Interview with Team Sky Performance Manager Rod Ellingworth by Rapha’s Slate Olson:
It is the 15th of December and Team Sky are already 10 days into their pre-season training camp on the island of Mallorca. If it weren’t for the staff and riders of the world’s number-one cycling team, the Vanity Hotel Golf in Alcudia would be closed. Outside the main entrance sits a small fleet of black-and-blue vehicles. Inside, a massive banner proudly reads: ‘Welcome Back Team Sky’. It is the third year running the team have based themselves here and where their 2013 campaign begins.
Cycling fans love to hear about the team-building exercises that professional riders are reported to undertake in order to foster team spirit; fierce paintball matches, for example, or skiing trips. There hasn’t been anything like that at Team Sky’s camp. Instead, the riders and staff are reacquainting themselves with old teammates and getting to know new ones the best way they know – by riding together. For the young, new faces like Joe Dombrowski, Ian Boswell and Josh Edmondson, this is their introduction to the highest level of the sport. To more seasoned riders like Gabriel Rasch, Dario Cataldo, David Lopez, and Vasil Kiryienka, it’s safe to say this pre-season camp bears little resemblance to anything they’ve done during their time with other elite teams.
There are two distinct riding groups: the General Classification or ‘GC’ riders, who will be targeting stage races; and a separate group preparing for the early season Classics. The schedule for the GC group has them doing a seven-hour ride with intervals of efforts. The Classics group is on a hard five-hour day. These are big sessions for both groups and you can see the effect on their faces when they return.
As the riders head inside to shower and refuel, the performance staff quickly collect computers and start to look at the numbers. All this is part of Team Sky’s strategy to give its riders the best chance of achieving their full potential. This is the Team Sky way. At its centre is Performance Manager Rod Ellingworth, the man responsible for every aspect of building and honing the performance of the riders. I spoke to Ellingworth to find out more about the camp, as well as the team’s approach to the first races of the season.
This doesn’t feel like a typical team-building camp; you’re not hiking through forests or doing ‘trust falls’. Tell us about the Team Sky approach?
RE: You can do team-building exercises through things other than cycling but as we don’t actually spend that much time together, we’re better off riding together. We don’t do that with the team as much as maybe we could, so just being here riding bikes is good team building. Having the full run of a hotel like this, that is exclusive to us, means we can do whatever we want to do.
You have the two different groups of riders, the Classics group and GC group. What are the differences in how each is approaching the camp?
We haven’t won any Classics and we want to take them on now properly. I think we understand a bit more of what the Classics are all about, physically speaking. The idea is to get these guys ready for the end of March and to do that, the key thing is starting them as a team a little earlier. We have 10 riders who will be doing the same race programme and that we’ve identified already.
Obviously the GC group’s main objectives are a little further down the line. The first goal is the Giro, in May. The Classics guys have to be ready in March, so that alone gives you the difference of their training load at this point. You’ll find, as well, that the climbers tend to be guys from warmer climates, so trying to get them to train as hard as the Classics guys this time of year wouldn’t be the right thing to do.
The difference isn’t so much in the hours but the intensity. The Classics group are doing specific work for the one-day races, whereas the GC guys are doing normal, steadier days but with a few efforts. Nothing all that demanding, just more hours and steady climbing as a group. I think for this group, more than anything, it’s about getting to know each other. We’ve got quite a few new people in that team.
Is there anything the Classics group are doing off the bike as part of their training?
As part of the group’s team building we’re spending a bit more time off the bike in meetings. That way they come to the line with the same understanding and in the same mindset, knowing exactly what the goal is. We’ve started that now, in December, for races that start at the end of March and beginning of April. Getting that understanding off the bike is just as important. The riders need to know why we’re doing this or that, lots of different things. It gets them talking, so they’re communicating better and more able to understand one another.
You have your own way of talking about things at Team Sky. Do you have different philosophies for the Classics and GC guys?
Not really. What we’ve sort of said going forward is ‘quality, not quantity’. Do high-quality work instead of a large quantity just for the sake of it. Let’s win quality races. I think losing somebody like Mark Cavendish means we’re not going to win as many races but we’re striving to win better races. You look at the WorldTour programme and there are still a lot of races that we haven’t won.
The Classics team will be going to Belgium before Christmas. Tell us about that.
That’s still a part of camp and it’s really to focus on the younger riders. We’ve got a strong group of young guys who believe they can be Classics riders. They’re not from Belgium and so aren’t able to hit the climbs regularly. Having knowledge of those climbs and knowledge of the turns going into them is important. It’s two days of riding where they’re not doing more than a few hours, so they really get to know the area.
There may be riders who live in that part of the world who are riding the courses but I doubt there are any other teams doing this right now. I’m pretty sure teams like Quick Step will be doing certain things with some of their younger guys and obviously they highlight some guys who could potentially get results.
You won the Tour de France last year and want to repeat that in 2013, as well as targeting the Giro. What would constitute success at the end of this Classics campaign?
For me, this is more of an 18-month project. Whether we win or not in 2013, we might make some big alterations between 2013 and 2014 because I think there are always things you could do differently to better prepare riders for the Classics. It’s an ongoing process. Obviously, it would be great if we can win either Flanders or Roubaix. Those are the ones we want to win most.