A couple of days ago, there was a great interview with Team Sky boss David Brailsford, done by the sports editor for The Times, Matt Dickinson (which you can read here). It was probably more interesting to me than your average reader, because it starts with Brailsford talking about my book:
It made me think, ‘blimey, this is why I got into cycling, why I fell in love with it in the first place […] It’s not just the winning but the struggle, the ambition, the subplots, the suffering of it – a gallant suffering, heroic. Sometimes the most heroic guy ended up third.
But, as Brailsford continues, “then you find yourself in a pro team and you’ve got to win.”
I’ve often wondered what someone like Brailsford might make of 21 Nights. We come at the sport from entirely different directions, so it was oddly comforting to think he sees something similar.
Indeed, he directly addresses what I consider the paradox at the heart of the sport; what Dickinson labels the dichotomy of “romance against efficiency, passion versus science.” The critique of Sky has always been that they reduce cycling to a calculation, until (as Brailsford puts it) “it looks like a machine, automatic, less human.”
It’s the same critique Laurent Fignon made of the 1989 Tour:
The craftsmen were defeated by mass-production. Handmade goods were overwhelmed by factory made stuff. The people’s heroes were strangled and the glory of the Giants of the Road trickled away.
I think Fignon’s description makes it clear the frustration is greater than Froome and, indeed, cycling. There’s something else motivating those fans hurling urine, punches and spit; some legacy of what sport is meant to embody, and what many people felt Armstrong tarnished.
Brailsford addresses it when he reminisces about the key moment of the 2015 Tour; Quintana’s attack on Alpe d’Huez:
People have this idea that we crushed everyone but it didn’t feel like that for any of us standing on Alpe d’Huez. Losing felt very close… People think we are obsessed with data but it’s human endeavour. You can never replace the sensation, the feel. We put a lot of hard work into planning but we can’t get everything right.
The image of Froome chasing after Quintana reminded me far less of Armstrong than of another great cyclist who was accused of being too scientific; Jacques Anquetil, who once lamented, “They call me a calculator, a strategist, even if a miscalculation has just made me lose.”
When Anquetil began his career, all of those traits had been virtues. At that point, cycling coverage relied on newspapers, and dominating the peloton produced tensions and intrigues that came out well in text. But Anquetil, like Froome, had the misfortune of riding in the age of television. Dickinson describes their mutual fault; hours of footage of “black jerseys gathered at the front, controlling the race, killing the spectacle.”
Anquetil’s reputation improved after his near loss to perennial runner up Raymond Poulidor on the Puy de Dôme. Anquetil had let his rival slip away but, in doing so, reserved just enough time and energy to win overall. It was a loss that stripped back the façade of the smooth machine to reveal the focus and persistence underpinning those seemingly effortless victories. It’ll be interesting to see if the same thing happens with Froome.
As for Brailsford, I’m both flattered and glad he enjoyed my book. I remember watching him in John Dower’s documentary A Year In Yellow, on the Wiggins victory.
Initially, he seemed much like the stereotype, coldly assessing Wiggins’ training data. Then he tells Dower about his hatred of clutter, before dropping into a lament that “I’m not close to anybody… I don’t have many friends.” The film then cuts to Shane Sutton’s comically Spartan flat above a bike store.
I remember watching those scenes and thinking, “They’re not winning because of something superhuman. They’re winning because they’re utterly obsessed.” It strikes at that dichotomy Dickinson recognises; your work might rely on science and efficiency, but to care that much about it is a rare and beautiful thing unto itself, even if it isn’t always obvious.