Pushing the Limits – Team Sky’s approach to training Sports Directors

CJ takes another - Bidon practice - Image ©Paul Harris / Cycling Shorts

CJ takes another – Bidon practice – Image ©Paul Harris / Cycling Shorts

When you’re growing up, everyone wants to be the hero –PM, astronaut, fighter pilot, racing driver – but nothing achieved in any of those roles ever happens without a vast latticework of support. Cycling is not immune; indeed, when Wiggo thrust cycling into the faces of an otherwise unknowing public last July, the nuances of the support network around him must have been hard to spot for the casual viewer. Sir Bradley had his nine-man squad on the road, of course, and everything that Team Sky could think of in the way of shiny kit and qualified personnel. And on the road, out of the spotlight but orchestrating every aspect of every race in their beautiful black and blue Jaguars were the Sports Directors.

In the never-ending pursuit of the aggregation of marginal gains, for 2013 Team Sky took the opportunity to despatch two of their Sports Directors to the MIRA proving ground at Nuneaton to learn more about handling the Jaguar XF SportbrakeMarcus Ljungqvist and Dan Hunt both have experience from within the car during races, but neither had previously received specific driver training – under the auspices of Nigel, one of MIRA’s exceedingly capable instructors, Team Sky’s DS’s put themselves to the sword in one of their 2013 cars, merrily sliding and spinning their way around MIRA’s watered, variable grip circuits with some chap called Martin Brundle also on hand to offer the occasional word of advice.

[flagallery gid=19 name=Gallery]

Click SL (slideshow) or FS (fullscreen)

All Images ©Paul Harris / CyclingShorts.

"So what does the pedal on the right do, again?" Martin Brundle is one of the finest racing drivers on earth - maybe the only thing he does better is present programmes about it. ©Paul Harris / Cycling Shorts

“So what does the pedal on the right do, again?” Martin Brundle one of the finest racing drivers on earth – maybe the only thing he does better is present programmes about it. ©Paul Harris / Cycling Shorts

The point was not to train Marcus and Dan how to drive like racing drivers, Martin explained as Nigel sped us around to demonstrate, it’s about teaching them how the car reacts so they know what to do if a situation occurs during a race that pushes the car over the limit. “You might think that, as racing drivers, we throw the car around wildly,” explains the former Le Mans winner and World Sportscar Champion, arguably the best Formula One driver not to win a Grand Prix. “In reality it’s all about being smooth and gentle with the car.” The limiting factor is the tyre –it transmits inputs from acceleration, braking and steering, but if you try and throw too many things at it at once, that’s when things go pear-shaped. Being smooth with the inputs not only allows you to run closer to the ultimate limit, it also means that you’re less likely to go skating wildly over it and the car will be more easily controlled.

For Marcus and Dan, the day was about learning to recognise and respond when that limit is approached, and if Nigel’s teaching is anything like his driving, the roads of ProTour cycle races will be the safer for the improvements in their competence – the Sportbrake proved itself amazingly capable, with eyeball-popping go, stop-on-a-dime brakes and a taut agility that’s just wrong in a car that size. In Nigel’s hands, it happily ran sideways on the low-grip track, then flung us around the capacious rear with gay abandon on the dry handling circuit – if the demonstration was anything to go by, it doesn’t seem likely that Marcus and Dan will often be called upon to push the big cat to the limit!

What’s clear throughout the whole process is that Jaguar and Team Sky have an exceedingly warm and productive relationship. With an engineer on hand with a view to improving the car still further for the peculiar needs of bike racing, it’s obvious that, while the cars look like a standard Sportbrake with livery and a bespoke rack, they have already been modified to suit the job (to cite one example, the rear windows in the Sportbrake didn’t quite go all the way down– now they do), and the process is ongoing with discussions taking place on improved information technology and amended wing mirrors. When it comes to marginal gains, nothing is off limits – Team Sky even went to the lengths of putting a rider on hand to practice the interactions between rider and car, Chris Sutton setting what just might be a record for the number of bidons stowed on a single rider.

Marcus Ljungqvist and Dan Hunt – better drivers. – Images ©Paul Harris / Cycling Shorts

So – a useful day? Dan is positive. “It’s great to be able to test the car in a safe environment and being allowed to fail without the risk of consequences.”

“We went on three different surfaces,” adds Marcus. “ Slippery, super slippery, and super-super-slippery! – and we took the car to the limit to learn how it would react. The good thing here is we can do it over and over again, in a really relaxed environment, so we can remember what we did – in a race maybe something happens but you don’t remember actually how you managed to control it.”

“It’s a core component of what we do, we SHOULD be good at it.” says Dan. “At Sky, we always want to be better at everything we do, and driving’s a critical part – getting guys like Martin and Nigel from MIRA, it’s fantastic for us.”

Marcus nods. “A lot of times it’s former bike riders, you’re supposed to be a good sport director but you have no driving experience at all – you think you’re (just) driving thirty K’s an hour behind the peloton but sometimes it’s really crazy back there.”

