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Tim Kerrison: the man behind Bradley Wiggins’ Tour

The Team Sky head of performance science explains how he has prepared Bradley Wiggins for his yellow jersey challenge.

Words by Richard Moore in Pau

Tuesday July 17, 2012

Tim Kerrison has heard talk all year of Bradley Wiggins “peaking too early.” It was said at Paris-Nice in March, at the Tour de Romandie in April, and the Critérium du Dauphiné in June. It was even said in the first week of the Tour de France, after Wiggins was second in the prologue and held that position going into the mountains.

Now the talk is about whether Wiggins can maintain his form in the third week. Kerrison, the sports scientist who has been in charge of Wiggins’ training and conditioning since late 2010, is convinced that he can, because it is what he has been preparing him for all year.

“Brad’s never won the Tour de France,” says Kerrison, “and when you’re trying to do something you’ve not done before you don’t know 100 per cent you can do it until the end. We’ve been very aware that the Tour can be won and lost in the third week, so therefore you have to be able to sustain a high workload, day after day, over a three-week period, and not have a terrible day.

“As Brad said, he’s only human. I think everyone over 21 days might have a day where they don’t feel 100 per cent, but it’s something we’ve worked on really hard. We’ve been training all year for a three-week race in July. All our training has been based around not just performing at the level required but sustaining it over the three weeks.”

You sense that Kerrison is almost offended by questions about whether he has got Wiggins’ preparation right — but only almost, because Kerrison is as quiet and unassuming and measured with his words as his fellow Aussie, Shane Sutton, is the absolute opposite.

Kerrison and Sutton are the team behind Wiggins: Sutton as motivator and shoulder to cry on, Kerrison, whose title is head of performance science, as the man who collates and analyses all the data. He is also credited with helping to build a coaching structure at Sky that, if it is not already the envy of other teams, might well be after this Tour.

Prior to joining Sky in early 2010, Kerrison worked for British Swimming from late 2004 to 2008, and, before that, with the Australian sprint swimming team, including Jodie Henry, a triple gold medallist at the Athens Olympics. Before that he worked with rowers; and he was previously a rower himself. He does point out that he “was one of those who didn’t achieve my goals as an athlete, for whatever reason.”

Between 2005 and 2008 Kerrison met regularly with a small group of coaches and sports scientists in Britain, from cycling, swimming, rowing and sailing. It was through these meetings that he flitted across Dave Brailsford’s radar. But when he joined Sky, and entered the world of professional cycling, he was surprised to find how unsophisticated the coaching structures were — if they existed at all.

“One of the surprising things not just to me, but to others who came in to the professional team from the British system, was the absence of coaching structures,” he says. “Teams invest a lot in riders but don’t do a lot to develop those riders to get the most out of their potential. That was surprising. From the outset we said that we’d have a coaching structure, and develop a coaching group to get the most out of our riders. We have a good coaching group now, and most riders have one-on-one tailored coaching.”

For the first year Kerrison mainly observed. He agrees now with Brailsford’s conclusion at the end of that 2010 season that many of the riders simply were not fit enough. “At the end of the year Dave said we focused too much on the peas and not enough on the steak, and I think he was right. We were looking at all the fancy little things — the hundreds and thousands on the cake, but we forgot about the cake.

“One of the things we looked at was the race programme. There’s a requirement to ride all WorldTour races, but let’s take away this approach of going from race to race to race, and in between races you have a couple of days to recover and a couple of days to get ready for the next race. Riders would go through a whole season and never actually train.

“So with quite a few of our riders we stripped the race programme down, so they were getting enough race days, but also enough blocks between race days to get some good training in. We tried to dispel this myth that you have to race to be ready to race.”

An example of this came last year, when Wiggins crashed out of the Tour de France and was preparing for the Vuelta. “We were debating whether he should go and race in Denmark to get some racing in his legs before the Vuelta, but ultimately we decided it would be better to train, and control the training load, than a race where you can’t control the training load.”

‘Control’ is the word that crops up again and again. Some of Kerrison’s innovations are visible — the warm-downs after stages, for example. “It took a while to convince everybody that was something we should do,” he says. But others are less so.

The data that Kerrison collects, which allows him to build his training models and to establish “what it takes to be the best in the world,” is tightly guarded. And the question of whether they would be willing to release it is a difficult one. “We do make some of it public,” says Kerrison, “but our reservation about making our performers’ data public is that we’re trying to develop guys and a team where the guys are all the best in world at the jobs they do.

“And part of our work is developing models to establish what it takes to be the best in the world at every job. By releasing all that data we’re giving it to everyone else. We’ve got nothing to hide, but we don’t want to be doing everyone else’s jobs for them. If we released the training data, they could use it.”

The suspicion that surrounds exceptional performances at the Tour de France, and which has led to Wiggins being quizzed almost daily, is not something Kerrison has encountered in his previous jobs, or not to the same extent, and he struggles to comprehend it.

“To all the people who are suspicious of performance, sport is all about performance, so you have to have more than performance as a basis for your suspicion,” he says. “We can’t be suspicous of everybody who performs without some other reason to be suspicious. I think it’s quite sad.

“We have been open about the process, and we invite everyone to look at the method behind what we do. We’d be losing our competitive advantage if we gave away all the details of that method, but the actual process behind it, we’ve been very open about.”

Kerrison says there are no secrets, and that it is quite simple. Even something as apparently simple as the warm-downs offer a clue. “I think everyone can see,” says Kerrison, “that we’re prepared to do things that other teams aren’t prepared to do.”

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