Team Sky’s preparation for this year’s Tour de France has been different to their debut season in almost every way. Bradley Wiggins explains some of the changes and why he is going into this year’s Tour on the back of his greatest ever stage race result.
Last month, our writer Lionel Birnie spent the Critérium du Dauphiné with Team Sky. Read his full behind-the-scenes account of Sky’s most successful week so far in the August issue of Cycle Sport, which is out in the UK on Thursday, July 7.
Words by Lionel Birnie
Saturday, July 2, 2011
There is a nugget of received wisdom that says a good Critérium du Dauphiné is usually followed by a poor Tour de France.
It doesn’t really stand up to rigorous scrutiny because there are too many exceptions to the rule but the general assumption is that it’s difficult to peak in mid-June and either sustain it through to the end of July or back off and peak again at the Tour.
When Bradley Wiggins took the yellow jersey in the time trial at the Dauphiné last month, and then plotted his way to the biggest stage race victory of his career, people were suggesting he might be too good, too soon.
But Wiggins and his coach Tim Kerrison, who is Team Sky’s head of performance analysis, both reached the end of the Dauphiné believing there was more to come.
“I am 100 per cent confident of that,” said Kerrison on the final day of the Dauphiné. Kerrison initially had two reservations about the idea of Wiggins riding for the general classification at the Dauphiné. “There were two reasons,” he said. “Firstly, if he had to go super deep to defend the jersey. But the first five days were not at all stressful. The last two were hard but today [Sunday’s final stage to La Toussuire] is short. I’m not worried. We didn’t want to put him into a hole we couldn’t get him out of in time for the Tour but we haven’t done that. Secondly, it will increase expectations. Last year he had all that expectation and he didn’t perform well. This year, he’s been under the radar and he’s done well. But the Dauphiné has been carefully planned.”
Kerrison is the man credited in large part for revolutionising Australia’s endurance swimming. He and Shane Sutton took custody of Wiggins last winter when the rider realised he had to make some changes.
The build-up to the Tour has been carefully plotted, with training blocks (including time at altitude in Tenerife and Sestrieres) combined with racing. Instead of tapering or resting before races so as to arrive fresh, Wiggins started several stage races slightly fatigued to simulate the effects of a three-week Tour. After the Bayern Rundfahrt in late May, he did not back off, he continued training hard up to the Dauphiné. Only after that did he begin to scale back, freshen up and let the work he’d done flow through.
There was much debate about which riders Team Sky would select for the Tour. One thing Team Sky learned from their debut season is that there’s more, much more, to assembling a Tour de France team than that.
Last year, nine riders arrived in Rotterdam for the Tour de France via very different routes. Bradley Wiggins, Steve Cummings and Michael Barry had ridden the Giro d’Italia. Edvald Boasson Hagen and Geraint Thomas were at the Dauphiné while Juan Antonio Flecha, Simon Gerrans, Thomas Lofkvist and Serge Pauwels took part in the Tour of Switzerland.
They arrived at the Tour not as a well-oiled unit but as separate components that had yet to be assembled. As Wiggins said: “There were some guys I hadn’t raced with since the start of the year. Some of us hadn’t spent much time together at all but we came to the Tour and we had to get on with it.”
In hindsight, it was a big mistake. While the nine riders may have been in the best form going into the Tour, they had not ridden as a team. They had not reached the level of instinctive understanding needed to preserve precious energy
Wiggins now admits that the wheels were already wobbling off their axles before he even reached Rotterdam but the fact the team stood on shifting sands didn’t help.
This year, Team Sky decided to do things differently and the eight riders and bulk of the staff selected for the Dauphiné were always likely to form the Tour team. The final place went to the impressive young British rider, Ben Swift, but Mat Hayman was also very strongly in the frame.
BRADLEY WIGGINS INTERVIEW
Cycle Sport spoke to Wiggins during and after the Dauphiné. The first interview took place at Les Gets on Friday evening, with two days of the race remaining.
You’re in the yellow jersey with two days to go. Tell me how has the Dauphiné been so far.
