Cycling in Britain: Brailsford’s Dilemma

Monday, 17th December 2012 at 23:51 UTC Leave a comment

Dave Brailsford has had a pretty incredible year. As performance director of British Cycling and general manager of Team Sky, his results are second to none – Britain dominated across cycling’s disciplines at the Olympics and a select few of our riders made a huge impact on the road. But for several months I’ve been wondering if Brailsford, despite his qualification to do either role, isn’t holding two irreconcilable roles.

I need to be clear on what I’m writing about here. Much as I love cycling, in reality I know far more about politics and political operations. I can’t comment on Brailsford’s coaching other than to say ‘wow’. His management style, whilst naive in a couple of specific cases, has delivered wherever and whenever its been called upon. Essentially, this is a discussion of governance – a topic that many see as entirely boring, and yet is foundational to any organisation’s successes.

Every sport is unique, so parallels don’t always stand up to close inspection, but Brailsford’s two jobs can be equated to managing a Premiership football team with European ambition whilst running the FA. This might be compounded by having the FA and said Premiership side sponsored by the same company. Sky sponsor all sorts of grassroots cycling plus the big-money WorldTour team that many see as representing Britain, despite having just 9 British riders on its 2012 roster of 30. Next year, British riders will be present in 6 of the 18 WorldTour teams. Outside Sky, only Cavendish’s exploits will be noticed.

Cavendish himself represents one of the biggest pitfalls of the close links between Sky and Cycling in Britain – a victim of a team structure with a completely different set of targets to his own, he essentially led the B team round the less arduous one-day races earlier this year, his Tour de France haul almost halved by Sky’s overwhelming focus on Wiggins and ‘Yellow’. Cav is a patriot to the last, and his determination to make things work out at Sky shows, in part, his desire to appear to be on ‘Team Britain’ no matter the cost. It didn’t really work.

But that is only the most visible of a number of issues. With Britain’s four best women road racers out of contract, everyone looked to Brailsford to get a team established for them. Even Wiggins, who threw money from his charitable foundation on the table, couldn’t get Brailsford to move. Sky are one of a few sponsors who are just too big for the current, lamentable, state of women’s professional road cycling.

Instead, it took Rochelle Gilmour, an Australian rider with management prowess to step forwards. Was finding a sponsor for the project difficult? Apparently not that difficult – online bike store Wiggle have just joined Honda to sponsor what, before a kilometre has been raced, is next season’s biggest women’s team in the world by a far. One possible explanation for the lack of support for a women’s top flight team is the obvious risk of diluting the Sky = Britain messaging. NB: Wiggle Honda = Britain if its a women’s race. Also, women’s races exist.

Its worth noting something of the dynamics of what is going on. A very small number of exceptionally talented riders are being given everything they need to be the best in the world. But the numbers are tiny – and oddly top heavy. For the 2012 road season, 9 GBR/Sky riders were joined by 5 non-Sky GBR riders in the world tour, but virtually no GBR riders appeared in the next tier – Pro-Continental. And despite a plethora of imports riding amongst our Continental (3rd tier) teams, almost no GBR rider went to a foreign Continental. Our great nemesis on the Track, Australia, have dozens of riders in teams all over the world.

The bosses of the teams don’t exactly get a brilliant deal, either. One has had to watch his team merge with a German team just to keep going. The new team will almost certainly clash with Sky in some big races next year. Another major player gets almost no recognition whilst his big success stories are assumed to be Brailsford’s. And that’s not even the women’s teams.

Move to races and the problem is stark. The overseas successes aside, the situation is dire. Our National Championships aren’t registered with the sport’s world governing body, the UCI. We only hosted 3 UCI-recognised men’s races this year, plus a fairly anaemic looking calendar of domestic races. A growing number of largely unsponsored amateur races exist, but next year, domestic-level professional road races will number just 6. And the one UCI-registered 2nd tier race, to which Sky are ineligible, but which has drawn crowds year-in-year-out looks set to fold.

Sky and British Cycling are far too close, and everyone between the amateur grassroots and the Team Sky ceiling are being left hanging in thin air. The national federation, instead of trying to stimulate the environment in which teams, riders and races can flourish – read, find sponsorship – is protecting its core sponsor instead.

Brailsford isn’t the only one trapped in the dilemma, but he has perhaps the toughest decision to make. He and others around him need to take a long hard look at the conflicts that exist between their jobs, as well as the synergies. Then Sky can get on with being the best in the world, and British Cycling can get on with supporting the full range of British involvement in sport. Both need to flourish to sustain Britain’s position as the new kings of cycling.

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Entry filed under: Britain, Cycling.

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