Listen to this article
In 1982, when Mandy Jones became world champion, life for Britain’s top cyclists was rather different. Jones spent much of her career competing on a bike several sizes too big, wearing men’s shorts, and being driven to races by her parents. “I was sponsored in a way,” she says.“I was on the dole ... ”
The following decades saw a few individual star performers but also an overriding sense of amateurism, a lack of structure and the feeling of being a forgotten backwater, cut off from the thriving continental cycling scene. When the Scot Graeme Obree broke the hour record in 1993, he did so on a bike built using parts of his washing machine. When Chris Hoy made his international debut in 1996, he had to sign out his GB team tracksuit before the event, to be returned for use by someone else. The team couldn’t afford to send coaches, mechanics and support staff to the event in Moscow, so Hoy and his two teammates went alone, carrying their own bikes.
But then everything changed.
From his glass-walled office, high in Sky’s glossy west London headquarters, Jeremy Darroch is surveying the building site that spreads out below. The company’s chief executive since 2007, he has commissioned a vast new studio and office complex, and looks on in delight as its colossal steel frame takes shape. “When they put in the roof beams it was amazing to watch,” he enthuses, pointing, grinning. “I love seeing it come together.”
Sir David Brailsford, performance director of British Cycling, the sport’s governing body, arrives, immaculately turned out in Team Sky kit, and the two are away, launching into a flurry of mutual appreciation: “Well, you see, the great thing about Dave is … ”; “What I’ve really learned from Jeremy is … ”; “Being so close to Dave allowed us to understand … ” Together these men have been the architects of the dramatic reversal in Britain’s Tour de France fortunes. In 2004 and 2005 no British rider even took part in the race. In 2012 British riders came first and second, and took seven of the 20 stages. Chris Froome starts this year’s race, which begins today in Corsica, as the strong favourite.
How was it done? The conventional answer focuses on Brailsford’s pursuit of “marginal gains” – breaking an athlete’s performance down into all its elements, making tiny improvements to each which, though inconsequential on their own, together add up to a significant advantage. Reporters have relished the obsessional details – down to the riders being given lessons in hand-washing to help minimise illness – but this microfocus risks missing the wood for the trees. Behind it all is the unique business model developed by Brailsford and Darroch.
Their relationship began in 2007, after Brailsford met some Sky executives at a function in London. “I think that was on a Wednesday, and we realised pretty quickly that we were talking a very similar language. On that Friday I was here in Jeremy’s office,” he says.
It is easy to imagine them getting on. Darroch is from Northumberland, Brailsford from north Wales; both are affable and unpretentious, hugely ambitious but down-to-earth with it. Though one is the chief executive of a company with annual revenues of £6.8bn, the other a knight of the realm, I’m the only one in the room wearing a tie.
British Cycling, which runs the national teams, had already secured significant funding from the National Lottery and other government grants but Brailsford knew that “to go up a level” he needed a major commercial sponsor. Meanwhile, with London 2012 on the horizon, Sky had been looking to make a significant investment in a currently underfunded sport. It was considering swimming but that soon changed.
“I was keen to see how we could partner with a sport where we could drive everything from grass-roots participation to the elite levels,” says Darroch. “How Sky could add something to that story intrigued me.”
The deal the two men created went far beyond Sky handing over a cheque in return for having its name on the cyclists’ shirts. Instead of sponsoring a team, Sky decided they wanted to take the unprecedented step of sponsoring an entire sport.
Cycling has traditionally been split into two worlds – track, where riders train and compete in national teams – and road, where they usually race in professional teams. The Sky deal bridged both: on one hand it would become the main sponsor of British Cycling, which oversees the national track squad; on the other, it would commit £40m to set up Team Sky, a new road racing team with the goal of winning Britain’s first Tour de France. Brailsford and key senior coaching staff would run both British Cycling and Team Sky, thus creating a unified structure, effectively a public-private partnership that could provide an expansive framework to nurture young talent.
Meanwhile, Sky would also create a series of public “Sky Rides” and other mass-participation events, with the target of getting a million more people to take up the sport by 2013. In footballing terms, it was as if the England manager was also put in charge of Manchester United, while simultaneously leading a drive to get more people to play the sport in schools and Sunday leagues.