I always feel at the start of these things a bit under par. It’s why I’m no good at one-day races. It takes me a couple of days to get going. I kind of had to fight through the prologue and the first day. The first day I wasn’t that good, I had to fight just to lose a few seconds. With that in mind the first few days went pretty much to plan really.
It’s a physical thing for me really. I try to do enough going into these races so that I’m opened up enough but not fatigued. I need a few days of those explosive efforts to get into it.
I’m getting better at it over the years. But the mental side of it comes with having to really hurt yourself that first day. The second day I didn’t feel great but it’s there when you want it. Then by the time trial I had settled into it. It’s been pretty much to plan up to now.
What is the difference between 2010 and 2011?
I keep trying to explain to the journalists in French just how much life changed for me after finishing fourth in the Tour de France. I didn’t go from nothing. I wasn’t a nobody in cycling but I was just good at what I was good at. I didn’t explore anything else. I just stuck with the track. That was where I’d earned my pedigree, earned my stature and that’s what I was known for. I never tried to explore too far out of that for safety reasons really. Everything I did on the road was for the track. It didn’t matter if I didn’t do anything on the road.
Then I got off the track after Beijing [2008 Olympics] and I still think that 2009 was a bit of a fluke in that I certainly didn’t have the level of planning and preparation for that Tour de France as I’ve had for this year. I mean it’s two contrasting years. I mean the stories that came out in 2009, losing weight, all that. A lot of it was just making it up as I went along really. Taking it day after day. It made a good story but the detail and the fine planning was nothing compared to what I am doing now. I lost weight, yes, but now I’m being weighed on a daily basis. Everything is monitored.
Garmin, bless them, was nothing like that at all. JV [Jonathan Vaughters] took a lot of credit for transforming me but I hardly spoke to JV that year. It was just a great performance.
Everything changed for me overnight after that, more than the Olympics. I went from this rider who was on good money to this multi-million pound signing for Team Sky, huge amounts of money changing hands to get me out of Garmin, it was almost like footballers, you know. I perhaps under-estimated that at the time, tried to take it in my stride, make light of it but I think looking back, bloody hell, that was a huge, huge change.
Just everything, the way that winter panned out, not knowing what was going to happen. For one week at the end of 2009, I was out of a job. I was out of Garmin but it didn’t even look like I was going to be able to come to Sky. For one week I didn’t have a team. I was like ‘bloody hell, I should have stayed at Garmin’. And then in December they said ‘Tomorrow, we’re going to do a press conference to announce you’. What a difference to the year before. To go from pedalling round these races to being probably the most talked about cyclist for that one-month period.
Why didn’t you cope with it?
I think I was thrust in there and I was expected to know what to do or to say. And I made a few cock-ups, you know, media wise. I said a few things I shouldn’t have said. Especially the Wigan comment. That was meant in the greatest respect. Wigan is my second home but it was taken differently and I’ll never live those kind of things down. But that was my way of dealing with the hype and hysteria. I was trying to sort of laugh it off.
Coming to the launch on December 9 and going home afterwards it was like: “That’s it, you’re team leader of Sky now and we’re going to win the Tour de France.” Every second article I read was about how we were going to win the Tour. All the questions: How are you going to do it? How are Sky going to do things differently to everyone else? Well, I hadn’t really spoken to Sky. I hadn’t sat down with the coaches and talked about what we were going to do. Normally you do that in October before you have your break but we had done none of that. Then it was Christmas and everyone was away and I was just left.
After that I got a winter cold. I didn’t train for a week or whatever. Then I went through Christmas. Still no planning. We didn’t set out a plan for the whole year. Then we get to January. We have to go to the team presentation in London then we flew off to Valencia. We still hadn’t fully decided the race programme and before I knew it I was off in Qatar racing. Once I got racing I kind of just pushed it to the back of my mind. I was still portraying that it was all good because I felt that was what I was expected to say instead of saying the truth, which was that we hadn’t really planned the season because until very late we didn’t know if I was going to be with Team Sky.
Then it was just one thing after the other. I had enjoyed that winter having finished fourth so I was carrying a few kilos. I got some early decent results, like at Murcia. Then the wheels fell off a bit.
Why did the wheels fall off?