“Marginal gains doesn’t stop with the riders, every member of staff has a responsibility to do their job better tomorrow than they did today,” says Dan emphatically. “That’s what marginal gains is about, doing things a little bit better, all of the time –for us today it’s about improving our driving skills, tomorrow it might be involve better tactical skills. For the riders it’s about fitness, about improving their race times. Marginal gains isn’t just equipment or an empty philosophy, it’s about getting better at what you do every day, trying to be the best in the world at what we do.”

This day, as with every other day, Team Sky just got that little bit better.

Memories of the Road: 1st week of 2013 – 1st organised Ride 2007

The Castle Ride 2007 – Action Medical Research: My very first cycling event and a journey into the unknown.
Here’s hoping to break the 6 hour barrier in 2013!

The Castle Ride was a brilliantly organised event and my thanks must go to Mike Trott and all the team at Action Medical Research for their very thorough and thoughtful planning and I must admit to approaching the event with great trepidation as I’d been rather ill over the previous weekend and had, as a result, missed almost a weeks training.

The Map shows the six castles en route. A simply wonderful 103 miles.

The Map shows the six castles en route. A simply wonderful 103 miles.

Having received advice ranging from ‘don’t ride when ill from Sue and John (runners extraordinaire),’ go for it, it’s not a race (typical PE teacher talk, Mr. Dainton!),’ and ‘you must be bloody mad! (my mum)’ I decided to indeed go for it and packed my bag with my poshest Lycra (10//2 if any fashionistas are reading, vintage 1995 – rather foolish of me in light of recent events!) and as many energy bars & gels as I could carry.

Team Barnes-Bulllen-Dey (sponsored by Gregg’s pies and the legendary Tour of Britain stage winner, London to Holyhead champion and bastion of all knowledge two-wheeled, Alan Perkins, who gave me some Jelly Belly beans – I assume no sarcasm was intended, Alan) left N E London thanks to domestique #1 Keith Bullen (Winner: Le Tour de Tesco, 1959, The Giro d’Pizza Express, 2007) who provided luxurious ‘white van’ transport (complete with school chair) for which I was very grateful. With domestique #2 David Barnes (Winner Le Grand Stag night and runner up in the classic ‘Paris-cafe in Paris’; who provided the stale whiff of fine wine and stale granite-esque brownies, along with a plethora of mumbled promises about a future embracing only temperance, study and more than four hours sleep, safely strapped into the passenger seat, we made our way through the emerging buildings of East London and onwards towards the more refined airs and graces of Tonbridge castle.

It was now 6 a.m on a Sunday morning and I was not impressed and just a little grumpy, although this silly emotion was loosing the battle with that of a growing sense of excitement!

Having arrived in Tonbridge and changing into our sexy Lycra in a car park, to the cheers – or should that be shocked-jeers – of many a morning shopper (in our defence… it was very cold!), Team Bulllen-Dey, with a green-hued David in tow, headed for the start line and event registration. Little did we anticipate what David would do today, despite his condition.

The level of organisation and the splendour of the medieval castle walls and grounds proved only to enhance the positive emotions of the morning. We were itching to get going and we didn’t have to hang around for long. What an amazingly

Castle 2007 start - ©Nick Dey

Castle 2007 start – ©Nick Dey

friendly bunch cyclists are and what a pleasure it was to finally meet the outstanding AMR staff face to face, busy as they were marshalling the troops.

What a magnificent setting from which to start a sportive.
About twenty five cyclists, from the gathered five hundred or so, set off in a group at around 7.30 a.m. Keith is in yellow, I’m looking down. The plan was to take it easy, to do a pleasant 25 km/h until we had warmed-up and had more of an idea what to expect. So much for the plan. We averaged over 40 km/h for the first eight kilometers!Psychologists, please comment here on the male ego! This was 8 a.m and not only was I bitter and twisted about being dragged from my bed, but now I was also unduly fatigued (a phrase my old PE teacher instilled in us when we actually meant… totally knackered!) We still had a daunting 95 miles to go!

The first hill …
A sharp right led us onto a seemingly endless incline that caught out a few, myself included. David had long since vanished into the distance (so much for the late night!), and Condor-Keith was battling to stay with the mighty ’06 Madone 5.5! Foolishly I decided to ‘have a go’ at the hill. Predictably I was found, a few kilometers later (having thought the hill was a few hundred meters long) slumped twitching over the Bontrager bars about 20 meters short of the summit! My entire body seemed to be bursting with lactic acid and I’m sure I could taste iron and blood. My lungs had long since vacated their cage and only photosynthesis kept me going!

The next 40 miles were not too pleasant as my body struggled to recover from the minds misplaced, and definitely unrealistic, enthusiasm – four months light training through the gentle, but beautiful & cafe laden lanes of Essex do not a Bradley Wiggins make! David, like the good domestique he is, was found waiting for his elders by a field full of gently swaying corn, basking in the sunshine of a glorious morn, sipping from his designer bidon – The swine (one hell of a rider though!) We cycled together for twenty-or-so miles in a peloton of ever changing dimensions and met and chatted to several cyclists about life, the charity, Le Tour and the road ahead. A pleasant morning it made for all concerned. Thanks for the draft to the chap from Sevenoaks (Dulwich CC?) whose wife went to the School I now teach at (Forest, small world) and whose advice probably got us, or at least me, through the event. He left me for dead up the hills though and I didn’t see him again. The route seemed to get better and better as the sun rose high. Some of the scenery was stunning and he roads seemed almost devoid of traffic. Bliss – if it wasn’t for the burning lungs and legs!

