‘ Houdini’ Dave Brailsford shows durability in the face of scepticism

Dave Brailsford, the Ineos team principal, has ploughed on through a cyclone of criticism to toast a seventh Tour de France win in eight years with Egan Bernals victory

On a corner of the Place de la Concorde on Sunday night Michal Kwiatkowski dropped his motorcycle, sat down on the cobblestones and tucked into hot pizza and cold beer.

The former world champion, also winner of the Milan-San Remo and the Amstel Gold Race, ran unnoticed as jubilant Colombian fans swarmed around the Ineos team’s bus and gazed adoringly at his teammate Egan Bernal as he waved from the top step of the rostrum on the Champs Elysees.

Watching on, the team’s billionaire owner, Jim Ratcliffe, could enjoy the first fruits of his PS40m investment in cycling, only four months after Team Ineos had been created. It had been a gamble worth taking.

Ratcliffe and the Ineos team principal, Dave Brailsford, are kindred spirits, both knights of the realm, both maligned by the media, both questioned by the establishment over their ethics and both pursued by an army of trolls and sceptics.

Brailsford has become the Houdini of cycling. Little more than a year ago, after a damning report by the DCMS openly questioned his credibility, his stock had fallen so low this newspaper described his promise to win the Tour de France clean as” an empty pledge “, while others called for his abdication and the revoking of his knighthood. Undaunted, he has ploughed on regardless. Brailsford now seems to accept that haters gonna hate, whether you win or lose.

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Seven Tour wins in eight years, with four different riders, would have been unthinkable less than a decade ago, when Team Sky first rocked up at the Tour de France. Now a Brailsford-led Tour success is almost regarded as routine and, as the 2019 Tour ended, Bernal’s victory scarcely raised eyebrows . It is almost as if Jiffy pouches, salbutamol investigations and mystery testosterone deliveries never existed.

Holding court in a Colombian football jersey in the Parisian dusk, Brailsford was bullish.” Tough period don’t last ,” he said,” but tough people do. You can’t do this job without a thick skin. In sports management you need to be resilient and decide what’s important to you and what you are prepared to take on board. It takes me back to my upbringing in a Welsh slate mining village. They were tough guys, those miners, and you learn good values from them which have stood me in good stead .”

Dave Brailsford heads out for a ride in between stages of this year’s Tour. Photograph: Chris Graythen/ Getty Images

His latest Tour win may be seen by some as payback for all the criticism but Brailsford rejected the suggestion that he had been vindicated.” I got to the point where I felt life is for looking forward. You can look back and be angry or bitter but resulting a group of other people to achieve something is a much happier place to be.

” During the Tour last year I was angry. I felt like I was in a fight the whole time, I was stewing. Maybe age assistances but this year I’ve felt a lot calmer: I don’t feel any less competitive but I’ve been a bit more assessed and I’ve stopped fighting everybody.

” You get some people in life who are haters. They will find something to hate all the time. But if you look at the successful people in life, they are not the haters. If you want to be a winner, detesting is not the way to operate, to go about it .”

He may insist that Ineos remains a British team at heart but the next generation of Grand Tour wins churned out by Brailsford are more likely to come from Colombia or Ecuador, than Kilburn or Cardiff.

” When we started the team, there was a very Anglo-Saxon way about it ,” he said.” You are going to do it our style , no debate about it, which is naive when you have Colombians and Spanish staff members with the team.

” The best route to do it is to understand other people’s culture, other people’s views and construct them feel comfortable and help them perform to the best of their capabilities .”

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Brailsford said that his youthful experiences of trying to break into European cycling have given him an insight into Bernal’s needs.” When I was young and I came to live in France it was the loneliest period of my life. I had made a commitment to come here and I dared not go back as a failing, even though I was detesting it.

” I was really lonely and I realised I had to learn French and talk to somebody. Very slowly I integrated into the French culture. That experience stuck with me .”

But while the 22 -year-old Bernal has quickly established himself as the hottest property in the sport and the future face of Ineos, the sands of hour are catching up with Geraint Thomas. After four crashes in a few months, a crammed build-up and a lack of racing miles, the Welshman endured a bitter-sweet Tour.

He was gracious in defeat but privately he was said to be distraught at his second place. In the context of his season finishing the runner-up to his teammate was no mean feat but he wore the expression of a human who realised he had missed his last opportunity.

Yet for all Brailsford’s defiance, Thomas’s graciousness and Bernal’s wide-eyed wonder, the 2019 Tour will be remembered as a Tour a l’ancienne , when hazard, panache and panache, personified by Julian Alaphilippe and Thibaut Pinot, returned to the biggest race in cycling .

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