Pivotal role of Sir Dave Brailsford – business lessons from British cycling

CPivotal role of Sir Dave Brailsford - Lessons in success from British cyclingycling has been through a tumultuous time recently, rocked by the Lance Armstrong doping scandal that has been spooking the sport for years. In Britain though, largely spared from the scandal’s ramifications, cycling has been undergoing a major transition in the last decade: from tragic to magic, as one British newspaper described it. The Brits have achieved multiple gold medals at successive Olympic Games, success at the World Championships and victory in the last two Tours de France (before Sir Bradley Wiggins in 2012 no British rider had ever won the Tour in it’s 100 year history).

Here I explore the key factors that have made British cycling such a formidable force in the sport and what lessons can be learnt for business success. Whilst this success has of course been due to a huge combined team effort, I place an emphasis on the role of Sir Dave Brailsford, Performance Director of British Cycling and principal for Team Sky, who has played such a pivotal role in the sport’s success.


British cycling’s current success has been underpinned by a longstanding vision, but it has not occurred overnight, though it may seem that way to the casual observer. In 1996, the governing body, British Cycling, was actually on the verge of bankruptcy. In his book Heroes, Villains & Velodromes: Chris Hoy and Britain’s Track Cycling Revolution, former cycle racer and now award-winning author Richard Moore describes how the sport’s embarrassing reputation had become so bad that the president of Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), had described Britain as “a completely black spot in the international cycling market” because of the way in which the governing body was managing the sport.

But at that time National Lottery cash fortunately began to flow into British sport. Peter Keen also stepped forward, the man who had helped Chris Boardman win gold in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. He was already working on a high-performance cycling programme and produced a business plan for UK Sport, the funding agency for Olympic athletes, to attract further money into the sport. He sourced a team of high potential cyclists and created a vision for British cyclists to be the best in the world. When the mantle was passed from Peter Keen to Dave Brailsford in 2003, Brailsford grasped that vision and set about delivering it with all the tenacity and intellect that has made him one of the best directors of sport in the world today. What else did Brailsford do to take the sport to its current heights?

Culture of success

Dave Brailsford created a culture of success within the team. One of his early actions was to recruit Steve Peters to the team. A clinical psychiatrist, he worked with the athletes to eliminate their fear of failure, or at least help them to control it. You can read about this approach in Peter’s book, The Chimp Paradox, in which the the irrational, emotional side of the human mind is depicted as a chimp that must be trained to control destructive feelings such as fear of failure.

But a culture of success incorporates many factors and below are two additional areas of focus that really stand out given their relevance to business.

Effective analysis

I have stated before that the basis of good business strategy is thorough analysis. If you do not know what is going on in any given situation then how can you develop solutions to address that situation? Writing in British newspaper, The Telegraph, Ian Chadband, explains the approach taken to continuous performance analysis:

“[The team’s] most crucial performance planning and coaching tools are the power meters which measure everything the riders do in training and racing, and the subsequent collection and analysis of that information… The data, taken over months, enables the team to plot two ‘power curve’ graphs for each rider, a ‘green line’ charting their actual power over periods between five seconds and three hours and an ideal ‘red line’ curve they should aspire to for specific competitions. Brailsford says riders were initially resistant, thinking downloading the data was a chore and like Big Brother but now that they understood its benefits in tailoring their training.”

As an example, the information, helped head of performance support Tim Kerrison discover that Bradley Wiggins’s explosive power, which he had wrongly assumed would be fantastic from his track background, needed serious work. Identify the problems and you can work out the solutions, simple.

Marginal Gains

The idea behind marginal gains is perhaps one of the most talked about aspects of British Cycling’s success. Dave Brailsford explains that “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” For the team this included improved hand washing techniques to avoid illness (and associated training blackspots) through to heated hotpants which keep muscles from seizing up after pursuits. What it boils down to is an obsessive focus on the smallest of details, which when added together produce the necessary gains to take the minimal advantage needed to beat the competition in such a closely fought sport.


So what can businesses take away from British cycling’s success? In summary:

  • It all started with an idea and a business plan – what shape is your business plan in?
  • Do you have a vision for your business, and does your business plan and strategy support the delivery of your vision?
  • How do you approach culture within your business? Are you ensuring that your employees have a mindset for success?
  • Don’t resist the data revolution and use analysis to understand ‘what’s going on’ in any given situation to help steer you to action-based solutions wrapped up within a coherent business strategy.
  • Obsess about the details, this is what will differentiate your business which is an important element of competitive advantage.

Finally, it is worth noting that British Cycling’s success is unlikely to have been so potent were it not for the additional investment made into the sport by Sky. Going into the London Games the team drew upon £26.4 million of lottery funding supported by a £10 million sponsorship deal with Sky. Like any business, appropriate investment is often required to deliver the results.

image credit: www.dailymail.co.uk

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    What Does Innovation Mean for Smaller Business? Richard Hughes-Jones is an experienced management consultant, having spent most of his career with Deloitte UK and working in a senior management role for Her Majesty’s Treasury. He now works with ambitious startups, established businesses and social enterprises that are pursuing sustainable high growth, bringing strategic business thinking and helping them to formulate and execute their ideas through innovative but realistic and coordinated approaches. Richard blogs about a range of business issues at FireLDN and is on Twitter @FireLDN

Richard Hughes-Jones




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