The Team Sky and British Cycling head coach reveals the secrets to Sky’s dominance, how Bradley Wiggins can improve and why it is possible to win green and yellow
I’m looking ahead to next year, trying to make Brad better. That’s what a coach does
Cyclist: What’s your philosophy as a coach?
Shane Sutton: Let me show you something. [Sutton pulls out his phone and opens up a text he sent to Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford. It contains a detailed plan to improve Bradley Wiggins’ ‘tolerance’ to repel attacks from ‘AC’ (Alberto Contador) and ‘AS’ (Andy Schleck) next year.] Bradley’s threshold work is amazing but he needs that (lactic) tolerance to be able to jump speeds quickly to combat these guys next year. I’m already looking ahead to next year, trying to make Brad better. That’s what a coach does.
Cyc: How much does Team Sky rely on number-crunching?
SS: We look at all the data and monitor heart rates, power, cadence – the lot. I remember chatting to Brad in Morzine and I said, ‘We need to get you training at altitude because every time you get above 1,800m, you capitulate. You can’t sustain in the red zone at altitude.’ Nobody had actually looked at the demands of the Tour. You need data to do that. So we started altitude training in Tenerife. Now we’re looking at tolerance. Bradley’s a bit of an orange – we’ve been squeezing him and squeezing him, but there’s not a lot left to squeeze. We want to get Bradley even better over the next six months to win another Grand Tour in France, Italy or Spain.
Cyc: Wiggins describes you as his ‘father figure’. Were you emotional when he won the Tour?
SS: I didn’t want to go to the Champs-Élysées because I was worried about what was going on in Newport with the track team before the Olympics, but the boys told me to go. Brad put on a private flight for me, Cath and his family and we flew out from Liverpool, we had dinner and it was fantastic. I love him to bits and nobody can ever take away what he has achieved.
Cyc: How important was it that Wiggins raced to win at Paris-Nice, Romandie and the Dauphiné before the Tour?
SS: I’m glad you hit on that. After 2011, we realised we had the potential to win the Tour, but we had to understand what it takes to carry the jersey. So in 2012 we raced to win. It meant we learned to get the jersey, hold onto it and lead the race. It’s easy for people to say, ‘Froome would have done this,’ or, ‘So and so might do this,’ but when you have the jersey, you’re taken off, shoved on a podium and put in front of the media and it’s two and a half hours before you get to the hotel. When you’re in second or third place, you’re on the bus, having a shower, eating rice and tuna, lying back watching a movie and getting your legs rubbed. Make no mistake: having that jersey makes a huge difference. Spending two and a half hours doing bullshit is just one of the demands of the race.
Cyc: What qualities do you look for in a rider?
SS: It’s ultimately about trying to keep all the foreign cultures together to pull one big juggernaut. So there are two things we always look at in a rider. First of all: can you play the role? Can you ride at the front for 8km of the 10km up Alpe d’Huez? But of course you spend more time together off the bike than on it so we also ask: do you fit the model? If you don’t fit the model, there’s no point being on the bus because we are a family.
Cyc: Do you have to respect different personalities?
SS: A good coach should have good interpersonal skills. Brad wants you to say, ‘Cut the crap, you’re doing it and that’s the end of it.’ You have to be hard because that’s what he needs, but it’s not easy because he’s a nice kid. Mark (Cavendish) is also a nice kid but a totally different character. Cav is very lippy, but what Cav needs is an arm around the shoulder.
Cyc: How do rival teams react to Team Sky now?
SS: OK, you’ve got to look at pro cycling like Formula 1. If McLaren are dominating, Red Bull will look at what they’re doing and think: what can we take to our team or car to make it better? We know other teams are looking at Sky. A lot of people laughed at us when in 2010 we got a good kicking. But we were learning. Now they’re not laughing. They’re asking questions. They want to join us. Look at Richie Porte. We bought him and can make him into a potential Tour winner over the next four years. We’ve tried to change the face of cycling and we’ve done a damned good job of it.
Cyc: With Cav leaving Sky, does that mean you think it’s not possible for a team to win green and yellow at the Tour?
SS: I honestly believe you can win both jerseys. People will not agree with me but it is do-able with the right people to pull the cart. What do you need? You need two good guys in the mountains with you, you time trial by yourself, you need a pack to ride all day and someone to finish it off. So yes, it’s do-able. Cavendish is the greatest sprinter of all time and he will become the greatest stage winner in history because he has a gift. Give him a hole and he’ll go through it and leave everyone for dead. Mark does not need a lead-out, what he needs is a couple of people to get him there and he will do the rest.
Cyc: Which British riders are future Tour contenders?
SS: Peter Kennaugh is for me a potential Tour winner and so is Geraint Thomas, but I think he wants to stay on the track for now. Pete would have to work on his TT, but ‘G’ has got it all: he can climb, time trial, last the distance…he needs to start the journey now. Brad is 32 and he just won the Tour. ‘G’ is 25. He should focus now. And then there’s the new kid on the block: Josh Edmondson. You saw him ride for Great Britain at the Tour of Britain. Brad won’t be the last, I’m sure of it.
Team: Team Sky/ British Cycling