Although few beyond the cycling world know his name, Australian coach Tim Kerrison has been key to the success of Team Sky
Mention the name Tim Kerrison in cycling circles and many will still pause to try and recall exactly who he is. With a little prompting, however, they’ll soon realise that he’s the relatively silent face behind the British Tean Sky, whose successes have included wins in the last two Tours de France.
The Australian’s golden touch as a coach, however, starts earlier – much earlier than 2009, which was the year he turned down a coaching offer from the English Cricket Board to join team principal David Brailsford at Team Sky.
In fact, you need to look back at the early 2000s and another sport entirely: rowing. Hailing from Brisbane, Kerrison first made his mark as a coach at Toowong Rowing Club, in a sport he competed in before realising that his future lay not in becoming a champion but nurturing champions.
Names like Marguerite Houston, George Jelbart, Michael McBryde, Deon Birtwistle and Steve Kuzma may not ring bells to most; certainly not like the names of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, whom Kerrison steered to their respective 2012 and 2013 Tour wins, or 29-year-old Tasmanian Richie Porte, whom he hopes will be added to Team Sky’s list of Grand Tour winners after this year’s Giro d’Italia.
But for those aforementioned names – and those in the rowing know – Kerrison was as influential as any. All of them medalled at the 2002 Nations Cup (the unofficial U23 world titles) at Genoa, Italy. Back then, Kerrison was a sports scientist at the Queensland Academy of Sport (QAS) and coached Houston, who went on to win a bronze in the U23 lightweight women’s
double scull with Megan Campbell. At the same titles, he coached the men’s U23 lightweight quad scull of Jelbart, McBryde, Birtwistle and Kuzma to gold glory.
After a desired rowing coaching opportunity at the Australian Institute of Sport that fell through, Kerrison focused his talents on developing sprint swimmers at the QAS, including a then-young Jody Henry, who went on to win three
gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. That led to his recruitment by British swimming, with whom he worked until after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and where Brailsford – an out-of-the-box thinker – first sounded him out for an entry into cycling.
Sky’s the limit
The rest, as they say, is history – or will be, if you talk to those currently under Kerrison’s wing. The Queenslander is a quiet, reserved individual; he prefers a relatively low profile within the goldfish bowl that is life on a WorldTour team as large and successful as Sky.
Kerrison started at Sky in time for its 2010 racing debut, and much of his first season was spent learning about cycling, from its demands to its tactics. It took until 2012 for his training methods to be recognised outside of the team, with Wiggins’s Tour win and a string of wins in all his main lead-up races. But there were signs of his impact the year before, in 2011.
With Sky openly focusing its season on the Tour, Wiggins crashed out of the 2011 race won by Cadel Evans when many believed he was in the form of his career. He recovered and rallied to finish third overall in the Vuelta a Espana, but it wasn’t until Wiggins finally won the Tour that the doubters were proven wrong.
‘Every time we go and win a race the questions are asked: Have we peaked too soon? Can we sustain it through July? Can it transfer through to a three-week race?,’ I recall Kerrison telling me after the 2012 race. ‘They are all valid questions, but we know what we are doing and we are training for a three-week race in July. Our training has been 100 per cent based around the Tour de France.’
Kerrison is a big believer in squad training and incorporating race simulation in sessions. He has been a driving force behind organising the core of Sky’s Tour team to not only race together, but also train together as much as they could – often at the high altitude of Tenerife, Spain. His conditioning is aimed at getting riders to adapt to riding at race pace – or beyond – in training, and then being able to back down to a recovery pace that other riders, or teams, will still have a difficult time following.
When working with Wiggins, Kerrison says he often cites the methodology of former distance swimmer Grant Hackett (whom he did not coach) in 1500m events. ‘He would go out real fast for the first 200 because he was a great 200m swimmer and he was then able to back off to a pace no one else could swim at,’ Kerrison says. ‘We want to ride on a mountain at a very high pace after responding to an attack.’
Making his mark
Fast forward to today and Kerrison is no longer the anonymous Aussie face in the British camp. From once being an unknown and then merely a curiosity, Kerrison – along with the rest of Team Sky – suddenly found himself confronted with suspicion about his training methods.
While the scrutiny was stressful, Kerrison says he understood the doubts considering the aftermath of so many doping controversies elsewhere in the sport. ‘The public has a right to be sceptical when they see fantastic performances that some believe are too good to be true,’ says Kerrison. ‘One of our goals is to continue to be build trust. We have no secrets.
‘We might have been criticised, [but] we’ve had credible journalists embedded with the team and [they] came back with positive reports. We’ll need to be patient … [But] none of us like to have our integrity questioned.We have been open and transparent with journalists – even to the point where we give away some of our trade secrets. We want to be open and transparent for the good of the sport.
‘This sport is entering a new era. There are a lot of teams who are looking to us and looking at the way we do things, making sure we’re not missing a trick. We can be proud that teams are looking to us. We’re leading the sport forward. For me, it’s part of the satisfaction we get.’
