Dave Brailsford and Sky take on the Tour de France

Sky backs cycling supremo Dave Brailsford's assault on the sport's toughest challenge: the Tour de France.

by Emma De Vita
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Park Lane hotel just before London Fashion Week. The door opposite is ajar, revealing racks of leopard-print dresses being mauled by half-undressed models. Meanwhile, Jeremy Darroch, BSkyB's CEO, and Dave Brailsford, British Cycling's performance director, sit in a meeting room, looking like a pair of coppers who wouldn't be seen dead at a catwalk show. Brailsford (one the right of the picture) is the bad cop, with his scary bald pate and quizzical eyebrow, while the milder-featured Darroch plays good cop. Sitting next to one another, they are primed to talk about all things bike.

The reputation of both men precedes them. Darroch led 21-year-old BSkyB to become MT's Most Admired Company last year, and the media upstart continues to defy the recession with an astonishing £5.3bn turnover. Maverick Brailsford is the brain behind the GB cycling team that seemed to come from nowhere to storm the 2008 Beijing Olympics podium and win 14 medals. Both leaders' star is in the ascendant, and both like to think of themselves as the outsider taking on the establishment to win at all costs.

So when in February 2009 Brailsford announced the creation of a quasi-national professional road cycling team with the aim of winning the gruelling 23-day Tour de France by 2014 (preferably with a British cyclist), no-one thought this audacious aim impossible - especially with Sky signed up as partner. If the announcement had been made even two years earlier, it would have been dismissed as the fantasy of a maniac, but with Brailsford's unparalleled Olympic achievements, and the fact that one of the GB team's track cyclists - Paul Weller-lookalike Bradley Wiggins - was being primed for the 2009 Tour de France, it wasn't long before those in the continental road racing community were getting nervous about these Anglo-Saxon pretenders.

Team Sky, as the pro cycling team is called, put a few noses out of joint even before it launched. It's owned by Tour Racing Ltd, a commercial entity owned by Sky. Brailsford is the team principal - in addition to his permanent position at British Cycling (BC), the national governing body of cycling in the UK. Critics argued that the track team would suffer, as Brailsford and the rest of BC's resources would be leached by Team Sky. But Brailsford says Team Sky pays for the services that foreign riders (18 out of a team of 26) receive from BC, and that their presence will only serve to stimulate the development of the British road racers.

The fact that the creation of Team Sky had been shrouded in mystery, despite being the sport's worst-kept secret for a year, had left many confused. In 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics, BSkyB had signed a five-year deal to become BC's principal sponsor. It is thought that Sky handed over £30m-£35m, a figure it won't confirm, which goes towards funding BC's activities. These range from Skyrides, the mass-participation city rides, to the training of the national track team. Critics wondered whether Sky knew about the plans for the Tour team when it signed on the dotted line, and, if so, why it would want to get involved in an event mired in doping scandals - and hardly a great British spectator sport.

'(The pro team) was an idea at that stage,' says the softly spoken Darroch, 'and we wanted to explore it. But what we agreed in 2008 was a five-year partnership that was going to work on lots of different levels.'

Brailsford confirms this: 'We'd talked about it, but thought we'd come back to it after the (Beijing) Games.' And after the incredible success at the 2008 Olympics, the challenge of setting up a pro cycling team became not only irresistible for glory-hunter Brailsford, but it would also provide the missing piece in the UK's cycling jigsaw.

Bradley Wiggins came 4th in the 2009 TourBefore Team Sky, a talented youngster might be spotted and nurtured under BC, but would have to slip off the UK treadmill and go to the Continent to continue their professional road-racing career. 'This has offered us the opportunity, which has never existed before, to complete the jigsaw right up to the Olympic road-race podium or right up to the Tour de France,' explains Brailsford. 'I don't think any other nation has done that.' It has become the envy of the world.

