After two years dominating the race for the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, Team Sky has been struck with bad luck. Plan-A crashed out in stage five and then Plan-B got ill. The 101st edition has offered the team’s principal an opportunity to reflect on the challenges of misfortune. Instead of participating quite like he and his vast management crew has done in the previous editions, he’s had a chance to observe how others cope with the pressure of leadership.
Before the start of stage 19, Sir David Brailsford stood outside the team bus and answered questions from a number of journalists who were interested to get his feedback on a number of matters. Points raised included the media’s reaction to Vincenzo Nibali’s performance, the future of Sir Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky, the prospect of the team backing a bid for the hour record, the illness of Richie Porte, and the rise up the GC rankings of French riders.
The story of Chris Froome’s exit from the race in stage five has been told many times. Once he was out it seemed that the back-up plan, one based around Richie Porte becoming the team leader, was going well… but then illness struck. Brailsford is adamant that the recent showing of the Tasmanian – the second-best placed of the team on GC in 20th overall (two places behind Mikel Nieve) – is not indicative of what’s the 29-year-old is capable of.
“I said before we got here – and I wasn’t being disrespectful to anybody – but in a race like this, it’s not often that somebody who switches to Plan-B and Plan-B wins,” explained Brailsford. “It can happen but not often.
“Normally somebody, somewhere, has their Plan-A run all the way through without too many scrapes and that’s the way they normally win. You don’t see too many Plan-Bs winning, although that’s what we’d like to do with Richie.
“It was unfortunate that he got ill, but there you go.”
When asked if the team still believed in Porte’s ability to the extent that it would back him as leader for a future Grand Tour, Brailsford responded positively. In the right circumstances, ‘Plan-B’ for Le Tour 2014 can win. He has the capacity and the commitment but he simply couldn’t do so this July. Can he lead a team? “Physically, yes,” said Brailsford, “there’s no doubt about it. I think in the right race, in the right conditions, the right form… yes.”
Brailsford is no stranger the stress and strain of a winning campaign. He was subjected to questions about the performances of his winning riders throughout the Tours of 2012 and 2013 and so, I asked, what did he think of the treatment of Vincenzo Nibali in this, the second post-‘Reasoned Decision’ Tour de France?
“I haven’t really seen how he’s been treated by the media to be honest,” he replied, “but we certainly got a lot of questions and… ‘vitriol’, is the right word.”
There have been several queries in press conferences about Nibali’s domination but the Sicilian has hardly been subjected to the same grilling as what Wiggins, Froome – as well as Brailsford and his staff – experienced during the previous two Tours de France. And he’s happy about that.
“We’ve been in a similar position [to the one Nibali finds himself in now] where we’ve got a dominant rider who has won the race and we know that he did it the right way and we got vilified for it in many respects by a lot of people, and it was unfair. So you won’t catch me doing the same to somebody else.”
And so, what does Brailsford think of what Nibali has achieved in this Tour? “He’s head and shoulders above everybody else in this race,” he said. “That’s quite clear. And when you’ve got that, you can ride with confidence.
“Once you know you can ride away from everybody, you can ride away from everybody. And I don’t think there’s any kind of conservatism in there because you know you can do it.
“I think he’s ridden a brilliant race. I think credit to him for taking the jersey in Sheffield – that gave him a huge boost. It was unexpected. It gave his team a boost and I think it gave them real confidence. And he’s carried that on throughout the race.”
Brailsford would touch on several other topics. He confessed his admiration of what the “new young generation” of French riders had achieved. He confirmed that discussions about the partnership between Wiggins and Team Sky were ongoing, but refused to be drawn in to saying if or when a commitment to prolong the 2012 Tour champion’s contract would be made. “It’s ongoing,” he said about the negotiations.
“Obviously, if he wants 20 million quid to stay here then, no. But if he wants… whatever, and it’s an accommodating program – and if it works for him, it works for us…” well, then they might be able to work something out. But, Brailsford reminded us, “it’s not as straight-forward as a normal road contract would be.”
What about backing Wiggins if he wants to take on the hour record? “It would be a shame given the change of the rules etcetera, that he didn’t have a crack at it at some point. I think he could do it.”
After two seasons with a team that’s ridden to Paris with the yellow jersey, David Brailsford has seen the Tour from a different perspective in 2014. So how will he remember the 101st edition? Did he find it an engaging race? Was it interesting? “It’s different when you’re not involved,” he concluded. “You can’t step back and watch it objectively, as such.
“I think, when you’re involved at the front of the race, it’s a very different experience than not being… it does give you a chance to reflect on some other areas and think about other things.
“But there’s no doubt about it, while it’s been a lot more intense for us in the last couple of years, I think that being at the front of the race is fantastic.
“I don’t miss the intensity and the accusations and the allegations of doping – being called a cheat… and all of that kind of stuff. I don’t miss that one little bit…
“It’s been interesting, for sure.”
That’s one man’s perspective.
What about you? How did you see Le Tour of 2014?
– By Rob Arnold