There’s a story that goes along the lines of: a US congressman visiting the NASA complex prior to the first landing on the moon took a detour to speak to a guy sweeping the floor.
The congressman asked what he was doing, as it was late and everyone else had gone home. The response: “Sending a guy to the moon.” And it’s that attitude that Sir Dave Brailsford has tried to foster at Team Sky. Winning the Tour de France was British Cycling’s moon landing.
“Last year,” Brailsford says, “from the moment we all agreed that Bradley was going to target the Tour, everyone and everything was all about that win.”
When asked about Sky’s attempt at conquering both the Giro and TdF this year, the team’s service course chief Andy Verrall rubs his chin and pauses contemplatively: “It’s do-able, but it’s a hell of a lot of work.”
It’s hard to believe that there is just one man behind the service course of the best known team in today’s pro peloton.
“I’m normally here alone, but this week it all kicks off,” Verrall says. “We’re a proud bunch, so it’s hard to have you guys here capturing the place in such a dire state.”
We’ve arrived on one of the busiest days of the year for the service course; they are packing for training camp.
Busy, yes, but ‘in a state’, certainly not. Team Sky has become synonymous with military precision, and packing for camp is along the same lines.
“It’s a logistical nightmare,” explains Verrall. “Camp officially starts next week [the second week of December] and goes on until the end of January, although there is a short break over Christmas. The mechanics’ truck then stays for our race season’s opener, the Majorca Challenge.
In that time, all bar two of the team – Richie Porte and Chris Sutton, who are back home in the Australian sun anyway – will spend some time down there. December will be base miles, and January will be more race-specific training. We’re also hoping to do a mini Belgium camp with the Classics riders. If the weather’s crap, we won’t bother – it’s not worth the risk.”
All components have a bespoke storage
On board the team’s state-of-the-art truck, they’ve managed to squeeze over 60 frames and a lot more wheels into a space designed for no more than 30 frames and corresponding wheels. “This year’s 2013 equipment transition is a bit late, mainly due to Shimano’s [new Di2] 11-speed production delay,” Verrall says.
“We were running it at the Vuelta and the Tour of Beijing but we can’t guarantee it’s all going to be with us in time, so we’ve just agreed to ride the Classics on  10-speed. The Classics riders are going to be on Pinarello Dogma Ks, so we’re packing them too so the guys can spend some time on them in advance – and of course use them if they come back to Belgium to recce some of the Classics courses.
“We’re taking all the riders’ spare training bikes with us, too. The new guys who have just joined will also be on Dogmas. We’re taking down spare time trial bikes, too [the GRAAL] and their race time trial bikes.
“We’re hoping all the 11-speed stuff turns up in January. We’ll build it up in Majorca. We’re still waiting for the new SRMs to arrive; the existing ones won’t work with 11-speed. In the meantime we’ve got to take 100 sets of SRMs to ensure the guys can train properly.
“In addition to that little lot, we’ve got a mix of training and race wheels to pack. The two mechanics not travelling to camp will be staying at base camp with me, building up the new 11-speed Dura-Ace wheels. They’ll also build up some of last season’s race wheels to be 11-speed compatible for some of the harsher races, like the Tour of Oman where the equipment takes a real battering.
There’s no point in writing off all the new stuff at the start of the year; believe it or not, there’s not an infinite resource and I still have to forecast and budget for the whole season.”
But surely Team Sky can just tap up sponsors for more kit? “Not really. Like any business decision, they want value for money, and I am accountable for that. I even keep hold of all the written-off products, like crash damaged wheels and frames, until it’s been audited.
Audits and spreadsheets mean everything is accounted for
The other items we don’t have sponsors for come directly out of our budget, like tyres. We decided not to go with a tyre sponsor as we use a variety, and don’t want to be tied to one brand.”
We go back to the possibility of doing the Giro-Tour double. Verrall is acutely aware of the effort and attention to detail involved. “We all had to be geared towards it,” he recalls, “from using hand gel to keeping bedding in a sterile state and vacuuming bedrooms prior to the riders’ arrival at stage races.
What’s the point of going to the trouble with top-end equipment and riders to then throw it all away with a sickness bug? So we minimise all the risk we can. We never reuse water bottles, for example. It might seem over the top, but why risk it?”