Basically, last season I didn’t do the work really.
So after the Tour was all done and dusted, Shane and Tim [Kerrison] were designated to look after me solely. They went away and looked at it and planned it in great detail. They looked at the demands of the event and me as a rider.
Tim transformed Australian endurance swimming. His knowledge is phenomenal but could he translate that into cycling? Well, obviously I can say it’s worked. The stuff Tim has brought to the table combined with Shane… who I always describe as, he’s not this scientific guy, he’s an old school football manager. He’s like Terry Venables or Brian Clough or Harry Redknapp, that sort of guy. He’s got this closeness with the riders, whether it’s Chris Hoy or myself. And he just brings something out of us that you can’t put explain. You can’t really put your finger on it.
So he’s like a mate, a coach, a father…?
He is all of those things. He is the only person in the whole organisation of Britsh Cycling and Sky who… because I think you only see yourself as Brad Wiggins who you were 10 years ago but the external perception of you changes as you get more successful. Ten years ago, Chris Hoy, myself, Vicky Pendleton, we were all just shit-kickers in the track centre but now the perception changes and some people think: “I can’t possibly tell Chris Hoy what to do.” Or “How can I tell Brad Wiggins how to pursuit, he’s the Olympic champion?” But actually Shane can bring you back down to earth with a thump by telling you how it is. That is quite rare in sport really. And I think that’s where the trust comes from really.
When I did come to Sky, Rod Ellingworth was designated to coach me, which I just said “Yeah, okay.” But I didn’t have the faith in Rod’s coaching. It wasn’t anything to do with him but I didn’t know him. I don’t think he had that rapport with me. I was very good at telling him what he wanted to hear. I was good at convincing him that I needed to do this or that even if it wasn’t the best thing for me.
So you were steering it rather than the coach?
I think so, yeah. I take full responsibility for it. But with Shane, he never lets me shy away or cut corners. His ethic for work is incredible. Shane just cuts all the bullshit out really.
I went into the Tour last year and I didn’t ride the Nationals. Instead, I went and tested on this local climb in Girona and I set the record up it and I thought I must have the form. But that had no bearing on how I was going to tackle the Tour.
But now we’re doing lab testing periodically every six weeks and we do a threshold test that lasts about an hour. It ramps up and they take lactate levels, we’re doing acclimatisation work, which I didn’t do last year. So everything is tested and recorded so we know exactly where I am. We did one recently and my lactate levels were ridiculously low for a given power, which was 475 watts, and that is evidence. We’ve got this data to back it up so you go out into the field feeling confident. So the doubts aren’t there. I’ve never done that in the past.
When Tim came to me he said: “We need some data on you. When did you last lab test?” I’d not done a lab test. I’d never done a Vo2 Max test. Tim’s compiled all this data. We’re on Training Peaks so every ride I do, everything is monitored. The impact that’s had on me is important.
What about personally?
Last year I had a long look in the mirror. I wasn’t leading the team in any sense. I was quite withdrawn. You only have to look at my interviews at the Tour and post-Tour… I wouldn’t say I was moody because that isn’t how I felt at the time, but I could come across moody. Certainly I was short and sharp and a little bit defensive at times. I think that reflected that I was at the centre of this team but I felt completely alone. That’s not a nice place to be.
I had a long hard look at myself and changed a lot of things about myself that I felt I needed to change. I let people start to help me a bit more. It snowballed to the point where I feel confident to lead this team. I feel confident telling the guys what to do. I’d have loved to have done that last year but I just couldn’t. It had been such a drastic change and I wasn’t ready for it.
I went to Garmin not as a team leader. I was there to support Christian VDV. I came out of the Tour and I couldn’t put a foot wrong. Whatever I said in the press people laughed but you can do that stuff when you’re the underdog and doing well. If I had cracked in the last week and finished ninth, people would have said: “Well you still finished ninth.”
Whereas last year, unless I got on the podium, it was always going to be a failure really.
That whole experience last year has improved me as a bike rider. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges. If you can learn from those mistakes.
You have to have a long hard look at yourself and be honest with yourself. If you can take it, accept it and move on.
You seem to be riding more like a leader this week.
