'I would like at some point to maybe learn to take time out and enjoy the colour of life': Dave Brailsford reflects on the personal cost of success

Following cancer scare and heart surgery, the Ineos director of sport has reflected on the sacrifices he's made to win

David brailsford
(Image credit: Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Asked if he could ‘turn back the clock on any day this year, and do it differently’, Sir Dave Brailsford says he simply wants to go driving with his daughter. 

“I wouldn't go back and change it, I'd just go back and relive it... I'd like to go and spend that whole day again,” the Ineos sports director and team principal muses upon November 29, 2021 - shortly after his daughter Millie’s 17th birthday.

Following yet another year chasing World Tour dreams with Ineos Grenadiers, and being promoted to managing the petrochemical company's sports portfolio, Brailsford apparently hasn’t made a single decision he’d like to alter more than he’d like to relive that day with his daughter. 

It's been a turbulent few years: a cancer scare in 2019, heart surgery in 2021, and questions following the verdict placed upon former Team Sky and British Cycling doctor Richard Freeman, who was found guilty of ordering testosterone, "knowing or believing" it would be administered to an unnamed rider for performance enhancement.

In 2022, it's a reflective Brailsford we're met with. 

“I suppose I am [pretty obsessed],” Brailsford told millionaire Steve Bartlett, in episode 115 of ‘The Diary of a CEO’ (opens in new tab). Touted ‘The Winning Expert’ (and surrounded, I’d like to say inexplicably, by Huel) Brailsford gives a hint at the cost behind his success: “I pretty much put everything I've got into what I do really… that means currently I'll spend 220 days a year at races, and a long time on the road, and that does come at a cost.”

After the longest pause in the 95-minute interview, he adds: “I’ve obviously got Millie my daughter, I absolutely adore her, love her to bits. Since she was born I've always been involved in sport. At some point soon I'd like to think I'm going to stop, and really spend more time together. That would be nice.”

Brailsford has been a part of the Ineos Grenadiers, formerly Team Sky, since its inception in 2010; before that he masterminded the theory of ‘marginal gains’ at British Cycling. So, it’s hardly surprising that he says “I haven’t had a holiday for a long time.”

“I’ve had a few health issues obviously… and that kind of forced me to stop a little bit. I would like, at some point, to learn to maybe take time out and enjoy the colour of life a bit more,” Brailsford muses, though adding that he “got back as soon as [he] could and carried on” following both health issues. 

Brailsford isn't keen to dwell on either health complication. 

“I thought [the cancer] was quite a big deal at the time, then I moved on. I don't dwell on it, I don't think about it much, I like the 'tough times don't last, tough people do' [mentality] you know,” Brailsford notes, adding that coaching from sports psychologist Steve Peters continues to keep him mentally on the straight and narrow in the pressure cooker world of performance cycling.

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Brailsford refers to Peters repeatedly during the interview

(Image credit: Photo by Bry Lennon/Getty Images)

The heart surgery “was more of a shock than the cancer”, he says, but soon he was back on the bike feeling like “ten men”, with an additional 50 watts - and he’s not had any pain since.

Bartlett, currently starring in BBC One's ‘The Dragons Den’, is being pumped into homes across the UK with the quote “[I’m] a single 28-year-old guy trying to find a girlfriend!” Reportedly unlucky in love, the author of the presumably self-titled ‘Happy Sexy Millionaire’  debut book has likely been one of few interviewers to ask Brailsford for romantic advice.

“I'm not your man here.. unfortunately, no it's not something I’d say I'm that good at,” is the answer from the 57-year-old.

Something Brailsford is extremely good at is finding and developing talent. On this, he has a lot to say - albeit, results have been harder to find for Ineos in recent years. After claiming seven of eight Tour de France wins, from 2012 to 2019, the richest team in the sport has been less dominant through 2020 and 2021.

Confirming many of our suspicions, he’s quick to note that most elite athletes have something different in their psychology which makes them capable of accessing an extra level in the elevator of performance.

Maybe in my life I was avoiding failure, rather than being dragged towards the positive emotion of winning

“I think when you get into that realm of high performers, people who are really pushing themselves to extreme levels, there's something pulling or pushing them pretty hard, normally, [fostering talent is] trying to understand that, and dig around that.”

For Brailsford, it’s a fear of failure.

Reminding me of my own amateur desire to be ahead of - never behind - my competition in a time trial, he states: "Avoidance is a very strong motivator… maybe in my life I was avoiding failure, rather than being dragged towards the positive emotion of winning, the positive emotion of winning isn't that great for me, I wish it was, but avoiding failure is a massive driver.”

The interview, ‘The “Winning Expert”: How To Become The Best You Can Be’, begins by focusing on Brailsford’s talent for hunting out future stars, and helping them to flourish. It’s interesting, perhaps, that whilst Brailsford puts his own motivations down to fear of failure, in others he says he tries to lead them to a reward.

“There's got to be a reward,” he says. “You can put a gun to someone's head, ask them to jump up and down, they'll jump up and down... that is not a pleasant experience. It's used a lot in sport actually," Brailsford says, reminding us of investigations into British Cycling's own culture back in 2016.

"[With this method] performance is going to be inconsistent and it's certainly not going to be a very pleasurable experience. I do believe [a good driver is] a carrot, not a stick.”

Will a holiday materialise for Brailsford anytime soon? Or is the threat of that chasing stick just too strong? It’s not clear. But in the meantime, he leaves us with the simplest marginal gain of them all: “Probably your best marginal gain ever: smile at people, more often, people smile back.” This blue sky thinking might not propel anyone to a race win, but it could certainly help us all enjoy the colour of life just that little bit more, every day. 

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