Once Bradley Wiggins had come fourth in the 2009 Tour, it became impossible for Brailsford to put together a pro team that didn't include him. But Wiggins was locked into a contract until the end of 2010 with US team Garmin-Slipstream. Team Sky pursued him relentlessly, eventually extricating Wiggins from his contract, but its way of doing things rubbed some up the wrong way. Pat McQuaid, president of the International Cycling Union, claimed that Team Sky had 'acted quite aggressively in its efforts to attract exactly the riders it wanted', adding that it might prompt a 'tightening of the rules on transfers'.

And then there's the money. Team Sky's reticence about what Sky had coughed up (out of the supposed £30m-£35m given to BC) to support the pro team led to an exponential rise in estimates as to how much was being pumped in. But Brailsford insists it's only the fifth or sixth best-funded team - though this hasn't stopped rivals denouncing Team Sky as a brash bunch trying to buy its way to success. This, combined with its aggressive reputation, soon led to its being labelled 'the most hated team' in road racing.

Brailsford admits that he rattled a few cages. 'But not deliberately,' he says wryly. Darroch has seen this kind of reaction before: 'If you're going to be the new kid on the block, then it's an inevitability. When Sky launched, there were two UK broadcasters. It was very established and we were there to challenge, and that upsets people, it disturbs them. It's the typical behaviour of incumbents who want to defend their position.'

 Lance Armstrong on another Tour victory in 2003But there's more to this than a nervous establishment perturbed by young challengers - there's a patriotic angle, too. The Tour is unequivocally a French event that for a long time after its creation in 1903 was dominated by home-grown talent. The problem is that there hasn't been a French winner since Bernard Hinault took the yellow jersey in 1985. Instead, the French had to put up with the American Lance Armstrong dominating the sport from 1999 to 2005.

'The Tour is old Europe', explains Lionel Birnie, a journalist who has been covering the annual event for Cycling Weekly for a decade. 'Armstrong dominated it in a very American way - he saw winning as everything; second place is just first loser. The French don't share that ethos. There is honour and merit in riding with panache and trying and failing. That always used to be one of the glorious charms of the Tour.'

It seems that the genteel world of professional cycling, with its quirks and etiquette, isn't quite ready for what Birnie terms 'the blood and thunder' approach of Team Sky. Brailsford has spotted this too. 'We are asked more and more about the growing number of Anglo-Saxon teams in the world, as against the traditional Belgians, French and Italians. It's as if they are getting left out a little bit.'

Team Sky's ethos is based on the winning formula that Brailsford and BC developed for the track team. Brailsford's buzz phrase is 'the aggregation of marginal gains', which means that if you can improve a tiny amount across 10 different areas, that adds up to a considerable improvement over the opposition. It means pulling apart everything and trying to identify best practice, from the smallest detail on a bike to the pillows cyclists sleep on.

Much has been made of Brailsford's 'podium thinking' too. 'You decide what your mission is, what your goals are and what your tactics are to achieve that, and monitor it along the way,' he explains. 'You have to have the right people to delegate to and give them the ownership to do their jobs. If they can do it and perform, fantastic. If not, then remove them and keep on going.'

The idea of team ownership is what makes Brailsford's approach stand out from that of other managers in the sport, where conventional wisdom demands that the team principal direct the riders. 'We said we'd take the crown off the coach's head and plonk it on the riders' heads, along with the accountability that comes with it,' he says. The riders are effectively asked to write their own rules, from how much training they should do to what time they get up.

The approach came as a shock to some of the young Team Sky riders. 'But it's very empowering,' says Brailsford, admitting that sometimes he's been amazed at how strict the riders are with themselves. He likes to think of himself as an orchestral conductor. 'I believe that a group of people have far greater expertise in their individual fields than I will ever have, so there's very little point asking them to pass me their instrument when they play it wrong so that I can have a go - though it's a massive instinct to do that,' he laughs. 'But that would be a huge mistake.'

It's an approach that dovetails neatly with Sky's way of doing things. 'There was a natural fit,' says Darroch. 'We're both very results and output focused as organisations, and once you establish those goals and the energy goes into achieving them, then it makes for a very productive environment. Our history at Sky is of having been a challenger, and we never want to change that. I see that with British Cycling too.'

