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Dave Brailsford was a bike racer, a long time ago. The kind of racer that left Wales at 19 and headed to the Continent with a bike and a bag and a few modest dreams. He left his family and his girlfriend. Found a team. Put his head down in a foreign land and raced through the hills and crosswinds of Saint-Etienne until physiological reality hit, as it does for most, and he was forced to return to more cerebral pursuits.
Once a bike racer, always a bike racer. Thirty-odd years later, Bike Racer Brailsford is still in there, somewhere, scrapping about, on the rivet, screaming for his team’s more dramatic victories, hoping for crosswinds and cheering panache like the rest of us. For more than a decade, that version of Brailsford was buried like a fossil beneath the tepid earth of Marginal Gains Dave. Dave of matching polo shirts and rider-specific pillows, of cunning obfuscation, efficiency, and winning lots of yellow jerseys. He found success in the margins, victory in the predictable. That is the Dave Brailsford most of us know.
The thing about fossils is that sometimes when the wind blows just right, they pop back up.
“When I leave, I want to transition out with a team I’d have loved when I was 19. A cool as hell racing team,” Brailsford told us on the CyclingTips Podcast this week.
Is that you, Mr Marginal Gains?
“I get a chance to run a team, lo and behold we start winning,” Brailsford said, telling the story of his early Sky years. “You realize pretty early into this that, hmmm, this isn’t maybe the most exciting way to win. But you’re winning nonetheless, and you get caught between, Hell, should we keep on winning, or should we change the way we do it?
“Push comes to shove, it’s very difficult not to keep on winning. Now, looking forward, the experiences of this year, in particular, have made me think, actually if I’m going to continue doing this, I’d like nothing more than to have a team and help create a team where the riders ride … where they really race.”
In a sport outrun by the change of glaciers, the forced re-shuffle of just about everything in 2020 offered an opportunity for self-examination. It was a forced experiment. The racing calendar moved and compressed; teams struggled with race-day overlap and with timing the fitness of their riders without the usual step-by-step leadup to major events.
Ineos didn’t win the Tour de France. That was weird.
The most important day of the entire season for Brailsford and his sponsors, in terms of press coverage and visibility, was the day Michal Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz crossed the line hand-in-hand at the Tour.
He now has data showing a definitively positive shift in the general public’s view of his team. This is despite the ongoing hearings into Dr. Richard Freeman, despite the jiffy bag continuing to hit headlines every so often, despite dominance at races like the Giro. Winning was never the problem. His team, forced into Plans B, C, and even D by shifting form and injuries and the strange new calendar allowed its riders to return to their roots and simply… race. People liked it.
Kwiatkowski and Carapaz are damn good bike racers. So is Tao Geoghegan-Hart. And Filippo Ganna. If you let them be.
“We’re going to shift to athlete first, people first, individual rather than team,” Brailsford said. “I never thought I’d see the day where I’d say, ‘I’m going to do away with the school uniform look.’ I never, ever, ever thought I’d say that.”
Stories, Brailsford understands, are where sport gains its power. Happy stories, sad stories, human stories; it matters less how they end than how they play out, that they pull us in and force us to invest ourselves in the outcome.
Stories combine with a sport’s structure to drive growth. Cycling has the former, but not the latter. This, too, has been on Brailsford’s mind as of late.
The same forces that led to a sort of panache awakening at Ineos, at least on the surface, forced a fundamental re-shuffle of men’s professional cycling that offers up a glimpse of what cycling could be, if the powers-that-be are willing to continue to experiment.
Who are the powers-that-be, anyway?
In cycling, that’s not always clear. Anyone who has existed within the cottage industry that is professional cycling for any amount of time will tell you that the sport is paralyzed by an overabundance of stakeholders, none of which hold enough power to force their will upon the other and none of which are willing to use compromise to push forward. Compromise, instead, generally ensures stasis.
This makes cycling somewhat unique, and not necessarily in a good way.
The UCI holds more power over pro cycling than most major sport governing bodies. Neither FIFA, nor the FA (Football Association), own or control anything but the basic rules of the Premier League. In fact, it was only after the FA got out of the way that FIFA blossomed in the late 80s and early 90s.
(For a fascinating look at how this occurred, read The Club by Wall Street Journal reporter Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg. Some of you may recognize Josh from our own Tour de France podcasts in 2019.)
The NFL is a private entity, as are all other major American sports leagues. The FIA, auto racing’s version of the UCI, does not own F1; it’s controlled by Liberty Media Corporation after a $4.4 billion purchase in 2016.
“Cycling needs a Liberty,” said Tiffany Cromwell, who races for Canyon-SRAM. She’s particularly well-suited to drawing Formula 1 comparisons, as her partner is Valteri Bottas, a driver for Mercedes. “We need the UCI and then we need a company that actually owns the sport. A big company.”
A world governing body that falls under the auspices of the Olympic movement, as cycling does, has a contractual relationship with the IOC and is designated to govern that sport, its rules, and its grassroots efforts. Those efforts are then spread down to national governing bodies, which do the same more locally, each with its own constitution and goals. “The actual structure and what that entity is meant to do is not compete to try to run the professional sport in the current modern world of sports,” Brailsford said. “It just it’s not fit for that purpose.”
I’m sensing a theme here. In general, governing bodies exist primarily to set rules and enforce them. When they try to do more, they begin to step into areas in which they frankly aren’t qualified or structured to operate effectively.
So who can be cycling’s Liberty? Cycling’s Premier League?
Tour organizer ASO is probably the closest we have to a private entity with the power to push cycling in any direction, simply because of its ownership of the Tour. Its annual revenue is in the US $270 million range. A pittance, in modern sports terms. That’s equivalent to a small handful of Premier League transfer fees.
So, probably not them. But whoever it is would have to buy them. An attempt by Chinese businessman Wang Jianlin to buy ASO in 2015 was rebuffed.
“It’ll be an investor. It’ll be a fund,” Brailsford said. “It will be a very wealthy individual. And presumably, that can pull together a group of like-minded people like us, quite frankly.”
We recorded via Zoom, and Brailsford, sitting in a glass-walled conference room in a gray jumper, might have had a twinkle in his eye. I couldn’t quite tell. He does happen to know a man with the means, and perhaps the will, to take on such a project – his own source of funding, Jim Ratcliffe, who has a reported net worth of just over US$18 billion.
“You could name them,” Brailsford said. “You could name the people that you want. After spending my career in this sport, I know how to run this thing. And I pretty much know from the outside who could come in and help. And being pretty close now with the Formula 1 guys, and seeing how they operate. The lessons, they’re not even hard lessons to learn. They’re the basics. We’re not getting the basics right.
“You need an investor. You need money. You need an investment, because they’ll get a return on it for sure.”
For years, cycling has debated tradition, history, the way it’s always been done, versus the way it could be, a desire for change, a desire to grow the whole pie so that each slice is bigger. Tradition won, more often than not, leaning on fear of upsetting the apple cart. Don’t change things, the argument went, just in case you make it worse.
In 2020, everything changed. Races moved, teams died, teams rose. Nothing got worse. In fact, it was one of the best seasons of bike racing in modern memory, full of tight battles and surprises and personality. TV ratings were up almost across the board.
Rapha, founded on a desire for a simple riding kit, put ducks on EF’s jerseys.
Ineos had fun again.
Dave Brailsford, Mr Marginal Gains, wants to build a team his 19-year-old self could cheer for. A team of panache, risk-taking, and individuality.
If that isn’t proof that change need not be paralyzing, I don’t know what is.