To that end, the guys have somehow managed to find space for 1,600 bottles on board the truck. “It’s not enough,” says Verrall, “but there’ll be Mercedes Sprinter vans going back and forth over the next two months with top-ups. We’ve got another 1,600 bottles here and a further 28,000 should be arriving soon to get us through the season.”
Verrall’s knowledge of team equipment, its current location and where it needs to go next is remarkable. How does one man manage to keep track of everything? “Spreadsheets – a lot of spreadsheets. We did try a shop style stock control system, but it didn’t work.
In the season, we have so many things in different locations and in transit it’s better to manually keep track. There are only three weeks a year when I have what I call a ‘sterile environment’ at service course.
It’s the time period a few weeks after our last race and before camp kicks off. This is when everything is back in [except riders’ training bikes]. It’s the period of time when I undertake a massive audit and the place gets cleaned within an inch of its life.
“As all the cars and trucks are GB-registered, we have to drive them back over to get them MOT’d. We service the trucks out here and most of the ProTeams use the same place. We also got a new compressor fitted this time, as we kept blowing up the old one.
The Team Sky crow’s nest
We were constantly going from pumping up tyres, to holding the air-line open and drying bikes, which killed the compressor. So we’ve just had a second one fitted with an extra air tank to cope with the demand. Now is also the time of year that we find out who in the team is staying and going, so I can reorganise the riders’ spaces and bays.”
Four bikes each
The bays that Verrall refers to are effectively four hooks for each of the riders’ bikes. “Not every rider gets four bikes. They all have a couple of race bikes stored here, but unless they’re a time trial specialist or a Grand Tour rider, they only have one time trial bike.”
The hooks are more or less empty. It’s all been packed for camp, except for one. Michael Rogers’s bay still has all four bikes hanging up. We have arrived a couple of days after the story broke of his sudden departure. Team Sky had neither confirmed nor denied the rumours. We nod towards the bay full of bikes and ask if Verrall can talk about the rumours.
“Well, it was news to me, put it that way,” he says. “I only did all the names last week, and as it’s all in alphabetical order, I’ll have to re-label most of it.”
We scan the names; no Cavendish or Dowsett but Tiernan-Locke is a notable addition. It’s the same on the other side of the warehouse where the riders’ boxes are. This is where riders’ race day kit is stored, such as rainwear and any nutritional items that differ from the sponsors’ products.
“It’s a matter of keeping on top of things, so we never even get close to running out. We don’t have the storage space to keep everything here for the entire year. There are things I just periodically order, such as valve extenders and tub glue to keep stocks high.
The workshop is tidier than an operating theatre
Nutrition needs to be kept a close eye on due to best-before dates. I only keep in stock the absolutely vital foodstuffs, as they go out of date quickly. I have to make sure I don’t give too much out at once as well, otherwise people will just load up, assume they have loads, then get to a race and realise half the boxes at the back of the cupboard are out of date. Running out of product mid-race is unacceptable, but so is making a rider sick from an out-of-date energy bar.
“This year, the sterile environment time was a bit busier than previous years, as we had to find space for a few more bikes and other equipment due to the Olympics.
All our guys who were riding at the Olympics were given a neutral black-and-white C65 [the 2013 Dogma] by Pinarello to ride, and the time triallists were also given a GRAAL each.
In the case of our GB lads, they rode the Sports Institute’s bikes, so I think they used the C65 in the warm-up, but other than that, they [the C65s] have never been used.”
As used by…
So what happens to the rest of the old team bikes? “Some of the riders buy them, but this year we’ve probably got a few more than usual, like the Olympic ones. Wiggo’s win means that there’s a couple of yellow ones kicking about, too. Of course, the key sponsors get first refusal, so the winning Tour de France yellow bike is heading over to BSkyB’s offices – I suspect it will be on display somewhere, although James Murdoch also has one or two of our bikes, as he rides a bit. The others get sold on.”
The apparent disorder betrays an exceptionally busy time
Cue an excited look through the frames for sale, positive that one of Cavendish’s old bikes will fit. In fact, we’ve noticed there’s a fair few more of his frames than any others. What’s the deal?
“Cavendish is obsessive about his bikes,” Verrall explains. “As soon as one got dropped or crashed, he always requested another.” A bit diva-like perhaps, but in line with the whole Team Sky ethos, why chance it? Why risk sprinting on a bike that’s quite possibly at breaking point? And the rest of the kit?
