After 18 years, it was always going to be a wrench leaving. “Oh, I really agonised over it,” Rod Ellingworth says of his decision, taken in April, to quit Team Sky and accept an offer from McLaren to run their new joint venture with Bahrain-Merida.
“I debated long and hard with friends. I even went to see [the psychiatrist] Steve Peters at one point. But in the end, you know, it just felt like the right time… Sky were going in a completely different direction with Ineos coming in. I’d been working with Dave [Brailsford] for 18 years, which is incredible really. And you get comfortable don’t you? Fran [Millar, chief executive], Tim [Kerrison] Carsten [Jeppesen, head of technical operations], that whole gang...”
Ultimately, Ellingworth says, it was nothing to do with Sky or Ineos or any of the people there, who he describes as “like family”. “I wasn’t p----d off. It was fine. It was just starting to feel a little bit Groundhog Day. I wasn’t as motivated by the new challenge as I should have been. I needed something new.”
It has been six months since that decision. Ellingworth, who was initially placed on gardening leave by Sky, has not said anything in public since. But he is back now.
The 47-year-old officially started work at his new team on Tuesday. And he is clearly brimming with enthusiasm after his summer off. “I never really stopped,” he says. “I’ve been down in Woking most weeks actually. But I wanted that time. I wanted to spend it with my family, I wanted to step back and really think about what we are trying to achieve here, and then come in and try to bring a lot of energy.”
The cycling world is going to be interested to see how he fares.
Riders who came through under his tutelage have racked up five Olympic gold medals, 12 world track titles, one world road race title, 51 grand tour stage wins and a Tour de France. Not bad for a lad from Burnley who confesses that at his British Cycling interview in late 2001 he was clueless.
“When I walked in that day I didn’t really know anything if I’m honest,” he says. “I didn’t know how to use computers. I’d never given a presentation. Dave took a punt on me, basically. I’ll always be grateful.”
It remains to be seen, though, how a figure once described by Cavendish as “the most undervalued person in British Cycling” gets on as the main man. Without that Brailsford figure above him, without that Sky family around him.
Ellingworth is well aware of the risk he has taken in stepping away. Ultimately, though, he wanted to challenge himself. To see whether he could lead a team.
Plans are already well advanced. Ellingworth has made a number of signings. Roger Hammond, the former national champion and Dimension Data sporting director, is joining as performance manager. Tim Harris, a familiar face in the sport, is joining as development director, scouting and looking after the younger riders. Brent Copeland will be staying as operations director.
Mikel Landa and Wout Poels are already confirmed on the rider roster, replacing the outgoing Vincenzo Nibali. There are likely to be further announcements soon. Cavendish is expected to be unveiled any day, although Ellingworth will not say anything on the matter.
Nor will he say much about Rohan Dennis, the Australian world time trial champion who has taken the team to a tribunal after they terminated his contract last month. (“One thing I will say is I wanted Rohan to stay,” Ellingworth says. “He was definitely a part of my long-term plans so I’m disappointed at the way things have panned out.”
Perhaps the biggest signing of all, though, at least according to Ellingworth, is Duncan Bradley of McLaren Applied Technologies. Bradley is going to be working on the project full time as technical director, having been more of a consultant during the first year of the McLaren/Bahrain-Merida partnership.
“He is very much one of the reasons I wanted to get involved,” Ellingworth says. “If you want an innovation hub then McLaren Applied Technologies is one of the best in the world. And Duncan is MAT. Ron [Dennis] brought him in. I see Duncan as absolutely critical to our potential success. He’s a massive asset for us. Not just on the aero side but in terms of getting from a to b as fast as you can. Every element.”
“I think we need to be clever,” he adds of how the team can makes the most of the McLaren factor. “It would be easy to scattergun, to say, ‘Oh let’s build a new carbon-fibre composite component’ or, ‘Let’s use McLaren’s wind tunnel’. But it’s about where we can make the biggest difference. I think we use McLaren for the really top-end stuff. Take our time and make sure there are clear goals and outcomes. But it’s exciting. The McLaren brand is special, it’s iconic.”
Ellingworth says he is not setting any hard and fast targets. Perhaps mindful of the rod Team Sky created for themselves in 2009 – and the noses they put out of joint – he says he wants to discuss his goals with the team first.
“Although I’ve no problem in saying that I want this team to become a grand tour-winning team,” he adds. “And yes, that means a Tour de France-winning team.”
Could Poels or Landa win the Tour? “Never say never. Wout, for now I think, one-week stage races are really what he will target, at least initially.
“Mikel? He’s clearly one of the most gifted climbers in the world. So natural when he’s up on his pedals. I’m looking forward to working with him again. I know he had a bit of a reputation at Sky but I never found him a pain in the arse. I feel when speaking with him that’s he’s asking more questions, he’s more proactive. He’s starting to get to grips with what it takes to be a leader. And I think he’s bloody dangerous in the third week if the course is right for him. We’re going to find out.”
For now, it’s about “building the culture, getting to know each other, canvassing views”.
Ellingworth, who will not move his family down from Whaley Bridge but instead plans on travelling to Woking “most weeks”, says he wants to be hands-on, involved in everything. At every race, at least initially.
“I made the decision with Jane, my wife,” he says. “We decided if I was going to do it I needed to go full gas. It’s not easy on her. We’ve got three kids [aged seven, four and one]. But she understands the game. She understands that I love it as well.
“It’s not easy. It’s actually one thing I’m really grateful to Steve [Peters] for. When I went to see him I had a little red book with all the pros and cons written down and the first thing he said was ‘I see you’ve got all your notes written down there.’ And he literally reeled off all the things I’d written down. One of them was my family and the impact on them. I’ve got three young kids.
“One of the key things Steve advised me to do was to talk to my daughter who is seven. ‘Ask her what you should do’ he suggested. So I did. She asked whether I’d be coming home. Of course, I said. ‘Can I ring you?’ Of course, you can ring whenever you want, FaceTime me whenever. She gave it her blessing. So just for that reason I’m so grateful to Steve.
Pre-season begins in December, when the team will go to Croatia. There’s another camp in Spain in January. “Then [to altitude in] Tenerife over the next year,” he says. Following the Sky model? “I’m a product of my background,” he admits. “I was incredibly fortunate to have arrived at British Cycling when I did. Just as UK Sport were really investing in it, and standards were really being raised. The timing, the energy in that place at that time - was just brilliant.
“It feels like that now walking into the MTC. It feels a bit like going to the velodrome back in the day. It’s full of brainy people who want to get the best out of themselves. It’s all about performance and how to unlock it. It’s left me super-motivated.”
“But I absolutely don’t want to walk in and say, ‘This is how you do it’. I want to build the culture over the next 12-18 months.”
It needs building. Bahrain-Merida have not been without controversy in the first 2½ years of their existence. One of their riders, Kanstantsin Siutsou, was suspended last year for EPO, while the team had to pull another, Kristijan Koren, out of the Giro d’Italia earlier this year, and provisionally suspend assistant sports director Borut Bozic, after they were named in connection with a doping probe. Both their cases allegedly took place long before they joined the team.
Ellingworth knows what it is like to be in the eye of the storm. “Honestly, I don’t regret a moment,” he says of the last 10 years. “After all the ups and downs – and there were a lot of downs – we learnt. It was a different team at the end to how it started out. We had to learn everything from scratch, how the pro scene worked, how that world worked. I feel like I’ve had an incredible experience. They gave a lot to me, but I also gave a lot of myself. I don’t know any other way.”