Yeah, I think I am. I don’t think I’ve ever done it before. I’ve never taken that role on. It’s taken a long time to get to this point. When I won my first Olympic gold and dealing with success. I don’t think we’re given enough credit at times… you prepare for so long. You see Steve Peters, you deal with the stress of trying to win but then when you win what do you do? No one seems to help you cope with success and the expectations after that.
At the time I thought: “Nah, don’t be stupid. You’re living the dream, get on with it.”
But Sky hadn’t signed me up for four years as some kind of pension. “Here you go Brad, here’s one point whatever million go and be our team leader, see if you can do your best and if you don’t do too well don’t worry.” There’s an expectancy there and they want me to do a job. So at the end of last year I knew I wasn’t doing that. I was way off the mark really.
I could have done with some help in that period. I needed someone to say: “This is what people are going to expect from you.”
I remember at the presentation in London, I asked to stand at the back. I didn’t want to stand at the front of the whole team. I wanted to be presented in the mix and stand at the back for the photos. I said: “I don’t want the other lads thinking I’m the leader.” They said: “Well you are the leader.”
The way I dealt with that was to play the joker and back away from it. When I went to dinners and things I’d get blind drunk to play the kind of drunken fool to portray that I didn’t have a care in the world.
Last year, in public I really changed that. I went to the Rayner dinner and went to bed early. The night we had a team get-together in Windsor [late in 2010] I went to bed early. I wanted to start to be seen as a leader. Being professional off the bike. The night after the piss-up in Windsor we were on Sky News and G [Geraint Thomas] was a bit hungover but I’d been to bed early so I was fresh as a daisy. But I needed to do that to show Dave [Brailsford] and everyone that I could accept this role now.
I wanted to be on there [on TV] and I answered the questions. But that’s only one part. I then trained properly and I wanted to perform. That’s why Paris-Nice was important. I wanted to race and get a result. I went to Roubaix and helped the team.
I was so far from being a team leader results wise and the way I was behaving last year.
The team is going well now, it seems?
We’re riding as a unit. It has got better and better as the season has gone on. You know the bulk of the team, Flecha, Boasson Hagen, Geraint, myself, Gerrans, has gelled together. Last year, we got to the Tour and I hadn’t raced with half the team. Everyone’s going well. Christian [Knees] has been great. Just when I think I could do with a bottle, he appears with ten up his jersey. Edvald [Boasson Hagen] is going really well.
What was training in Tenerife like?
Tenerife was fantastic, the best thing I’ve ever done. The most constructive thing I’ve ever done. Training camps you do all the time as a cyclist and often you’re thinking: “I could be doing this at home.”
But there you can’t hide away. You’re at 2,500 metres. I’ve never done altitude training really. Last year I really suffered with the altitude. This year goes even higher again.
It’s been the most beneficial thing. We stayed high, we trained high, we made efforts high, we climbed the mountain. It was real acclimatisation to not just being at altitude but performing at altitiude.
The first day we got there we did a simple test on the turbo. For the same blood lactate levels, at threshold, I was 100 watts lower. So every time I went over 1,500 metres in the Tour last year I effectively lost 100 watts at my threshold.
After two weeks in Tenerife I’d gained that 100 watts by acclimatising. So my adaptation was good. That’s why we’re going to Sestriere.
Do you regret missing the National Championships last year?
I probably should have gone to it. But it was all coming on top of me and I didn’t want to go there and race and be in the spotlight a week before the Tour. It was all coming apart really but that was me making the decision again. This year Shane said: “No, you’re doing it.” And that’s it, there’s never been a question. He says I need a hard work out the week before the Tour.
What do you know about the Tour route?
I haven’t looked at any of the Tour to be honest because last year we looked at everything. I will look at it on the Tour. That helps me take the Tour a few days at a time. I know there’s a team time trial, I know it goes up Alpe d’Huez, I know there’s a few high mountains and I know the last time trial but the Tour is so far away and so big that you start to see this thing as: “Look at all this we’ve got to do. But we’ve got to do this bit first. If you look at the Tour as a whole it’s overwhelming. So I try not to look at it all. “
Cycle Sport spoke to Wiggins again after the Dauphiné.