“All of a sudden that target of a million more people kind of glued the whole of cycling together, from the guys on the Tour to the kids, to the development officers, the people in schools,” says Brailsford. “I don’t think there’s anybody anywhere in the world now who can match us in terms of that partnership.”
Sky’s sponsorship of British Cycling was announced in July 2008, the creation of Team Sky the following year. The benefits soon became clear. Riders could move between the two arms of the organisation, both of which are run from the same building at the Manchester Velodrome. There were joint training camps in Mallorca. Above all, Brailsford could direct his cyclists’ schedules to ensure he had the strongest line-up whether riding as Great Britain or Team Sky.
“In the past,” he says, “I’d always have to go and ask the manager of another professional team, can you let rider X do this World Cup or that race on the track, and if it didn’t fit in with the team’s goals, they’d turn around and say no. But last year we could allow the British riders to have the optimal run-in and race programme to perform at the home Olympic Games. There was a seamless management of club and country, in effect.”
Geraint Thomas and Peter Kennaugh, for example, were left out of Team Sky’s Tour de France squad so they could concentrate on the Olympic team pursuit. It worked – the pursuit team took gold, setting new world records in both heats and finals. “To be able to have two or three of your biggest riders stepping back from the Tour de France, that was an incredible advantage,” says Brailsford.
Some have wondered if the relationship might be a little too close for comfort. In 2010, concerns within British Cycling led to consultants Deloitte being commissioned to investigate the increasing ties with Sky. The subsequent report was not made public, though officials announced it had given them the all-clear. Nevertheless, questions remain. If another organisation wanted to start a top-tier British road-racing team, how could they compete with Sky’s privileged position? “I think in life you don’t worry about what anybody else does, right? You stay focused on what you’re going to do,” says Darroch. “The fact is, nobody was doing that before we came in place.”
And would a British rider worry about signing for a rival road team, for fear of damaging his prospects with the national track squad? “Not at all,” says Brailsford firmly. “If that was the case, then I’d have to really consider my position.”
Brailsford has become celebrated as the guru behind Britain’s cycling success – his predecessor at British Cycling described him as a cross between the Dalai Lama and Colonel Kurtz – but Darroch’s role was far more than paymaster. While football and Formula One teams are usually independent companies that have contracts with outside sponsors, Team Sky is a wholly owned subsidiary of Sky. This means that as well as the £40m, Brailsford can draw on the full resources of a company with 23,000 employees.
“To me, that was a stroke of genius, even if we didn’t realise it at the time,” says Brailsford. “There wasn’t one side and another, give and take – immediately we were both in it together.” In practical terms, it meant that Brailsford could turn to Sky’s legal, marketing, branding and PR teams, and he set out to study Darroch’s management style. “A lot of people talk about what business can learn from sport. Believe you me, this is from first-hand experience, in sport we have got so much to learn from business.”
Team Sky first raced in January 2010, immediately causing a stir. Where other team kit was a mess of different sponsors’ logos – some hastily acquired even as the season wore on – Team Sky had a striking all-black kit, matching bikes and Jaguar cars, and a team bus so high-tech that other riders christened it “the Death Star”. None of this was a coincidence; rather, it was the result of Brailsford working with Sky’s branding team and an agency called Antidote. “From the outset we were very keen on creating a clear individual brand, a real cut-through, and that was all from Sky – developing the brand and working out how it goes across the vehicles and the clothing and the tea cups,” says Brailsford. “I think the look and feel of a team is massively important for riders. You want to feel proud of how you look, you want to feel as if you’re setting the pace. And I think that uniformity actually creates an element of togetherness, of perceived strength from the outside, so it gives you a competitive advantage.”
It soon became clear that the way Team Sky raced was different too. Brailsford is a devotee of science and statistics, a fan of the 2003 book Moneyball, which described how the kind of data analysis used on Wall Street had transformed the fortunes of the Oakland A’s, a small, cash-strapped, Californian baseball team. Where Moneyball was about using statistics to choose the right players to hire, Brailsford uses them to drive efficient training and racing.
“We gather this enormous amount of data – every training ride, every race, every rider,” he says. “Then you start to look at sleep patterns, illness, workloads, moods, etc, etc … You examine it, find interrelationships between all the different variables and start to make progress in understanding the optimal way to condition.”
