sky's the limit by richard moore. harper collins. hardback £16.99

sys the limit

'If it was easy,it wouldn't be worth doing, would it?'

it is a peculiarly british tradition, so far as i can ascertain, to build someone or something up to be at least the equal of their perceived ability, or perhaps just a touch further for good measure, before taking even greater pride in in bringing them down not just to size, but preferably a smidgeon smaller. rather than tease out a lengthy string of examples, i'll let you mull over your own delete as applicable, based entirely on markers pegged on your own social interests or strata.

the principal is largely non-specific; it can be applied to almost any walk of life you care to mention, cycling being one of them. look at poor cadel evans, once hailed as the great white hope when he donned the pink jersey in the giro while riding for mapei. a mountain biker made good in the world of skinny wheels and bendy bars.

that didn't last long. just ask cadel.

so, in a series of moves seemingly calculated to ignore the above principle, in a way that suggests the progenitors either considered it in similar light to that of superstition, or whose apparent arrogance simply occupied strata in which it wasn't even true, in 2010, along came world domination either side of the thin blue line.

team sky.

my introduction above might well suggest that i follow and support the well-worn path of the confirmed naysayers, and i have a sneaking suspicion that this might well be the case. not long after the team launch, i was provided with everything you could ever want to know about the corporate design, from the horses mouth responsible for same. it barely lasted 24 hours in these pixels before there was a respectful request to withdraw.

the corporate squeeze.

of course, mine is a trivial and less than life-changing gripe. perhaps jonathan vaughters would be less inclined to take the same view. in 2009, bradley wiggins arrived in paris, occupying fourth place, just one step off the podium and equalling robert millar's 1984 finish.

having sprung something of a surprise on an unsuspecting professional cycling world at the end of 2010, dave brailsford, fresh from unqualified gold medal success at the 2008 beijing olympics, brought forward his much vaunted step into the less predictable world of road racing. funded to an unspecified and hotly debated amount by bskyb, the world's principal satellite broadcaster, team sky was to be britain's great white (and blue) hope for the future of our cycle racing prestige on the international stage.

the problem here was lack of a credible team leader, one who paid at least lip service to being british, but preferably a true brit in lycra. up until 2009's tour de france, brailsford's persuasive tactics would have had a sole target by the name of cavendish. but cav seemed more than happy at htc columbia (now htc high-road) and had a few years of his contract yet to run, a contract he gave strong indication he was less than keen on breaking.

david millar would have been a popular choice, but with no disrespect to the scot, his podium days were well behind him, and sky weren't shelling out megabucks simply to employ someone of the right nationality but one that was, to be blunt unbankable.

that left only wiggins.

we know how the fairytale panned out; the happy ending has yet to materialise. though jonathan vaughters may only now feel like agreeing, brailsford was obviously capable of transferring a calculating nous in more directions than the number of watts produced by sir chris hoy in the last lap of the keirin. there are few others who could likely have stepped from one discipline to another and operated - successfully - at a hitherto unapproachable managerial level.

brailsford and his partner in crime (sic) shane sutton all but admit that things could perhaps been dealt with differently. that their approach to the less predictable world of road racing could have been a tad more subtle. there's the rumoured ganging-up on the shiny new team at 2010's tour of oman, when boasson hagen stopped for a natural break and everyone else scarpered towards the finish line. and then there's that bus.

of course, there are two parallel stories here; though the race results as far as the tour is concerned, were someway off the early season bravado, that nagging epithet all publicity is good publicity can't have done sky any harm. that's not to say there haven't been results to be proud of, not least geraint thomas' winning ride in the 2010 british road race championships, and the classics of both 2010 and 2011 are nothing to be ashamed of for those wearing that thin blue line on the back of a sky jersey.

with pretty much unbridled access to all points of the sky compass, author richard moore (surely turning into one of britain's most prolific cycle sport writers) has examined team sky perhaps in more depth than brailsford himself. what none of us need or want, including team sky themselves, is a whitewash sandwiched between two outer covers, and split by a few glossy photos. that would surely be to reinforce the self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to accusations of collusion and a less than critical word processor.

breathe easy; that's not what we have.

'there seemed a discrepancy between (scott) sunderland's view of the sports director's role - as the most important person in the team- and brailsford's. the above is taken from the early pages of the book, where moore seeks to describe the team setup under the implication that brailsford's managerial hand has a few dictatorial tendencies. by just over half-way through the book 'on 22 may a story appeared on the team's website, headlined: 'senior sports director scott sunderland has left team sky under a mutual agreement.'

this followed by 'a friend of sunderland, meanwhile, complained that he lost a 'power struggle' with brailsford. 'brailsford wanted to be in charge of everything, even though scott was the one with experience. why give him the job title senior sports director if you're not going to let him direct?'

depending on your proclivities, it's easy to come down on one side or the other in the above situation, but it's wise to remember that sport at this level bears little resemblance to the operating tendencies of velo club d'ardbeg. what is compelling throughout sky's the limit, is moore's style, insight and willingness to tell it like it is/was means that there's the impression that we're being told the whole, uncomfortable at times, narrative. of course, we'll never really know, but that's not a perceived secrecy exclusive to team sky.

the writing is concise, well-researched, unpretentious and impossible not to read to the end. there is little by way of character besmirchment, but that would surely have been the easy option to satisfy the antagonists. this is a book about team sky, about its successes and failings, about the riders that constitute the thin blue line, but mostly about the men at the helm. it is perhaps a deliberate contradiction that such is the case, for brailsford's style of management ostensibly favours supporting the riders at all costs.

it can't have been an easy task to characterise such a high profile (and let's not forget, british') cycle team when they are still very much the subject of forum chatter, yet barely into their professional stride. dave brailsford may well regret his implication that they can win the tour within five years, and win it clean, but it seems a trifle churlish not provide at least moral support. yet this does seem like the right time for such a book to be written.

however it's correspondingly easy to try and read between the lines, to suspect that moore hasn't placed all in black and white; leaving some details to the hercule poirots amongst the peletonese. then again, maybe all is out in the open between the page numbers. either way, it's hard to deny the suspicion of intrigue. well isn't it?

'then a woman steps forward; she's in her sixties. 'mr brailsford,' she says politely, 'i just want to thank you for giving us a team to support.'

for every british cycling fan, this should be compulsory reading. for the rest of the world it's only mandatory.

posted friday 29 april 2011


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