Darroch also subscribes to Brailsford's collaborative approach to leadership. 'When you've got an organisation of 30,000 people, you can't take every decision. My job is to steer, to direct, to encourage and to try and show what is the truth of where we are as a business, and try to hold the business to account.'

The 2007 Grand Départ gets under way in London

There's a lot of crossover between the two organisations. Darroch has brought in Brailsford's psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters, who developed a model of 'human excellence' for the riders, now being imparted to senior Sky employees. Brailsford's 'aggregation of marginal gains' idea is also being absorbed into Sky. 'If we can make incremental improvements in our efficiency, that can aggregate very quickly to valuable performance and financial benefits,' notes Darroch.

Brailsford has had access to Sky's marketing and branding people and to its finance and project management expertise to augment his own team. The Sky and Team Sky philosophy comes together in what the team calls 'the line'. Team Sky's branding features a single blue line, which is meant to represent the fine line between winning and losing, between good and great. The retro-kitted riders have already been parading their strip at other races this year, in preparation for the biggie, the Tour de France, which starts on 3 July.

But what's in it for Sky? 'It's interesting,' admits Andrew Owen, MD of sports marketing company The Sports Business. 'One of the advantages of cycling is that it historically has been a blank sheet - on which they can now write Sky.' Seen in branding terms, cycling was a sport that wasn't yet 'owned' and that had the potential to do a lot better. Sky has been involved in sports as a business for over 20 years and already backs cricket, but Darroch says he'd been on the lookout for another sport that was 'very much open to all, where it didn't matter if you were a man or a woman, whether you were young or old. I'd heard about what Dave was doing and I was impressed.'

With the track team the envy of the world, triple Olympic gold medallist Sir Chris Hoy named BBC Sports Personality of 2009 and the fact that cycling is the third most popular participation sport (behind swimming and football) in the UK, it seemed the obvious thing to do. 'We embarked on a five-year partnership that focuses on two levels, first on developing elite sport, but it also has a grassroots programme; and we see those as two sides of the same coin,' says Darroch.

Sky operates in a highly competitive market, in which it has to fight for brand awareness. Having its brand plastered over elite performers is one thing, but, as Owen explains: 'If you want to move people up some kind of purchasing ladder, then awareness isn't sufficient. It's also about how people feel about a brand. And this is a patriotic sport - it's about beating the French, which is always good.'

It is also about building credibility with the mass market by its association with the elite high performers and going on to back this up with grassroots involvement.

Owen believes that people who are aware of a brand's grassroots involvement are 68% more likely to consider buying its products. It has benefits for employee motivation too. According to The Sports Business, 75% of employees of a company say they feel proud working for a company involved in the grassroots of sports. Indeed, Darroch says 100 Sky employees will be doing the etape du Tour this year (an amateurs' race that follows one stage of the Tour), though he won't be donning the Lycra himself.

Road racing and the Tour may not be much of a spectator sport in the UK, but Darroch thinks it's ripe for development. 'What surprised me initially was the appetite and the interest (Team Sky) seemed to engender straight away,' he says. And Sky has plans to expand the coverage of the sport in its home country through broadcast, the website and other media, something that attracted Brailsford to the organisation.

And with eight of the 26 riders British, the quasi- national nature of the team (unusual in a sport arranged along commercial lines) will help galvanise support in the UK. Says Cycling Weekly's Birnie: 'People will see the jersey and the name and will identify with the team in a way that perhaps they haven't in the past. Team Sky has got a tremendous opportunity there.'

So all eyes will be on Team Sky if and when it lines up in the Tour in July. The riders are committed to a drugs-free performance, though that won't stop others popping pills or injecting themselves to make it through what may be the toughest sporting event in the world. 'There's only one way to do it, which is the right way to do it,' says Darroch.

If Team Sky's non-conformist approach has started to shake things up in the sport, it doesn't guarantee success - failure is still a very real risk. 'Every day, you've got to wake up and think: "This is a massive opportunity to go and do something different", not: "Oh my god, we're going to fail",' says Brailsford.

Though, no doubt, many of the other teams will be keeping their fingers crossed that they do.

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