The difference is that where the Oakland A’s were a small, poor team using data collected by amateurs to try to keep up with the big boys, Team Sky is one of the six richest teams, has the unique tie-up with British Cycling, and has access to a whole division of analysts within its parent company. Tim Kerrison, Team Sky’s head of performance, recently embarked on a “big data” project with staff from Sky IQ, a specialist data analysis business recently acquired by the group.
By its second season, Team Sky’s techniques were paying off. But for some cycling traditionalists, it was all a bit too much. Vincenzo Nibali, winner of this year’s Giro d’Italia, accused Sky of “racing by numbers”, the eyes of their riders constantly glued to the computers on their handlebars. Others say that watching Sky’s robotic, black-shirted riders grinding along in formation at the front of the peloton, at a pace no rivals can match, has made the sport boring. “Cycling is swapping sciences from chemistry to physics, and Sky are the class nerds that got in there first and made it work,” said a comment piece in Cycling Weekly magazine earlier this year.
Brailsford argues that Chris Froome and Richie Porte have shown panache already this year but seems at least partly to accept the charge. “We looked very carefully at power outputs, how you can get fastest from A to B and optimise your chance of winning, and we developed a methodology off the back of that. Maybe it didn’t look the best but you still want to win. If you can look at data, and find a new way of performing and winning, then it’s crazy not to use it.”
However it looked, Wiggins’s triumph last year helped fuel the boom in amateur cycling in Britain. In October 2012, Sky and British Cycling announced they had achieved the target of a million new cyclists a year ahead of schedule. By then, the Sky Ride initiative had overseen 49 mass city centre rides and 3,000 local community rides, and had established cycling partnerships with 45 local authorities. Helped by Sky’s advice on managing subscriptions, British Cycling has seen its membership soar from 22,000 in 2008 to 75,000.
The only missing piece of the jigsaw is that you can’t actually watch the Tour de France on Sky – ITV4 holds the rights until 2015. So Sky has invested millions in capturing the attention of cycling fans, while actually having little to sell them. Is it priming the pump of fans’ interest before snapping up the rights for subscription-only TV? Will it bid in the future? “We are showing more cycling and we have an aspiration to do more in the future but this wasn’t a backdoor way into getting the broadcast rights,” says Darroch. “It was very much about this ethos of partnership and participation.”
For a moment this sounds almost totally altruistic. Mandy Jones and the other star riders of the 1980s and 1990s were lone talents, successful in isolation. Thanks to Sky’s resources and commitment, today’s stars are part of a huge system that can spot them at school, train them in the velodrome then take them on to the world’s most prestigious road races. Everything they learn will be recorded, analysed and used to help those coming through beneath them.
Already other countries are looking at how to replicate this model. “It’s changed the landscape and the sport on a global level,” says Brailsford.
Altruism, or just a marketing masterstroke? While never veering from the script about partnership and inclusion, Darroch has taken a minor sport and helped grow it into a massively popular one, while ensuring the Sky logo runs through it from top to bottom, as if in a stick of rock. “We’re proud to have played our part,” he says.
Tom Robbins is the FT’s travel editor.
Wheels of fortune
Chris Boardman wins gold in individual pursuit at the Barcelona Olympics, Britain’s first cycling gold for 72 years
Manchester Velodrome opens, Britain’s first Olympic-standard indoor track
National Lottery funding comes on stream. British Cycling, the sport’s governing body, decides to focus on track rather than road racing
Britain wins one gold (Jason Queally), one silver and two bronzes for cycling at the Sydney Olympics, all on the track
David Brailsford takes over as performance director at British Cycling
At the Athens Olympics, Britain takes two golds on the track (Chris Hoy) but road racing lags – no Britons ride in the Tour de France
Sky announces a five-year sponsorship deal with British Cycling, setting a target of getting a million Britons to take up the sport
Sarah Storey and her fellow British track cyclists dominate at the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics
Brailsford launches Team Sky, a professional road-racing team. He promises to win the Tour de France by 2014 (to widespread scepticism)
Bradley Wiggins fulfils Brailsford’s promise two years early; the British team take eight Olympic golds
Research shows 1.9m people in England cycle at least once a week, making it the fourth most popular sport