On October 25th, Tao Geoghegan Hart surprisingly won a Giro d'Italia marked by the COVID-19 emergency. Another triumph for the Team INEOS (formerly Team Sky) and the British movement, which has been on top of cycling for some years now, although it did not represent one of the "historical" engines of this sport.
Britain is not a new entry in top-notch cycling. Those who follow this sport remember the brutality of Mont Ventoux and the dramatic end of Tommy Simpson, who left his mark at Sanremo, Tour of Flanders and the World Championships before losing his life on the roads of Provence.
THE '90s: THE 'TRACK' PROJECT
After Simpson, no other standout champions appeared until the 1990s. Sure, a few good riders like Robert Millar, who came close to winning the Giro and Vuelta, deserve mention. Nevertheless, the decisive change of pace of British cycling happened at the end of the 1990s with the great time trial specialist and track superstar Chris Boardman and the program by the then technical director of the British National Team, Peter Keen.
Investment, planning, and a government fund, UK Sport, primarily financed by the national lottery: these were the pillars of British Cycling's renaissance in the new millennium. The fund's operating mechanism was quite simple: if you win, you earn. If you don't get results, you are broke.
For this reason, the British Cycling Federation decided to focus initially only and exclusively on the track activity. After all, the early 2000s were not ideal for investing in road cycling, overwhelmed by constant doping investigations. On the contrary, the track sector gave more significant guarantees of reaching a level of excellence within a few seasons with the opportunity to win more Olympic medals.
THE EARLY 2000s: THE LONDON GRAND DEPART AND THE NEW SKY ERA PIONEERED BY WIGGINS AND BRAILSFORD
Olympics after Olympics, World Championships after World Championships, Great Britain became the hegemonic nation in track cycling, thanks to champions such as Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins. Shortly after 2005, the British Cycling ranks started to eye the next step out of the track cycling niche. Bradley Wiggins could also win on the road, and with David Brailsford, a road-focused new reference in the Federation, the new era of the British cycling was ready to begin.
This golden age has netted a total of 46 Olympic medals (from Sydney 2000 onwards), including 25 gold medals, 61 World titles on the track and 12 on the road over 20 years.
July 7th, 2007 is a date to remember in the history of cycling in Great Britain. London goes yellow, staging the Tour de France Grand Depart, with thousands of people crowded on the roads. A triumph of passion, whose inertia was seized by Brailsford, prepared to bring to the road the scientific and advanced program applied to the track specialists and the federal academy's rigid recruitment system.
Two years later, in 2009, the one missing piece finally came into place: the birth of a new British cycling team. Sky set up the highest budget for a road team, the Sky Pro Cycling Team, with David Brailsford as General Manager.
No public money was involved this time, but the focus remained consistent: investing in studies and facilities to improve individual and team performance. When Brailsford presented his team's idea, he wasn't looking for cycling stars or athletes without room for improvement, but for professionals to work with the athletes.
The human body's performance can always be improved, and to excel, it is essential to consolidate the so-called 'marginal gains,' growing in every aspect of performance. For this reason, Brailsford recruited the best on an international scale, from biomechanical engineers, trainers, masseurs, nutritionists, dentists and mechanics.
This change of pace also revolutionized budget management, compared to the World Tour standard at the time. Team Sky immediately abandoned the 90/10 logic (90% of the budget to recruit riders and 10% for the technical staff) to go for a 70/20/10 split (70% athletes, 20% staff, 10% research). This led to the introduction of figures such as Tim Kerrison, a performance manager with a mathematical approach and experience with 'big data,' Fran Millar, 'head of winning behaviours' and nutrition professionals. Sky also fostered the introduction of the 'kitchen truck' or innovative facilities such as Richie Porte's famous motorhome, used at the 2015 Giro d'Italia.
In particular, Kerrison's work relied on the mathematical-scientific analysis of the individual athlete. Parameters like heart rate, aerobic and anaerobic threshold, oxygen consumption and power can give a very clear idea of the rider's potential and, therefore, which kind of work should be done to make individual improvements.
But the individual is not everything in cycling. In any team pattern, it is necessary to generate the so-called 'winning culture.' In this regard, Fran Miller has involved the entire Sky organization, from leaders to bus drivers, making it clear how certain behaviours, even those less involved in competitions, can positively or negatively influence team performance. After all, living and working in a positive environment is the secret of any organization.
THE 2010s: THE CHRIS FROOME DECADE
While Bradley Wiggins inaugurated Team Sky's domination at the Tour de France in 2012, a few years earlier, Mark Cavendish had already made the headlines by carving out a top spot among the sprinters.
The rider from the Isle of Man made the history of sprints, winning 15 stages at the Giro d'Italia, 30 at the Tour de France, the 2009 Milan-Sanremo and the World Championships in Copenhagen (2011), in addition to 3 World titles in the Madison and the Olympic silver at the Rio 2016 OG in the Omnium.
In the following Tour de France editions, Wiggins passed the baton to Chris Froome, winner in 2013 and from 2015 to 2017, Geraint Thomas, also Olympic Track Champion before embarking on a career as a road racer, first in 2018, and the first Colombian winner at the 'Grande Boucle,' Egan Bernal in 2019.
In addition to the Tour de France's triumphs, Froome conquered memorable overall wins in 2017 Vuelta a Espana and 2018 Giro d'Italia, where the Brit managed a vintage feat on the Colle delle Finestre.
In 2018, after Froome's Giro d'Italia, Thomas dominated the Tour de France and Simon Yates - another product of the British track along with his twin Adam - won the Vuelta a Espana in a Mitchelton jersey. The Grand Tours sweep represented the highest point in the history of British cycling so far.
TAO'S GIRO AND THE NEW INEOS DIRECTION
Today, Chris Froome's star looks less shining than in the past, but British cycling is continuing to churn out talents. Tao Geoghegan Hart, who climbed the team hierarchy at the 2020 Giro d'Italia after Thomas' withdrawal to claim an unexpected Corsa Rosa success, was the latest to emerge.
There has been a succession of interpreters, but the Brailsford dream team has not changed its profile. Analyzing every aspect and every component that can make a difference as never before in cycling, has been their way to go.
Sometimes accused of producing an unexciting show, the Brailsford's team proved capable of giving emotions while keeping tabs with the game plan.
But there's more: in a recent interview on Cyclingnews, Brailsford even suggested leaning toward a new racing philosophy, more aggressive and spectacular, influenced and supported by INEOS President Jim Ratcliffe.
MARGINAL GAINS IN POWER: FIGURES DON'T LIE
After all, whatever the approach to the competition, nothing is being invented in modern sport. Marginal gains represent the difference between a victory and a placement. And it is precisely on the bare, raw figures that consistency at the highest levels of a movement is based. Fittingly, the British Cycling Federation has grown from 14,000 to over 100,000 members in twenty years.
In addition to the new pink jersey Tao Geoghegan Hart, there is more coming up: the talented Tom Pidcock, a cyclo-cross super-talent who emerged to dominate the Giro d'Italia U23. Not to mention Hugh Carthy, already 26 of age but on the launch pad at 2020 Vuelta a Espana, or youngsters Ethan Hayter, Jake Stewart or Mark Donovan. Next up? Bets accepted.