A penny for your thoughts – Chris Froome and Team Sky

A few days ago I was listening to The Bike Show podcast (I was a bit behind as the podcast in question was from the second rest day of the Tour de France). I was listening to “The Rest Day Review with Simon Warren”. Simon Warren is the author of the series of “100 greatest climbs” cycling books – the books are great but after listening to him I am slightly less sure!!!

He really, really, did not like Chris Froome and did not like the Sky team. The language he was using was clearly suggesting that Froome was doping, and he was extremely opposed to the entire approach of the Sky team to training and to winning Tours. He wanted to ban all power meters and heart rate monitors from cycling, get the Tour back to its basics, presumably involving copious amounts of drugs, alcohol and jumping on trains to miss out boring parts of a stage. He felt that Sky had turned winning the Tour into a science rather than an art, and it was no fun watching something play out on the roads that had been planned to perfection in a lab (I am obviously paraphrasing so of course do listen to the whole podcast to form your own opinion!)

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While I understand those who are not a huge fan of Chris Froome – the pitting against each other of Froome and Bradley Wiggins meant that Froome, inevitably, lost out – I don’t think the furore over team Sky’s win this year has been fair.

First, let’s deal with the issue of drugs. I know very little about this really and so I am not going to say whether I think Froome is doping or not. Actually, change of heart here – I will. My opinion is that I don’t think he is doping but I know I might be wrong and naive. Still.

Team Sky started as a team that wanted to show the Tour could be won sans doping, they are very open and transparent, they answer questions about it, they don’t resort to bullying tactics (mentioning no names… Lance….) and they seem to remain pretty calm. Froome is the only rider to have publicly agreed to undergo 24-hour random testing during competitions and has in the past complained about a lack of testing, for example in Tenerife, where many of the Tour riders train.  As Brailsford has said, “its impossible to prove a negative“, and that is true. There is no way to conclusively prove that you do not dope.

Plus – why pick on Sky specifically in this Tour? Nibali rides for Astana, a team that has had several riders found to be doping in the past year. And Froome was not “miles ahead” of Quintana. Quintana’s team was caught out by the cross-winds early on in the race, and the he lost time to Froome on ONE (pretty astounding) climb. But if Froome’s performances are so unbelievable that he must be doping, then how were the others able to keep up and constantly attack without doping as well? And if so, why don’t they suffer the same barrage of suspicion and criticism as Sky do?

Second, spectator behaviour. This will be quick as it doesn’t really need to be said that it is never appropriate to throw urine in someone’s face, and spitting at and punching racers as they cycle up mountains is just horrendous behaviour.

Third – now that we’ve moved past the issue of doping – why did Team Sky win? And here is what I find incredibly interesting, and what Simon Warren hates. The science of it all. The modern technologies. The marginal gains. And yes, okay, Sky’s money allows them to do all of this. It doesn’t make it any less interesting, especially for an aspiring triathlete / runner looking to improve.

  • an awesome team. There is no way Froome could have done it without fantastic riders in their own right helping him out. Geraint Thomas is my personal favourite as Richie Porte is just boring and G (as they call him) is not. I especially enjoyed the interview with him after his serious crash (he was nudged off the road on a technical descent and went headfirst into a lamppost) – still able to make jokes!

(The rest of these points I mainly learnt from a fascinating Sunday Times article which is behind a paywall…….)

  • focussing not only on the physical side of training. We are constantly told how important mental training is, and I think Sky’s approach to this is really interesting (if a little scary). They created a “winning behaviours” app. Each rider has a profile and has to provide weekly self-reports, which Brailsford then has access to. So a “winning behaviour” is “I don’t moan” or “I am in control of my behaviour” and the app has a sliding scale on which to assess how they are doing on that particular day. Brailsford makes the point that

“it sounds cheesey as hell but it was fundamental… If you get pissed off with somebody and start moaning about it….that is cancerous within a team. It sounds small but it can destroy you.”

Other winning behaviours included the following: “I don’t criticise the team; I seek out marginal gains; I seek and give constructive feedback; I continuously look to learn; I actively listen; I proactively solve problems for my team-mates.” So you don’t just wait for someone to ask for help, they shouldn’t have to ask as everyone should be on the lookout to help team mates.

“Proactivity is the difference between a good and a great team.”

The next mental change was an effort to improve motivation within the team – looking at everything that could possibly influence an individual rider’s motivation and how to maximise that – for example, making changes to contractual agreements after it was shown that riders suffered a decrease in motivation in the second year of their contracts (not trying to impress in their first year, not attempting to earn a new contract in their last year).

  • the technical stuff – as of course, changes in recent years have not been all mental, for example, hiring a new nutritionist and looking at the relationship between diet and power – not just the simple stuff that we all think we know about powering workouts and recovery smoothies, but how different nutrition is needed for different training sessions, and how different nutrition interacts with different levels of cadence to have an effect on power outputs. How interesting is that?! I’d love to find out more (and then not change a single thing about how I eat because I love the food that I eat :D)
  • and smaller things too: hoovering hotel rooms and using  individual mattresses,  dehumidifiers, air-conditioning units and filters in the rooms to cut down on chances of infection (although Froome’s coughing towards the end of the Tour suggests that wasn’t entirely successful…)
  • and finally, encouraging more of a sense of cohesion in the team by hiring a Spanish coach to improve communication with the Spanish riders, and having more of the team together on training camps so they really got to know each other and each other’s riding style, so they could anticipate when someone needed help, as spoken about above.

Personally, I find all of this incredibly interesting. Especially when it is spoken about, as Brailsford has, I think all of these smaller issues, beyond mere power and speed on the bike, make a bike race so much more than just how fast can you go? Perhaps the reason people don’t like this kind of thing is that it does happen behind the scenes, and of course, the Tour this year was not as exciting as people expected it to be, due to Froome’s strong lead from the beginning. But the more we talk about all the little details that go into training, the more fascinating it all becomes, and the more cycling becomes about so much more than just a power to weight ratio.

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