PEZ last caught up with Team Sky’s Scott Sunderland at Milan Sanremo, when the announcement of just who would be racing for the team next year was still months away. Now, with the ink drying on the last couple of contracts and September 1 (the official date when these new signings can be announced) fast approaching, PEZ once again imposed on the very busy, but always laid back, Sunderland for some more of his valuable time.
While we still had to ask the questions we knew he couldn’t answer, Sunderland was gracious enough to give us a detailed and in-depth look at how the Team was taking shape, an idea of the amount of behind the scenes work that has gone into the project and also outline some other side projects that will be keeping the former top Aussie cyclist busy in the years to come.
PEZ: Obviously “the riders” are what everyone wants to know about, but can you tell us a bit about the new equipment for the team first? Have any decisions been made yet regarding equipment sponsors for next year or are you still looking at potential suppliers.
Scott: We are currently still looking at different potential partners concerning the bikes and other equipment. We are testing material; you should see my garage right now, don’t know which bike to take for a ride first; and which wheels to test. The deal with the clothing sponsor has been finalised though.
PEZ: Knowing your background at CSC where a willingness to be involved in development was a key factor in your relationship with companies like Zipp and Cervйlo, is there a similar consideration when looking at potential Team Sky suppliers?
I’m always interested in getting the best equipment for the riders so when asked, I do put my ideas forward. I am a stickler for decent material and with CSC I had the great opportunity to get really involved with the engineers at e.g. Cervйlo and Zipp. At Team Sky there is more than just one person available to assist the Research & Development department of the material manufacturers. It’s not something I’m concerned about: I know that the Team Sky riders have got the best possible support in that area.
PEZ: What about equipment like team cars, buses and equipment trucks? At what stage are these vital pieces of equipment?
We have been working on that for months. I am a great supporter of Dave Brailsford’s idea to have Formula 1 standard trucks and buses for the riders and staff. Team Sky has the best in the business working on that. I was just sent a picture of the aluminium wheels fitted to the team busses, and mate, they look mean!
The trucks and buses have been meticulously designed; with input gathered from the people who are actually going to use them. The mechanics have been consulted on how they would picture their ideal truck to be installed, same with the carers, physio’s, the riders, etc. I’m not going to elaborate on them right now, but I can assure the fans, the Team Sky buses are going to be state of the art, sizzling hot high tech! Colour scheme is a surprise.
PEZ: Is the Services des Courses taking shape? From a logistics point of view, will the team be run out of Manchester with just equipment based in Belgium, or will you have other staff members, in addition to your soigneurs and mechanics, working in Belgium?
Team Sky’s Head Quarters will remain at the British Federation’s hub in Manchester. But of course, it’s very handy to have a satellite Service des Courses in Belgium too; ours will be located in Mechelen. Considering all aspects: the races themselves, the travel times for staff to and from the SdC, etc, it was the best location. The look, feel and performance is once again following the lines of F1; And thanks to the great input of several logistics experts, it will be very efficiently organised.
PEZ: Talking of personnel, the big question that everyone wants answered is of course, ‘who will be riding for Team Sky next year?’ Given that you can’t really name names until September 1, is there anything you can tell us about the team make-up?
The team will be omnipotent in that way that we will have an all-round and complete team of riders for all types of races. Of course, I can’t and don’t want to give out any names at this moment, but what I can say is that so far, we’ve brought together a great bunch of guys. The British feel is obviously present; Team sky is a British/International team.
PEZ: We’ve noticed that you have actually commented on a few riders in terms of saying “No, they aren’t coming to the team” (Ballan for example). Do you sometimes get shocked when you read in the cycling press about who is supposedly coming to the team?
I’m not shocked easily anymore; some announcements do bring on a smile. Some journalists love stirring up a good storm. And some managers try to make out that their rider is very high in demand by more than one team. Thing is, that speculation is good in that it builds the suspense; but it can also be damaging to the rider and/or to the team he is leaving and in those cases I prefer to give a clear answer.
PEZ: What about when you have a confidential conversation with a rider, reach an agreement and then read in the press a few days later that they are linked to the Team. Has that ever happened?
No, not really, not in my case. If anything appears in the press during the negotiation period, it’s because of the vivid imagination of the journalist, or it can be that the rider’s entourage is ok with that; or their manager uses it to increase awareness about the rider’s interest in a transfer.
PEZ: Who does the approaching in a case like this? Are you bombarded with CV’s and calls from riders’ managers or is it you guys doing the chasing?
The riders’ managers know who to contact and where to go and vice versa. I’ve been in the peloton now for so long, I’m sort of part of the furniture. We’ve been flooded with applications from riders and staff. It was a luxury situation to be in for the management. I assume the fresh approach and the idea of being part of this totally virgin project has been a big appealing factor. Some say the money side has a lot to do with it too, but the ones targeting a position on the team with that in mind got a cold shower.