Campag Chaos …With each pedal stroke inducing spasms of pain and discomfort Keith and I were focused only on luncheon and Michelin-starred recuperation (OK, the food wasn’t that good. but it was close and never has plate of tuna pasta been more gratefully received). Unfortunately about 10 miles short of the fine Tavern whence luncheon was based; restorative pasta, banana’s and peace, KB’s Campag top of the range set up decided to trap his chain between hub and cassette. Interestingly my sexy shimano Dura-Ace 9700 was performing perfectly, as, of course, I expected it would! With the aid of a very kind motorcycle steward and protected by a deliberately parked, and thus cyclist friendly, ambulance we spent a good half an hour with the Italian beastie before we could resume. Thanks to the steward and to the Ambulance crew for their vital help. After about two miles it was decided that I ‘race’ ahead and meet David at the lunch stop. Keith assured me that he, and his beloved Condor/Campag would be OK. He was.

Until …

You don’t want to fall off here – not with everyone watching!David, who’d arrived about an hour earlier, and I were dining heartily when we saw a cloud of dust and heard the  clatter of bike, body and road, right in front of the gathered throngs of Castle riders. An ‘unnamed’ cyclist had taken a slapstick tumble whilst coming to a stop… Was that a Condor bike? Isn’t that the dreaded Campag? Who was this mysterious rider? Thankfully nothing more than pride was bruised and about twenty minutes later we resumed our adventure.

Unexpected fun …
The next fifty miles were a distinct pleasure. I’d be very grateful if anyone could explain why I only managed to average a painful 20-23 km/h for the first 50 miles and then an easy, pleasant even, 31 k/h for the next 50, despite the unfriendly undulations? I’m at a loss. I can only put it down to fuel, rest, a gentle stretch and a grupetto going at a pace I could cope with. David, once again, vanished into the distance (to his credit he always asked for permission – not that we would, indeed could, ever say no) and Keith and I decided it would be best to go at our own pace. it made for solitary bit-and-bit along some roads but it also made for a splendid afternoons cycling. Tagging along and playing hopscotch with small groups and individuals we were rarely passed and I  owe a debt of gratitude to the gentleman who urged me along for the final undulating 20 miles, without his support, dragging me up the climbs at a pace far greater than I would have managed alone, my average for the final 50 would surely have plummeted. I’m afraid I didn’t catch his name so if he’s reading this … I thank you Sir (you should become a teacher – inspiring stuff.) A big thanks to Helen and Oly from AMR, whom I met at an isolated feed station and whose encouragement was far more important than all the sweets on offer, and also to all the folk who gave up their time to run the event. Special thanks go to the Halford’s mechanics for a free tune up. How wonderful it was to collect our first ever endurance medals and to avail ourselves of the free sports massage in the grounds of Tonbridge Castle.
What a way to end a glorious day.

Castle Route

Castle Route

This image is courtesy of Keith Bullen and his funky Garmin-Memory Map duo. It is the actual route Keith followed – we did a slightly shorter one as we didn’t get lost – did you enjoy the extra hill KB!!!

If Garmin or Memory-Map are reading this then sponsorship would make my life a little more fun, I’ll even add your logo and link!!! Cheers Keith.

Should anyone ever read this then I most heartily recommend the Castle Ride for a superb days cycling.
Can’t wait until next year.

UPDATE…
It is the one event I miss most now I spend most of the year in Deutschland.

The Castle Ride 100 today:

SALE 20% off entry fee for limited period. Use voucher code SALE! Offer ends January.
One of the most popular bike rides in the South East, the Castle Ride 100 attracts 1,000 riders on this must do event. The North Downs offer up some big climbs including the mile long climb of Hollingbourne Hill along the way. Quiet lanes make the route through England’s garden a real joy to ride even though this is a tough one.
With a choice of 100km or a tougher 100-mile route, you’ll have a great day in the saddle with the Action Medical Research team. Whether you are an experienced rider aiming to get a fast time or a rider aiming to make a day of it and take in the sights, this ride is for you.
Expect excellent feed stations manned by friendly volunteers and a buffet style lunch mid-way through the ride that you will find hard to tear yourself away from! Riders will be supported by first class medical support, mechanical services and a sweep vehicle.
Many riders have experienced a RIDE 100 event, and thoroughly enjoyed the social atmosphere and return to enjoy the unique experience that we offer. Make 2013 the year that you take part in a RIDE 100 sportive! You won’t be disappointed.
Still not convinced? Perhaps knight of the realm can encourage you to register?

Dave Brailsford Castle
www.action.org.uk/castle_ride_100/routes

If you’ve enjoyed this post and have a few pennies to spare please would you consider sponsoring me for my 2013 fundraising for Action Medical Research.
www.action.org.uk/sponsor/nkdey
 
It WILL make a difference.

 

 

 

 

X