Learning to win

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Andrew Curry and Andy Stubbings write: When British Cycling’s Performance Director Dave Brailsford launched the Sky road racing team in 2009 and announced that it would produce a British winner of the Tour de France within five years, most long-standing cycling fans were disbelieving. For all of Brailsford’s success in track cycling, le Tour was a very different proposition.

Britain had never got a rider into the top three, and the last British trade team to compete in the Tour had run out of money before it got to Paris. Winning the General Classification is an unforgiving business measured in seconds and minutes over three weeks of racing; the winner has to be able to excel at time trialling and cope with climbing (or vice versa) and hope they don’t have a bad day. Bradley Wiggins had finished 4th in 2009, but the consensus was that he was close to his limits.

But British Cycling, on track and road, is an interesting type of learning organisation that combines an obsession with incremental improvement (shades of Clive Woodward’s approach to rugby union) while also searching for disruptive innovation opportunities as well. On the track, which is a controlled environment, especially in disciplines such as the pursuit, the one percents here and there add up, eventually, to a winning margin, helped by the smart use of psychology.

On the road, something more was required. Two or three innovations come to mind. The first was Chris Boardman’s ‘Secret Squirrel’ project, which experimented with technical improvements to equipment. The second involved looking outside of cycling’s traditional approaches to training and fitness, in this case to swimming and the coach Tim Kerrison, who brought different approaches to managing form and intensity. His first year wasn’t successful, while he learned about the new sport; Wiggins followed his 4th place in 2009 (with the Garmin team) with a 24th place with Sky. The coaching team put it down to learning and carried on. Most companies would have been less patient.

The third was breaking with the conventional wisdom that the only way to train for racing was to race. Part of winning at cycling is psychological, of the whole team knowing what it feels like to control a race when it holds the lead, and Sky shifted the balance, reducing the number of racing days and competing in those races to win. Wiggins’ record this year in the stage races he has entered is impressive by any historical standards.

In the process perhaps British Cycling has invented a new type of “brand Britain” when it comes to sporting achievement, one that marries the best of British ingenuity, bloody-minded determination and humility in understanding that being good takes graft. In the place of the plucky underdog (Tim Henman), the glorious one-hit wonder (Rugby World Cup) or the technically undistinguished cloggers of our football teams, British Cycling is producing – on track and road – people who expect to win, who take winning in their stride, and who remember that there’s more to life than sport.

Tom Ding wrote a post on this blog about listening to David Brailsford after the Beijing Olympics. The image at the top of this post is the Wiggo III jersey from Milltag, via Headset Press, and is used with thanks.

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