Controversy cannot deny elite status for colossus
Sir Dave Brailsford
A controversial choice, perhaps, given Team Sky’s brushes with controversy over the years. Not to mention the various shenanigans at British Cycling, many of which happened on his watch and which are still emerging. But whether you are a fan of Brailsford’s or an arch critic of the Ineos team principal, it would be churlish to try to argue that he has not towered over the sport like a shaven-headed colossus for the best part of 10 years.
Team Sky’s first season coincided with the start of this decade, and while the British outfit were sluggish at first, they have certainly picked things up since. Helped by the largest budget in professional cycling, Sky provided six of the seven Tour de France winners from 2012 to 2018, starting with Bradley Wiggins’s historic first title for a British rider. Following the switch to Ineos, Egan Bernal made it seven from eight for the team this year.
But, more than that, Brailsford fundamentally altered the way the sport looks and operates. The term “marginal gains” may no longer be in vogue – Brailsford has actively tried to distance himself from it for years – but there is no doubt Sky have gone bigger and bolder than any team before. They changed the game. They got the enormous battle bus, they got the natty team kits, they brought their own pillows to races, they trained at altitude in Tenerife before everyone else.
It may all be window dressing. It may not be the difference between winning or losing. Signing/developing a succession of crack grand tour riders and then turning the Tour into a numbers game probably had more to do with that. But nevertheless, Brailsford’s uber-comprehensive, no-expense-spared, ultra-professional modus operandi left a mark on the sport. It got everyone else thinking and acting likewise, for better or worse.
And it was not just Sky. In his role as performance director at British Cycling, Brailsford oversaw the programme which landed Team GB with eight cycling gold medals at their home Games in London in 2012.
Questions have since been asked about both entities’ methods; about their medical record-keeping, their treatment of athletes, their use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions and painkillers. There have been claims of financial doping and allegations of hypocrisy regarding their “zero tolerance” stance on chemical doping. But Brailsford has remained the most influential figure in the sport, enjoying the last laugh more often than not.
Even when he has looked utterly snookered, when one of his riders has been caught in a scandal, when everyone is calling for his head, when his team’s major backer has pulled out of the sport, taking its £35 million-a-year with it, Brailsford has clung on. More than clung on. As his fellow boss, EF Education First’s Jonathan Vaughters, observed this time last year as he weighed up whether Brailsford could secure a new backer rich enough to make up for the loss of Sky: “He has an impressive ability to reach into the toilet and pull out chocolate.”
Four months later Brailsford was announcing a new deal with Britain’s richest man, Ineos co-founder Sir Jim Ratcliffe.
Gentle soul transformed into 'The Cannibal'
You could make a case for Nicole Cooke being the most influential rider of this decade given her outspokenness on the biggest issues. But the truth is the Welsh woman achieved her biggest wins in the last decade.
The accolade must surely go to Marianne Vos, the female equivalent of Eddy Merckx, a rider so superior to her rivals, in so many different areas that it has sometimes been uncomfortable to observe. She has even been bequeathed the same nickname: The Cannibal. An otherwise gentle soul who takes her cat with her to races, Vos is transformed into a killer on two wheels.
She has won world and Olympic titles on track, road and cyclo-cross. Most memorably (at least for British fans), her Olympic road race triumph in 2012, a race in which she broke British hearts by edging out Lizzie Armitstead in a classic rain-soaked dust-up on the Mall that betrayed the lie that women’s racing was in any way less exciting than the men’s.
Vos had an injury-ravaged build-up to Rio 2016, where her team-mate Anna van der Breggen won instead. But in many respects it has been her return to the top rank of women’s cycling since then, now against a far higher calibre of opponent – Van der Breggen, Annemiek van Vleuten, Kasia Niewiadoma, Lizzie Deignan et al – which has been the most impressive feat of her career.
Vos no longer has it all her own way, but she is as voracious as ever. She ended the decade in incredible form, winning a bronze medal at the 2019 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Bogense, the Trofeo Alfredo Binda for a fourth time in March, the Tour de Yorkshire in May, before bouncing back from a nasty race-ending crash at the Women’s Tour of Britain to win four stages of the Giro Rosa and a thrilling edition of La Course by Le Tour in July.
Significantly, in terms of her influence on the sport as a whole as opposed to her own palmares, Vos was instrumental in helping to get that last race on to the women’s calendar, co-founding pressure group Le Tour Entier alongside Emma Pooley, Chrissie Wellington and Kathryn Bertine. Unfortunately, La Course has not really kicked on the way it ought to have done with organisers ASO dragging their heels. But women’s cycling is definitely on the rise in general and Vos has been at the heart of that rise.
Do not be surprised if the Dutchwoman - who became a senior world champion in both cyclo-cross and road racing at the tender age of 19, who won her first Olympic gold medal on the track in 2008, who has won a total of three world road titles and seven world cyclocross titles in her much-garlanded career, and who is still only 32 - is helping to shape the sport well into her third decade on top. Vos may be not just the greatest female cyclist in the world, but the greatest sportswoman full stop.