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2 June 2013 Edition

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Between the Posts

Elite athletes whose endeavours are helping to redeem the reputation of professional cycling so badly tarnished by Lance Armstrong

WITH NAMES LIKE ‘Froomie’, ‘Cav’ and ‘Wiggo’ you would be forgiven for thinking this is the cast on the latest trashy TV soap. They might sound like bunch of bad lads who spend their weekends on benders.

On the contrary, these three are elite athletes whose endeavours are helping to redeem the reputation of professional cycling so badly tarnished by Lance Armstrong. The trio compete together for the Sky cycling team. Froomie, Cav and Wiggo are also known as Chris Froome, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins. Last year, it was this team and its talisman Wiggo that won the Tour de France. The manner in which they did it was even more impressive than the outcome.

Elite cycling depends on the whole team for the success of the individual. Whilst Bradley Wiggins won the coveted yellow jersey, he had no chance of winning it without his team, each of whom is hugely talented.

Mark Cavendish is the fastest sprint cyclist in the world. He is a high-performing professional cyclist in the prime of his career. Yet his role in the team was to carry water bottles from the back-up car through the pelaton to their main asset, Bradley Wiggins.

Like Cav, Froomie is a superb cyclist in his own right. Yet he was also asked to play the role of ‘domestique’ (servant) to Wiggo. At one stage of the famous French race last year, Froomie departed from the plan and launched an attack on the front. He won the stage but his solo run caused discord in the team. Given the standing of both Froomie and Cav in world cycling, perhaps the potential for such schisms to occur could have been foreseen. But, in fairness, the team objective was still to win the Tour de France and that’s what they did.

How they achieved it is even more interesting.

The manager of the Sky cycling team and mastermind of their strategy for success was Dave Brailsford. At the same time he was performance director for the British Olympic cycling team, which has enjoyed a spoil of riches under his stewardship. Brailsford was convinced the Tour de France could be won without doping and performance-enhancing drugs. His analysis is that in any top cycling race the advantage gained from drugs is about 15%. On that basis, Brailsford conceived a strategy to achieve ‘marginal gains’.

At its simplest, this involved finding methods to make small improvements in many ways.

Brailsford planned to neutralise the unfair advantage afforded to the many others who used drugs. Changes made in the team plan included ensuring that the cyclists would sleep on their own beds and pillows and that pre-race team reconnaissance and briefing on routes was better than anyone else’s. Deftly and forensically, Brailsford inculcated a culture of ‘marginal gains’.

This helped cancel out the cheaters’ 15% but didn’t replace a punishing pre-season training programme. Beaches and sunshine are how most of us would envisage southern Spain; cyclists know it for the mountains and hundreds of miles training in sweltering heat. It’s a far cry from the Kilburn area of north-west London where Wiggins spent his childhood.

Wiggins’s father had been a cyclist but left the family when his son was only two years old. Together with a mother who encouraged his interest in sport, Wiggo’s grandfather filled the void. He openly admits his granda’s death in 2010 adversely affected his performance. His journey in life has had as many hills and valleys as his chosen sport. Yet, at the age of 12, he had ambition. Wiggo told his art teacher: “I’m going to be Olympic champion. I’m going to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour.”

Twenty years later, he achieved both in the same summer. By this time he had a family of his own, one whose sacrifices he readily admits. Which is why he has a small ‘B’ tattooed on the back of each hand, reminding him of his two children, Ben and Bella.

Ireland has its own cycling tradition, with strong links to Cumann Luthchleas Gael. Recent world success is credit to Martyn Irvine, an amateur cyclist from the North of Ireland. However, Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe to boast successful cyclists like Stephen Roche, Seán Kelly and now Martyn Irvine without a velodrome for them to train in. Try telling that to the banksters who were prepared to back the ‘Bertie Bowl’!

Meanwhile, illness forced Wiggo’s withdrawl from the Giro d’Italia (a race that will come to Ireland in 2014).  Whether he is in form to retain the Tour de France this year is unclear. Wiggo, Froomie and Cav may pedal together but all eyes will be on which one gets the yellow shirt.

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