PEZ: Bradley Wiggins is one of the key names that the English language press has been speculating about with more than a few journalists hinting that they might know something there. Anything you can tell us?
No, not really. I’ll stress again: Bradley Wiggins is under contract for 2011 with Garmin. If, for some reason, Wiggins decides he prefers to change pastures, that is entirely his personal choice.
PEZ: Do you also have a long-list for the future? Riders under contract for next year or the year after that you have spoken to in the hope they will make the move when the time is right?
There’s a right time and a place for everything. The future is not predictable and so many different factors might change current situations. Team Sky will be a project constantly in state of development and change. No-one can predict which riders will be coming to the team in 2011; I for sure don’t have a glass ball to stare into!
The reason why Sunderland was regarded as “the right man for the job” in helping set up the team, was not only his experience on the bike as a professional rider, but the highly professional and highly successful way that he has gone about his new career as a Sports Director, since hanging up the racing shoes in 2004. This success has not only been recognised by his appointment at Team Sky, he will also be taking on a new role this year with the UCI.
PEZ: This week it was announced that there would be a type of school for team managers. Is this the sort of things aimed at people who are considering it as a future career, e.g. a rider retiring who might follow the course as they begin working for a team?
It was mistakenly reported in the press that the course is for Team Managers; it’s actually for Sports Directors of the Professional Cycling Teams. I can’t see a reason why, for example, Bjarne Riis or Patrick Lefevere would have to go and follow a course when they are the leaders in the business, the bosses, that would be quite ridiculous, no?
PEZ: At this stage, can you tell us what your involvement will be?
Last year, I was approached by Alain Rumpf (UCI) and Chris Solly and Michael Cary of the Business Academy of the University in Manchester to help develop a programme to reinforce the professionalism and quality of management within the Professional Cycling Teams. Apparently my modus operandi within the sport had triggered their interest and I was asked to cooperate.
I took the opportunity with both hands as I believe it is very important to offer a different type of training to the Sports Directors in professional teams. Many of them come straight out of the guts of the sport of cycling, know everything about riding a bike and how to set race tactics, but don’t necessarily have all the required business skills to really get everything out of their function; how to reach their full potential in all aspects of the job.
I’ll be leading on some of the modules; assisting in coaching others in these matters. My younger brother Peter told me I’ll only be doing what I used to do to him all the time as kids, tell him what to do and how to do it [laughs]; that’s not how we see it though; it’s a very hands-on training. The courses are just about finalised, but in the dynamic environment of today we’ll constantly upgrade for sure.
PEZ: With the aspects and ideas you mentioned seemingly making it a desirable qualification, do you think that there will be a point in the future when this course becomes mandatory for any person wishing to hold a directors licence?
The course will help the Sports Directors develop skills in different area’s; public relations, marketing, etc. Also a thorough knowledge of e.g. the Adams anti-doping system is offered. It is providing an opportunity to share knowledge and values across teams and raise the level of professionalism. The programme will be delivered annually at the end of the season. I think it’s a fantastic initiative; it will definitely raise the level of cycling to take its place at the top of all professional sports worldwide. The cycling teams will benefit from it greatly I believe. It’s the idea that it will become a compulsory course over the coming years. The sport of cycling is constantly evolving; so anyone would welcome the gathering of knowledge and acquisition of more skills, don’t you think?
PEZ: As a director yourself, this year you are taking on the organisational side of the team with sponsors, equipment etc, next year will that be wound back a little bit so that you can concentrate more on the day to day task of directing the team on the road?
My main job this year was to consult the people at BC and Team Sky in as much detail as possible, on the workings and the needs of a Road Cycling Team at Pro Tour level. I have been extremely busy with that. The British Cycling staff is very knowledgeable in their areas but building a Professional Road Team is a different ball game again.
It has been very intense and rewarding for us all working on this project, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly. It’s all coming together smoothly and the last months I have been able to concentrate more on the essence of my job: putting together the best team of riders possible to achieve the goals BC and Sky have set for the future of the project. Recruitment of staff is in full progress. I’m very much looking forward to the directing part of my job next year.
PEZ: So will we see you back behind the wheel next season?
For the coming seasons, I wasn’t planning on doing as many races as I did with Team CSC-Saxobank but after being out of the team car for this length of time I’m actually longing to get back on the road with the riders. In the races is where the real sporting life is to be experienced, not behind a desk. I miss it, I miss the direct contact with the riders in the races and the people around the races, I admit it.
PEZ: How many co-directors do you expect to have in the cars during the season? Any names you can share?
I’m not joking, that has actually been one of the most strenuous tasks to date: finding the right Sports Directors for the team. As you know, we have a complete no-doping history policy; that also goes for any staff that are hired… do your research and you’ll see that is not an easy task to complete. I can’t give you any names as yet, but we’ve got great people on board next season. We’re aiming at recruiting four full time Sports Directors.