“We’ve got a Jag graveyard out the back,” jokes Verrall. “They’re waiting to be sold on. We rotate our cars every three years. Jaguar is really ‘on it’.
We were given the pre-production Jaguar XF Sportbrakes for the Tour and Vuelta. Then, they went back to get a good going over, to see if improvements were needed. We’ve been able to work really closely with them, giving feedback about performance and our needs.
Even the team’s Jaguars have been updated
Our new cars for next year are about to come off the production line and head to Coventry to be fitted with interiors bespoke to our needs. We’ve ensured that all the cabling for race radios, TV and things are now hidden and we’ve got integrated cooling boxes for bottles, etc. It’s a bit like when we designed the team bus. We start with a list of needs and then set about getting them realised. We’ll take delivery of the new fleet in the new year.”
While we’ve been looking around, the pile of equipment for the training camp has been impressively tessellated into the truck. We remark on our initial doubts as to it all fitting in. “They’re used to it,” says Verrall.
“You should have seen the Tour/Olympics transition. That was probably the second busiest it’s ever been here.
They finished the Tour on Sunday night and then drove through the night to get back here for the morning. Unpacked, repacked and were in Surrey by Tuesday.”
Blimey, that’s harsh – no time to celebrate Wiggo’s win? “Nope! The riders may have had one drink, but for the workers it was still full gas. We celebrated the Tour win at our full Team Sky London camp.
It’s probably the only time that all 80 staff [30 riders and 50 support staff] are in one place – another logistical nightmare – but well worth it,” he smiles, although we get the impression that what goes on camp stays on camp.
Dealing with doping
Wasn’t it on camp that Brailsford restated Team Sky’s commitment to anti-doping, for riders and staff? That must have been a bit of a dancefloor killer? “Well, we thought that was it for us all.
All the Lance [Armstrong] stuff had just happened, and we thought that was the end of professional cycling. So having everyone confirm their commitment was actually really positive – we ended up having a great time,” Verrall tells us with a broad smile.
“I can’t believe we managed to get everyone back on their flights home in time; I think some people went straight from the dancefloor to the airport. The actual conversations with Brailsford happened after London. We all had them, one at a time. It was a shock to see some people go, but we can all move on from here.”
We’re now back upstairs in the flat above the warehouse warming up with a cup of tea. “The flat was here when we moved in. We took it over from HTC Highroad. There are a few bedrooms here, so the staff use it as a base between races and home. If a rider is really stuck, they may crash here too, but that’s very rare, as we have a mastermind behind the scenes, [operations manager] Geet [Verhulst], ensuring everyone gets to where they need to be on time. She books everyone’s flights to races and camps.”
The team are treated with a swanky kitchen
We start totting up the probable number of flights, and swiftly admit defeat. That’s a lot of flights. Verhulst glances at the calendar and does a rough calculation: “It’s got to be at least 750 a year, and that’s without adding in training camps and meetings. For just the Majorcan training camps, I think I have booked about 80 flights for December and 100 for January.”
We’ve now been joined by Mario Pafundi, one of the carers. “Ah, here he is,” says Verrall. “Mario, tell us, how many times have you won the award for the happiest member of staff?” Pafundi has a coy smile. “Twice. I didn’t think people would vote for me again this year, when my name was called I was shocked.”
The new warehouse has attached accommodation
It’s easy to see why he was awarded it. His enthusiasm is infectious. Within two minutes, we’re sitting on the sofa going through photos on his phone. It’s nice for everyone to have these relaxed, informal moments. From next week, the season will be in full swing, the next time CW sees them will be at the Tour Down Under or the Classics, where time is tight and the stress of the race means that there is little time beyond a double kiss hello and brief catch-ups.
A holler from below lets us know that it’s time for the grand depart. It’s a royal send-off; everyone who isn’t travelling is there to wave the truck off. Verrall does a quick sweep of the place and realises that a couple of items have been left out. We check our photographer is still with us; fortunately the truck is stowaway-free.
The truck gets the final OK from Verrall, and we bid our farewells. It’s wagons roll and an emotional milestone – the start of Team Sky’s 2013 campaign.
Ready to rock and roll into another historic season