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.

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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.

Douze heures de Brizzel

Bristol Bikefest Image by © Neil AKA FireMonkey (www.iseepeople.co.uk) AKA digphotoneil (flickr)

I’ve been on the periphery of groups of people doing endurance mountain bike racing for a few years now, always on the outside looking in. But I finally got the chance to pop my endurance cherry at the Bristol Bikefest in June as part of a 4 man team going for 12 hour glory. Quite apart from being the event that meant I HAD to buy a new MTB, it was an unbelievable weekend in many ways. Some of them have no words in English adequate to describe them.

Straight off the bat, things were not looking good. Stuck in work at Banbury until six on the Friday evening, Luke, Jon and Steve had long been on site before I could even set off, they had first hand experience of the shocking weather conditions that I didn’t want to know about. Rocking up at eight after McDonalds (race fuel is important, right?) and a long drive, Ashton Court was blustery and wet. The rain had largely stopped, but the ground was wet enough that the toilets had had to be left in a separate field and duck planks laid down to give vehicles a chance to make it into the camping field. I wouldn’t say morale was rock-bottom, but neither was it at it’s adrenaline-filled peak, either. What with hydration being as important as race fuel, I’d optimistically brought a rake load of Kronenbourg, but no-one was in the mood for much more than an early night and good sleep.

The early night bit went off as planned, but the sleeping bit wasn’t great, with gales giving the tents some gyp. With the race kicking off at nine, we were all up and about by half seven, popping to the Luff Bus for bacon rolls and a hot drink – as preparation goes, it wasn’t ideal, but the others had at least had a wander down the day before and seen a few lengths of trail. Preparation, after all, is about more than just hydration and fuel.

After scientifically formulating our riding order (by going “who wants to go first? Who wants to go second?” etc) , Luke was the man to step forward for the important first stint. Following the rider’s briefing, a horde of riders meandered over the horizon to await the nine o’clock start time out of our sight, and when the clock finally struck nine, an endless stream of two-wheeled lunatics came pouring past us after the Le Mans-esque run to the bikes and mad sprint up the hill that starts the event. For the most part, the riders that flooded past were composed and happy-looking – some of them, however, looked pretty gassed straight off the bat. Hard not to get carried away at the start of a race like this, I guess, but the last thing you need is to be knackered 30 seconds after the flag drops on a 12 hour race.

It was, I found, easy to be a smart-arse before I actually took to the track. Scientifically placed at random in the number three slot, I started my stint in glory by not being in the transition area when speedy Steve turned up for the changeover. That hiccup overcome, I rolled out onto the track for the first time, down the hill through the pits, then dived into the woods for some blisteringly fast, flowing single track. And guess what – about 30 seconds in, I was gassed.

It was incredible. I’ve not been to a modern mountain bike facility on a modern mountain bike since, ooo, forever, so finding myself on pristine manmade single track under race conditions was astonishing, a really liberating experience. I flung myself (in relative terms) down the track as fast as I dared, carving arcs through a beautiful green cathedral of trees for a minute or two before a nagging doubt began to creep into the back of my mind – had I missed a turn somewhere? There was nowhere that I’d had any moments of doubt about which way to go, but even looking on the brightest of bright sides, it was unlikely that I was on the pace of the fast folk, nor was it likely that said pace was the same as the folk at the back of the field. Nevertheless, I swear I must have battled through the woods for fully ten minutes in solitude, doubt growing with every turn of the wheel, but the path was so cool, I was loathed to turn back. As I made my way downhill however, eventually I heard the sound of freewheels and chain slap slowly growing behind me. If I was lost, at least it wasn’t just me – cool.

Bristol Bikefest Image by © Neil AKA FireMonkey (www.iseepeople.co.uk) AKA digphotoneil (flickr)

Of course, I wasn’t lost, I must have just popped out into an unusually large gap, because most of the rest of my day aboard the bike was spent looking for places to get out of the way of faster traffic. Almost without exception, from the first to the last, they were all achingly polite, asking if they could come by and thanking me when I found enough trail to move to one side, which not only blew a personal pre-race misconception out of the water but cemented the point by proving what nice folk mountain bikers are. If ever you’ve wanted to do a race but have been put off by the fear of being out off your depth, fear no more – based on my Bristol experience, as long as you make an effort not to hold people up, they’ll all be nice to you on the way by.

So I cracked on, and I took it steady, knowing there was a long way to go – not taking it easy, running at about 90% instead of flat out, The track had moments of awesomeness, many great lengths of swoopy sweepy singletrack, most of it wide enough to allow faster traffic through, although there was the odd painful climb – a particular standout was the fast downhill hairpin section, very Alpine, that led into a quick righthander before climbing up… And up and up, through a horrible rising righthand hairpin, all wet roots, then a long rocky stretch, nice and damp, horrible and bobbley so you could never relax. It was nasty, and it wasn’t the only bit of track that hurt, but beyond any shadow of a doubt, the bits that stung were nothing compared to the good bits. This track rocks.

I completed lap one with a smidge in reserve, but decided lap two was party time. I went out and gave it everything, from the first turn of the pedal all the way through to the desperate, breathless crossing of the line. Depressingly, it made almost no difference whatsoever, the scant seconds I saved as likely to be down to knowing the course as to the extra effort expended, but it meant that, by the end of the lap, I was almost done. Stint three was an exercise in survival, treading the line between cracking on as fast as I could and keeping a little something in reserve for a final lap four, but by then an eerie spectre had arisen, that we might just – JUST – be able to sneak an extra lap in for one of us. It was a most curious feeling – if Natalie Imbruglia thinks she knows something about being torn, I can tell her she can think again. The extra lap might make a difference in our overall position, but we were all as close to having given our all as to make the prospect of an extra lap, even on this brilliant track, a truly scary prospect.

I put myself forward for the fifth lap then hit the track, running stint four as quick as I could muster, knowing I had Jonno to follow and, if the clock smiled on us, that meant about 35 minute’s rest and the dread lap would be on me. Making the changeover to Jon as swiftly as possible, I trembled out of the changeover area on wobbly legs to check the clock – Luke and Steve were on the job, and the news was… We were JUST out of time to do another lap. Gutted. Relieved, but at the same time, gutted.

The level of competition was an eye-opener (NTG MTB finished 88th out of 95, beaten even by the appropriately-monikered Team Inappropriate Bike, who really were on some shocking equipment), but the atmosphere was cracking, the event well run and everyone was just so friendly. But it was the track that was the star for me – first time out on my first mountain bike in 16 years, I had an absolute blast, even if the hurt lasted a long time. Roll on Oktoberest and the 8 hour endurance event at the same place – see you there…

For more information on both the summer Bikefest and forthcoming Oktoberfest, visit www.bike-fest.com

 

 

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