PEZ: As a sports director yourself, how much of the way you work is influenced by what you saw as a rider (both good and bad) and how much you learned from Kim Andersen and Bjarne Riis in your years at CSC?
All of my current work is influenced by my time on the bike, definitely. Experience is the best teacher and it is quite impossible to picture the life of or empathise 100% with a professional cyclist if you haven’t been there yourself. It’s just not possible. That’s Kim Andersen’s forte and other people’s like Sean Yates, Allan Peiper, to name a few. They have done the hard yards; they have dealt with set-backs, injuries and they know how hard one has to work to achieve goals as a cyclist. To understand the psyche of a rider, it does help a great deal if you have raced on his level.
Coaching riders and directing races are only two of the aspects of the job and both are very different in their own way. Having one skill doesn’t necessarily mean you also have the other. Kim was an example to me during the time he directed Team Fakta and I learned heaps from him in my first years with CSC. I enjoyed his way of working and how correct he was in dealing with all the riders. He definitely set a standard for me; so did Bjarne. Bjarne Riis is a great man.
PEZ: When we have spoken before, you’ve mentioned how important it is that the team not only be a ‘clean team’ but also are seen to be clean, with the riders you hire and the staff that are employed. You spoke about the “no doping history” for staff and riders and I’ve heard another example of this is that the medical staff will be from the UK and not be coming with previous ‘cycling team’ experience.
The medical staff working with BC is the absolute top. The doctors, physio’s, the psychiatrist, etc these people are experts in their field. They do have plenty of experience working with individual top level professional athletes and the British National Team of course. It’s good though that there aren’t any direct ties with existing professional teams; a fresh approached is welcomed by the public.
PEZ: The Biological Passport has come in for some criticism of late, but do you still see it as an important tool to help you in matching results to genuine ability and making determinations about who will hire or even approach?
I really can’t comment on that. I am not a doctor and to date, personally I cannot evaluate blood profiles. I have also learned that there are not many athletes, from any sport, that one can put one’s hand in the fire for. There is always a possibility that people try to squeeze through the minuscule loopholes in the system, it’s in the human nature I guess. There was a time that cheating the sport was a more intense occupation than the sport itself.
PEZ: Do you think there is sometimes a sense of hypocrisy in some teams that loudly and publicly preach the anti-doping message and then put unreasonable expectations on riders to win as much as possible, come back from injury sooner than is practical and to constantly justify their salary to the sponsors?
That kind of nonsense was general practice in my days as a rider. I last wrote in my column in the Australian Ride Cycling Review magazine what happened to me in Lotto in the Tour de France in ’96; but that kind of stuff didn’t happen to me alone, lots of riders got that pressure; some gave in. I received a lot of reactions on that article, from fans and former and present riders. Now, luckily, this kind of incompetent management has been forced out of the peloton; riders don’t take that crap anymore, and they shouldn’t have too!
PEZ: Finally, the work-family balance is always difficult, and I could imagine that starting a ‘new business’ would be especially demanding. For those that haven’t read your latest blog , can you give us a sense of how this work-family balance has had to change in the last months since the diagnosis of your son Tristan’s illness?
Everything has changed and nothing really. It’s complicated to explain. I work just as hard; have just as many conversations on the phone each day. My job as Sports Manager is a 24/7 one; but so is my responsibility as a father. I have a wonderful wife who has been raising our kids virtually by herself while I am out on the road, especially during the racing season. But Sabine makes sure the time I get to spend with them is quality time; all is worked around my schedule; it’s fantastic. Sabine is my PA, my solid rock. My kids are super too; I am proud to say their emotional intelligence is remarkable; they really do understand the dynamics of my job and love cycling.
When our first boy Saлn was merely 2 years old I had a serious accident; it took a lot of hard work to come back from that and I still carry the scars of it; but so does my family. We have been through a few testing times together but it only made us stronger. Our friends and family know that the moment Sabine calls me back home and tells me I need to give up the cycling world for our family to thrive, I wouldn’t hesitate a single moment.
PEZ: So what’s next on the agenda? Come Monday morning what will be the first order of business for the 2010 Team Sky project?
As I said, my job is 24/7. It never stops. I don’t have weekends; as weekends are when the races are on. Rider’s managers never stop this time of the year; neither do the riders nor the staff. There’s always different aspects that need attention.
And with that as a timely reminder of how much of Scott’s valuable time we had already taken up, late on a Friday afternoon, it seemed like a good point to end our extended chat on.
PEZ wishes to thank Scott for taking time to both update us on the Team Sky project and give us the insight of his experience in the hope that the fans can better understand what goes on behind the scenes in a top level ProTour cycling team.
If you want to know what bike Scott is testing at present of what the latest stage of the Team development process is, you can follow him on Twitter at triplesmc .