Nobody could be happier than I am that cycling has become so popular in Britain, helped by the success we have had on the track and in the Tour de France – the sport’s greatest event. It is an indication of how far cycling has come that the interest in our team selection has been so high. With the Tour kicking off with three stages in the UK – starting today in Yorkshire – it has been a novel experience for me to have complete strangers come up and suggest that I should have picked Bradley Wiggins as well as (or instead of) Chris Froome.
I have no problem with people telling me their views. Sport has never been short of opinions after all. But as professional road cycling becomes genuinely mainstream, part of the role of people like me is to act as educators in what the sport actually entails.
Road cycling is unusual in that it is a team sport in which an individual becomes the ultimate winner. The individual – Wiggins two years ago, Froome last year, and hopefully again in three weeks time – takes the glory, and is the focus of the global attention that the event now attracts.
But for that to happen, every one of the nine riders on the team has to play a specific role, and perform to the best of their abilities. “Surely,” I heard more than once over the past week “if you have two proven winners with so much talent, they have to be on the team.”
The point is that Wiggins and Froome are certainly both proven winners, but they cannot both be on top of the podium in the Champs Elysées when the Tour ends on July 27. So if you are responsible for team selection, the first question you ask is pretty obvious: which of the riders available to us is most likely to win? Once that is decided, the second question is obvious too: which of the riders available to us will give the chosen leader the best chance of success?
What you are not doing is picking the nine most decorated riders, or even the nine likeliest to finish highest in the overall classification. You are picking the team to support the lead rider – you need riders who can sit on the front hour upon hour, with the lead rider able to tuck in behind and protect himself from the elements and save energy; you need riders who are good on the mountains, good on the flat, good at reading the tactics of other teams; you need fetchers and carriers.
You also need people who are going to jell as a group. These are the three most intense weeks in the cycling calendar. The members of the team have to carry out their role clearly, enjoy it, and get the best out of themselves and each other.
There is a huge amount of data available about athletes’ performance and fitness, and, when you analyse it against the demands of the course, it allows you to build the team of eight riders to support the leader as an evidence-based process.
You win and lose together as a team. Great teams are not always made up of huge stars. Froome has a team around him of riders with different talents – lieutenants who can pace him up the high mountains alongside others who can help dictate the race on the flatter stages and ensure Froome can conserve as much energy as possible for the key moments in the race and the crucial final week.
Obviously, there was a lot of focus on Wiggins and Froome. But there were plenty of other tough decisions to face. One of the toughest was forced on me late in the process when Colombian rider Sergio Henao was hit by a motorbike during the Tour de Suisse, immediately ruling him out. His misfortune became my quandary as I had to work out how best to compensate for that loss – he was a definite starter. It also become another rider’s opportunity.
The importance of teamwork might be most obvious in sport. But I bet there are plenty of business people reading this who know that the key to their success is picking the right people for important positions and encouraging them to work together as a team. They know there will always be conflicting advice but ultimately you have to rely on data and judgment. They know that sometimes the easy decision will be the more popular one. But it does not always make it the right one.
The chemistry of successful teams is unique to each but I believe there are factors common to all that contribute to that winning alchemy. Top of the list is what I call goal-harmony: everyone signed up to the same objectives, so that both success and failure are commonly owned. Another is open-mindedness, the willingness to look for innovation everywhere. And finally, the pursuit of excellence from those who matter most – in our world the athletes – to those who are supporting them.
My job is not to win a popularity contest. My job is to put together the group of riders that has the best chance of winning the toughest bike race in the world. When we set ourselves the target of winning the Tour – clean, and with a British rider on the podium – it was hugely ambitious.
Many thought we would not do it. But by always looking through the single lens for any decision – “Will it increase our chance of winning?” – we met our target ahead of schedule. We also sparked huge new interest in the sport, as will be clear from the millions lining the route. Success in such a tough event is never guaranteed. But by selecting the best team available, we have given ourselves the best chance.
The writer is principal manager of Team Sky