But there’s also the matter of winning bike races and continuing the succession of champions, especially in the Tour. Kerrison admits he was surprised that Sky won with a British rider inside the original and ambitious five-year time frame Brailsford gave when the team began. ‘I didn’t really know what to expect,’ Kerrison says when asked what he thought of Brailsford’s ambition. ‘I didn’t know a lot about the sport. I spent the first year learning. I picked apart what we’d done, the talent, and what it meant to win the Tour.
‘I wondered if it was a realistic goal to win with a British rider – someone [with] the key qualities to climb and to handle heat and altitude. Britain doesn’t have mountains, heat, altitude – [it’s tough] for someone in that environment to develop into a Tour rider. We gave it our best shot, spent a lot of time in those environments – Tenerife, for example. We sort of chipped away, one area at a time, ticking off boxes as well.’
Kerrison reckons Sky is lucky to have Wiggins and Froome. ‘There are plenty of talented riders out there,’ he says. ‘It will get tougher for us the next couple of years when there are other teams and riders watching the way we do things. We’re not going to have it our way too much longer.’
But Kerrison believes the best is still to come from Froome. ‘With Brad, winning the Tour was the culmination for the [years spent on the] track and road,’ he says. ‘For Chris, it was the start of a successful Grand Tour career – winning multiple Tours. He’s right on top of things.
‘He’s seen first-hand how difficult it was in the early stages of his development. Looking back at his progression, Chris’s actual raw numbers haven’t improved. What’s improved [is his ability] to deliver that in real race situations.
‘A few people saw a few things and questioned the tactics. There are a few little rough edges we can smooth out over the next couple of years so he uses his talents more efficiently.’
But Kerrison thinks Froome’s calm demeanour will help him. ‘He’s a pretty patient guy,’ he says. ‘He did have to wait his turn in a way – through the Vuelta in 2011, the Tour in 2012. We stand by the decisions we made in those races. People question if it was right, but Froomey did his job exceptionally well in those races. He served his apprenticeship. He learned a lot. He deserved it.’
Porte of call
On that note, Kerrison reminds us that Sky’s succession plan for Grand Tour riders is in full swing, and that Porte is next in line with his Giro team leadership.
It’s quite rare to have the defending Tour champion not go into the Tour as leader of his team, but that’s exactly what happened in 2013 as Wiggins took a backseat to Froome. It’s all part of Team Sky’s long-term plan. ‘One of the challenges is managing the wealth of talent we have,’ Kerrison says. ‘Then we have Richie, Pete Kennaugh, Geraint [Thomas] and other young guys. We’re getting more systematic about how we recruit. I like to develop from within rather than buy talent.’
Porte, who has ridden for Team Sky since 2012, has been touted as a potential Grand Tour contender since his rookie year in 2010 when he rode for the then Saxo Bank team and placed seventh in the Giro, wore the leader’s pink jersey for three days and won the best young rider’s white jersey. ‘We have super-talented guys coming through and Richie is the next of our general classification guys,’ Kerrison says. ‘I remember the first meeting I had with Richie in 2011, sitting down with him in a meeting room in Milan. I said, “I genuinely believe that you have the potential to win the Tour.”
‘At his best, he can climb as well as anyone. At his best, he can time trial as well as any of the GC guys. And as a young rider in his first Grand Tour, he showed great consistency. Those are the three key things to win the Tour.’
But first things first, and for Porte that means trying his hand at leading Team Sky at the Giro, a race that Kerrison – as a trainer – is yet to crack. Sky’s campaign to steer Wiggins in last year’s Giro failed, even though Colombian Rigoberto Urán– then riding with Sky – placed second overall after Wiggins withdrew with illness and a knee injury.
It now appears Wiggins’s failure was also due to his own motivation and state of mind. Indeed, Kerrison admits that the Giro is a different challenge for a coach. ‘You start preparing earlier. You cannot “recon” because of snow. It seems a lot less predictable than the Tour. You don’t quite know what the level of competition is going to be. It’s a more complicated race.’
Kerrison also says that Porte is in a different situation to that which Wiggins faced after his 2012 success, which included a Tour win, an Olympic gold medal in the time trial and even a knighthood. ‘The year after winning a Tour is bloody hard; [it was] with Cadel after 2011 and Wiggo,’ Kerrison says. ‘It changes your life. Brad not only won the Tour, but won the Olympics and was knighted. He was already popular, being a mega-star, and it totally changed his life due to conflicting demands.
‘The evidence [of a poor Giro] wasn’t there. He was in very, very good shape going into the Giro. Other things were going on. He wasn’t comfortable descending in the rain. It just didn’t all come together for him. His [team] leadership was very different. The last few years he raced with a core group of Tour riders, won races and they were in a groove. Going into the Giro, it was very different. He didn’t have that same team cohesion.’
Porte, meanwhile, will head to the Giro motivated to make the best of his leadership opportunity, knowing that he will have to help Froome when the Tour rolls around. ‘I think he can do both,’ Kerrison says, not understating the toll on Porte from racing an edition of the Giro that’s poised to be as thrilling as ever. Meanwhile, Kerrison’s influence will continue to be felt in the background – an influence that, while quiet, is increasingly being recognised as critical to Team Sky’s incredible ongoing success