With Egan Bernal, Dave Brailsford didn’t follow his own advice

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I want to take you back to 2012, when I was invited to a small and intimate evening with Dave Brailsford who was preparing for what would be his team’s first Tour de France win. It was my first interaction with Brailsford and I was taken aback by his charisma, intelligence, approach, and apparent candidness.

It was an off-the-record evening where Brailsford spoke about how Team Sky was going to win its first Tour de France with Bradley Wiggins. He took us through a race preview detailing every stage, and a very rational approach to how Wiggins was going to win. Simple math was the answer, and this was the perfect Tour for Wiggins. There weren’t many stages with steep ascents and it was heavy on ITT kilometers, and if Wiggins could simply hold the watts/kilo that they knew he could, the rest would just be going through the motions, controlling the race, and keeping Wiggo fresh to put out those predictable watts/kg.

That evening in London Brailsford spoke to many topics ranging from how Team Sky’s approach was different (creating a system where riders could thrive), rider salaries, perspectives on doping, and more.

One topic he spoke about in detail was the lifecycle of riders, and how young star riders are often unpredictable from a performance perspective. I remember clearly that he said ‘for unknown reasons’ (legitimately), and giving/demanding too much too soon in the early stages of a rider’s career could be a factor. Young Grand Tour superstars like Damiano Cunego and many others never reached such career heights again – that early Grand Tour success was hard to replicate.

Brailsford drew this graph to show his analysis of typical rider lifecycles, and placed his Team Sky riders on this graph to show where they sat:

This same graph is taken from a BBC article from an on-the-record interview they did with Brailsford where this topic was covered.

That was back in 2012. I’ve placed Sky/Ineos’ past seven wins on this graph since. The numbered sections of the graph basically say this:

1. The guys on the left of the chart are being paid for what we believe they can do in the future. Invest in them for when they reach the peak of their lifecycle
2. These are the top performers at the peak of their careers.
3. These guys are getting older now but if they can still do a job they still deserve their place on the team.
4. Once you get down here, it’s time to say goodbye.
5. Get rid of these guys, pronto (you can see ‘CF’ at the bottom of this area)

As you can see Brailsford has been mostly right since 2012 but his bet for this year’s Tour, Egan Bernal, is clearly the outlier who goes against his own logic. He’s an example of the exact same young success story that’s traditionally been so hard to predict. And, after he dropped out today, an example of how that unpredictability can go wrong.

Clearly, he’s not the same rider as he was last year and his performances have been anything but predictable. It could be because of the back injury that forced him out of the Dauphine, or it could be poor preparation due to the upside-down season COVID has forced. Only Brailsford, Bernal, and a few other know the real answer.

Ever since Egan Bernal was chosen as the clear leader for Ineos, and each time the television camera has been pointed at him at this Tour de France, I think back to this evening with Brailsford in 2012. To be clear, I have nothing against Bernal. In fact, I’m a massive fan. But I do sympathise with a 23-year-old with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

As you’d expect, Brailsford is standing by his Tour de France roster decision, which didn’t include Geraint Thomas or Chris Froome, but he seems to have gone against his own analysis back in 2012 – young superstars are unpredictable. If there’s one thing that Brailsford has been successful at doing it’s eliminating the variables, and this year he backed the biggest variable on his roster. Hopefully, Bernal finds his form in future years and remains injury-free.

For now, the young unpredictable superstar to watch is 21-year-old Tadej Pogacar. What a talent.

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