Cycling and Sporting Leadership: The resignation of Sir David Brailsford

April 11, 2014

Richard Crackett

Sir David Brailsford announces his retirement as performance director at British Cycling to focus on Team Sky. We publish a post which had been in preparation written by LWD subscriber Richard Crackett

As the sun set on the Champs Elysee, Chris Froome crossed the line, arms linked with his team mates, wearing the famous maillot jaune, in the 100th Tour de France. The story is replete with issues of distributed leadership and sporting ethics.

For a second consecutive year, Dave Brailsford’s Team Sky had won. This was the first tour since Lance Armstrong admitted to doping in winning all seven of his now rescinded titles. Brailsford hailed it as a victory for hard work and ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’, but the popping of champagne corks may have been drowned out by the cacophony of questions about doping.

The King is Dead, Long live the King!

The build-up to the Tour was dominated by the fact the top contender for the title, Froome and the current holder, Bradley Wiggins, rode for the same team. Froome had been picked as the team leader with Wiggins expected to ride in support of him. At first, Wiggins let the press know that he intended to ride as if the leader, with Froome dismissing this point.
Brailsford seemed not to back either rider, and Froome described Wiggins’ withdrawal through injury as a ‘relief’. Perhaps Brailsford thought that two competing leaders would lead to greater performance from each, with a greater chance of one winning. It seems serendipitous that W iggins pulled out through illness, as it could be argued that his involvement may have harmed Sky’s chance of winning.

Aggregation of Marginal Gains

Brailsford’s approach to sporting excellence involves the aggregation of marginal gains. He seeks to break down every process to its smallest component and attempting to improve on each one. The multitude small gains in performance will be significant. His track record in the Tour and Olympic cycling suggests his approach to be very successful.

‘Relativity applies to physics, not ethics’ – Albert Einstein

Even before the Lance Armstrong crisis, Cycling was mired in suspicion about doping. Brailsford brought in a zero-tolerance approach at Team Sky. Anyone with any history of doping was made to leave the team. When the suspicion didn’t go away, he offered the medical records on Froome’s historic performance to a newspaper, which confirmed it showed nothing untoward.

The zero tolerance approach was criticised by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for being too draconian, meaning people would be afraid to speak out damaging the efforts to catch more cheats. His effort to distance his team from doping, they argued, could actually hurt the more global fight against doping.

The exception

Brailsford’s zero to team member David Millar, an ex-doper for the 2012 Olympics. He also seems willing to ‘push the boundaries’ of competition and bend the rules in pursuit of marginal gains. In Olympic cycling, the equipment that the cyclists use must be commercially available. Brailsford developed the best bikes using many bespoke innovations, and made them ‘available’ commercially through British cycling at exorbitant fees .

Marginal Gains or Pushing the Boundaries?

Brailsford is a transformational leader for British cycling. He has produced incredible results, but we are left questioning his leadership. Did he really think Wiggins’ and Froome could work together? Does his law of marginal gains apply to the advantage he tries to squeeze out by bending the rules? It is no surprise that his willingness to push the boundaries has meant his reactive response to the doping issue has not been universally accepted as solely in the spirit of sporting competition.

Doping in tennis: thinking the unthinkable

February 5, 2013

Rafa NadalAndy Murray calls for stricter anti-doping measures for tennis. This is news partly an aftershock from the Lance Armstrong case in cycling. It raises an alternative explanation for near super-human endurance feats of top tennis players from time to time

[Updated March 2015]

News stories sometimes reveal a series of earlier incidents which seem to be connected. The antecedents are not necessarily causes. Take this week’s story of doping in tennis. Doping has made headlines in recent weeks [Jan 2012] over the downfall of Lance Armstrong, one of the biggest names in cycling. The entire sport risks pariah status if it cannot be seen to have taken steps to clean up its act. A more recent cycling icon, Bradley Wiggins, speaks up for the clean cyclists who feel that Armstrong has diminished their achievements.

Read the rest of this entry »

Bradley Wiggins’ leadership lesson from the Tour de France

July 17, 2012

Leadership lessons become clearer as a crisis looms. An attempt to sabotage the 14th day of the Tour de France in 2012 gave an illustration of the point with the actions of Tour leader Bradley Wiggins

The crisis, as often happens, comes like a storm from clear blue skies. A tough but not particularly critical stage was underway. The large bunch of riders making up the peloton were scaling a steep incline. The various team members were working to protect the broader interests of their own lead rider, as general classification category, or various other competitions for King of the Mountains, Sprint champion, best young rider. The leaders for each could be distinguished by their gaudy but prized jersey… The bright yellow jersey of overall leader Bradley Wiggins was clearly visible in the midst of the multi-coloured millipede of the peloton [main group of riders].

The chess game

In the chess game of the tour, breakaways by a small group of attackers occur and are assessed as damaging to the broader goals and capabilities of the riders and teams in the Peloton. Today, a breakaway seemed likely to be successful for a stage win, but not harming the prospects for other prizes.

The mysterious punctures

Then the bolt from the blue. Or more literally, the punctures in the tyres. Significantly, Cadel Evans, last year’s winner, and still with some chance of regaining his title, was stricken, in a location where back-up provision of a new tyre was not possible. The frequency of punctures reached highly unusual levels over the next half hour or so.

Wiggins makes his leadership decision

For Cadel Evans, the misfortune threatened to end all hope of his winning. Wiggins could make his lead unassailable. But instead, Wiggins acted in the spirit of the Tour, by bringing the peloton to a slower pace to give Evans a chance to regain his place.

Enlightened altruism?

Wiggin’s actions fit notions of altruistic ‘old-fashioned sporting values’. He later said he had no option. There was an option, although it posed a dilemma of perceived self-interest (“race to win within the rules” weighed against the consequences of capitalizing on the misfortune which had hit Evans.

Give me a break

One rider, Pierre Rolland, chose to seize the moment to make a break. There is some evidence that a form of rough justice may be meted out to a rider who breaks the unwritten rules. Later, after another attack, and apparently under orders from his management team, he made obvious his own decision to allow the peloton to catch up

To the outsider

To the outsider, the actions may be clearer by understanding the dilemmas of self-interest and social standing above a peer group. Which may be another way of thinking about temptation.
The sabotage attempt, and wilful blindness

I could have written another post focussing on the sabotage. It showed the difficulties of the Eurosport commentators David Harmon and Sean Kelly. Harmon began to searching for explanations of the punctures.

“Quite incredible. Maybe a rough road surface?” he asked

Sean Kelly’s mind was running along more suspicious lines but he offered a cautious view:

“There might be something else. It has happened before…” He was hinting at foul play, maybe tacks strewn on the road.

“But it’s unbelievable it would happen here, in the Tour de France”. Harmon still did not want to believe such a betrayal of the spirit of the tour, although it was quite in keeping of the early days a century ago. Unbelievable, but it was quickly confirmed. And there is still the unanswered question “why?”


Bradley Wiggins retained the cherished Yellow Jersey. He and the main contenders ended with the same time differentials that they held at the start of the stage. The French Press hailed Wiggins as “Le Gentleman” a linguistic tour de force and concession to Franglais. An English journalist suggested in The New Statesman that such actions explain why England does not have the winning mentality at sport.