.’ 

Hailed by both Wiggins and Froome, Kerrison is the all-seeing eye that gets the riders to go beyond themselves and reach for greatness. ‘My remit as Head of Athlete Performance is working with the coaches to help the riders prepare for competition,’ he told us before reeling off his areas of responsibility. ‘That includes the medical, physio, nutrition, sports science and recovery. All the extra bits, essentially, that we add to try to enhance riders’ performance.’ 

As we head off, we can’t help but think of the man behind it all, Sir Dave Brailsford, whose drive and ambition reverberate through everyone we’ve met at Team Sky. A man for whom not being properly prepared or resting on one’s laurels are unthinkable. ‘Everyone is back at square one,’ he said after last year’s historic third Tour victory. ‘We’re all absolutely back to zero. And unless you’ve done the work, you’re going to suffer, because there’s no hiding place in this sport.’ Amen to that, Brother Dave, amen to that.