What does winning the Dauphiné mean to you?
I don’t know really. It still hasn’t hit me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel from it really. We never backed off between Bayern and Dauphiné then there was Sestrieres so I’m still in the middle of it really. I’m not going home and getting the adulation of everyone saying how great it was. I’m still in that bubble.
During the Dauphiné when you were asked about the Tour you said you weren’t thinking about the Tour and that it was all about the Dauphiné…
Yeah, but it was at that time. It wasn’t about the Dauphiné in that I wasn’t peaking at the Dauphiné. I was going there and racing hard, slightly fatigued, off the back of a block of work, building form for July. But when you’re racing, you’re in it.
I knew I was in good shape but I never felt like I was in great form. I actually felt quite tired off six weeks work. The Dauphiné isn’t something to dwell on becuase I need to make improvements. Now we’ll taper for a couple of weeks, let all the work I’ve done come on and I should be at another level at the Tour.
The Dauphiné was great but I wasn’t really on top of my game. There was still an element of ‘shit, am I going to hang onto that?’
Since Paris-Roubaix I’ve had five days off. That was when the Tour prep started. We did a 10-day block in Girona, then Romandy, then Tenerife, then a week of training at home, then Bayern, Dauphiné, Sestrieres.
That’s how the swimmers trained, apparently. I am not used to doing that. I wasn’t used to training and racing in this sort of environment. We’ve done a lot of work and I have been tired.
Usually you just race fresh all the time. Every objective you rest a bit before and make sure you’re fresh but I wasn’t going to build the conditioning to cope with three weeks of it doing it that way.
Last year, I was fresh in races. I won the Giro prologue but I had no depth so when it got really hard I had to back off. Same at the Tour. No depth.
It was hard doing Romandy and getting 70th in a 3.5k prologue that should have been ideal for me, but I’d done five hours each of the two days before it. Trying to explain what went wrong to the press, who are expecting a result… You know “What happened today?” Thing is, if you say: “It’s part of a training plan for the Tour” they just think you’re making excuses. But it’s about getting used to racing under fatigue.
A year ago, I’d have been jumping off the ceiling if I won the Dauphiné, saying the Tour doesn’t matter. But the Dauphiné is in a drawer now, it’s just forgot about.
When you are in the moment of the Dauphiné all you are thinking of is the Dauphiné. I needed to race it. Race each day because that was going to bring this last bit of form on. It’s concentration for eight days. I’ve never really been in that position where I’ve been in a yellow jersey late in a big race. It adds to my strength and repertoire. I’ve not had 10 years of this like Cadel and Vino where they have been in yellow jerseys. Yes, it’s all about the Tour but I wasn’t thinking about the Tour when I was trying to race up that mountain on Saturday as fast as possible.
People said you had peaked too soon at the Dauphine.
Yeah. I knew that…
What’s your view?
If I’d raced like Robert Gesink at the end [of the race] but lost 12 minutes on the first day I don’t think I’d have got the same confidence and belief from it. The experience was to get out there and race in the yellow jersey.
I still regret sitting up on Zoncolan in the Giro last year. I was in seventh place with a week to go but I was thinking about the Tour, so I didn’t get the experience of going for GC there. Until you go to those places, you don’t gain anything. Looking back, I needed to battle through that third week really and go to places I’d not been but I felt a weight of expectation, it was all about the Tour and we backed off.
Thing is, two years ago I did the Giro and was fourth in the Tour. Last year I did the Giro and finished wherever. It’s all rubbish really.
If I had gone a minute slower in the time trial at Dauphiné and finished fifth overall having raced the last three days exactly the same, just without the yellow jersey, people would have said: “Oh, he’s in great shape, well on track for the Tour with more to come.”
But because I won it they think I have gone too early. You can’t win really. I know where I’m at. Tim knows where I’m at.
I don’t feel the need to justify to people there’s more to come. The Tour will be the proof.
Read Lionel Birnie’s fascinating behind-the-scenes story of Sky’s Critérium du Dauphiné in the August issue of Cycle Sport, which is out in the UK on Thursday, July 7.