A year ago, after eight stages of the 100th Tour de France, Team Sky held down first and second on the general classification. Chris Froome led Richie Porte by 51 seconds after the pair finished first and second at Ax-3-Domaines. Using the lessons of 2011, the British squad realised that it should exploit the talent on the roster. It paid off in 2012 when Bradley Wiggins and Froome were first and second overall yet, ultimately, that approach wasn’t necessary last year. Froome would win the title in what was a compelling contest. Porte was the champion’s side much of the way to Paris but there were some days when the Tasmanian lost time before finishing 19th on GC, 39:41 behind his team-mate.
In stage five this year, Porte inherited leadership after multiple accidents for the defending champion. By the end of stage eight in the 101st Tour, he was third overall and there’s every reason for Sky to believe it can win the title for a third successive Tour.
One of the key men on a vast team of support staff at Sky is Rod Ellingworth. He is the high performance manager of the team and the personal coach of five of the riders. Rob Arnold spoke to him before stage eight to find out what his role is and how he’s coping managing the various personalities that have given the team so much success at the Tour in recent years.
Below is a transcript of the exchange with Ellingworth in Tomblaine…
Click the link above to listen to the interview… presented in two parts because of an interruption from Sky’s famous singing Jaguar that just seems to love playing its alarm(ing) soundtrack at every opportunity.
RIDE: Dario [Cioni] said that this is just a warm-up in the mountains – that we don’t call it a mountain stage. Do you see it the same way?
Rod Ellingworth: “I think if you look at every stage, you just don’t know what’s going to be thrown at you. From a physical point of view, I don’t think anything will majorly change but it is a bit of a challenge at the end. It’ll be interesting to see if any GC guys move in the final. I’m sure somebody will have a dig. But, yeah, it is a bit of a warm-up.
“You look at yesterday [stage seven]: three main GC guys fell. You just never know, do you?
“You don’t know what’s around the corner.”
It is a bit of a magical mystery Tour isn’t it?
“Yeah, but a good one. So far I think it’s quite entertaining…”
Have you heard from Chris [Froome] since he’s gone home?
“I haven’t done. No.”
You can tell from my accent that I’m from the Great Southern Land. So there’s a little bit of optimism from us… it was always a B-plan to have Richie…
“…as the second GC guy, yeah. And we’ve successfully done that these last few years – have a good plan-B as well.
“Richie is in good spirits and I think he’s very sorry to see Chris go, as we all were. The same with [Xabi] Zandio, poor old Zandi has gone home as well but I think Richie will take it on and as a team… we carry on the same. The back end stuff, we work exactly the same. Nothing has changed.
“It’d be nice to see Richie get a result for himself. He’s capable, isn’t he? He’s won Paris-Nice…”
But then there was the Giro – the intentions for the Giro – and when that went a bit pear-shaped…
“Yeah well, Richie got a bit sick early on in the year, didn’t he? I think what happened was, he got sick – and that’s fine – but he got sick again… these guys, they put themselves on the line every day. And it’s a pretty hard job that they have to do isn’t it. I think sometimes you’ve got to be prepared to be flexible and if something happens – like getting sick – you’ve got be prepared to change your plans. And that’s where Richie listens well to the guys who he works with and I think they came up with a good plan. He’s come to the Tour in good nick.”
If we could just have a little summary of the three GC guys from Sky: going from Wiggo to Froomie to Richie… can you give me a quick synopsis of what it’s like working with them?
“I think they’re all very different characters, that’s for sure. And that’s the thing: you can’t look at any one rider the same or try and prepare, from a physical point of view, the same. You’ve got to listen to them and I think the common factor is that Tim Kerrison has coached all three of them to… well, firstly to win the Tour [for two… so far] and we’ll see with Richie. Hopefully that’ll be good.
“We try and work with all of them exactly the same. But they are very different characters, that’s for sure.”
Do we call you a DS or manager or what…?
“My job is performance manager…”
* * * * *
[And then the Jaguar chimes in with what seems to be a recurring background soundtrack…]
Rod Ellingworth (part 2, after interruption): “…yeah, so I’m the performance manager of the team. I just sort of do the race program and stuff along the race and make sure that we support the riders as best we can. I work with the DSs and the coaches and make sure everybody is in the right place at the right time and all that sort of stuff.”
RIDE: More-or-less the role Allan Peiper has inherited [at BMC]…?
“Yeah, very much – a similar sort of role. I coach five riders on the team – Pete Kennaugh, Ian Stannard, Ben Swift, Luke Rowe and Josh Edmondson, five of the British lads.”
When you’re considering the training, how much of it’s mental and how much of it’s physical for you?
“I think this is such a physical game that I think the majority has to be physical because if you haven’t got it physically, you ain’t gonna do it. But I think we are all aware that if you’re not in the right frame of mind, then you’re also not going to do it…
“You’ve got to have the engine or else you can’t do it anyway.”
And was it the mind issue that saw Wiggins not in the line-up for this race?
“Ah, I don’t think so. I just think it comes down to selections and they’re always hard calls, aren’t they, when you’ve got great champions like the riders that we’ve got.
“We had it similarly in 2012 when Brad was there and ‘Cav’ was here and what the mix of lead-out and GC [should be]. Somebody is going to have to compromise and somebody is not going to be happy… maybe. So I think it was a big call for us to leave Bradley at home.”
You’ve known him a long time as well. Was he in good nick coming up to July? There were the issues in Switzerland…
“I think Brad had shown he’d won California. He’s always in pretty good nick. He rode well at the national time trial champs and nailed that one really well, so it was a big decision but again it’s about… the Tour is team racing but there’s also everything else around that and the team has to gel well together. They have to be all behind each other.
“There’s the… ambience – the whole group together – and you have to bring all that into consideration.
“I think we made the right call with the nine riders but it’s hard. It wasn’t just Brad: we left two or three other riders behind. One of them, for me, is Pete Kennaugh who is now leading the Tour of Austria and looks like – if he time trials well today – he’ll win that. (Note: he finished 19th in the TT but was still in the yellow jersey after the 24.1km test.)
“That was a huge decision: a young British lad, with huge ambitions… and leaving him at home was a bit of a kick in the teeth for him.
“We can talk about Brad all day, but for me [Kennaugh] was the big one.”
I was joking before the Tour that they should have just brought in Sky’s ‘The Wolf’ – if you know the character of Harvey Keitel from Pulp Fiction… who is Sky’s ‘Wolf’? I have it in my mind…
No… wouldn’t Shane Sutton be ‘The Wolf’?
He solves problems, doesn’t he?
[Laughs] “Yeah. Maybe. I don’t know. I can’t comment on Shane.”
* * * * *
The Jaguar remained silent. The giggles continued. I thanked him for his time. We went our separate ways. We’ll likely speak again…
The Sky story continues to evolve. Next stop: La Planche des Belles Filles.
– By Rob Arnold