21 Days to Glory
The Official Team Sky Book of the 2012 Tour de France

Words by Sarah Edworthy. Photographs by Scott Mitchell.

Published by HarperSport on 8th November. RRP £25 Get it on Amazon

Review by Dave Nash

 

'You're in a bubble for four weeks, immune to the rest of the world. It's all-consuming.'

The words of Team Sky's Senior Sports Director, Sean Yates, quoted in 21 Days to Glory,  a new book that documents the inside story of how the 2012 Tour de France was won.

Featuring the brilliant photography of Scott Mitchell, 21 Days to Glory succeeds in allowing us to glimpse life inside the 'bubble' Yates alludes to. Seen from the perspective of the riders, the backroom staff and the team management, it is an intense, focused, physically and mentally demanding world they inhabit. By the end of the book we are left in no doubt that this was a monumental team performance of epic proportions.

The photography of Scott Mitchell was a highlight of the Team Sky's coverage of their racing season on their official website and Wheelsuckers posted several retrospectives of his work during the summer.  Mitchell was embedded with Team Sky throughout  the racing season, tracking the team  as they contested the Tour de France,  and also the Giro and the Vuelta.

Provided with almost uninhibited access, his lens delved into every corner of the operation:  the cyclists winding down after a day in the saddle, relaxing in their rooms or taking a massage;  a management-Wiggins debrief; a prostrate Bernie Eisel being patched up by team doctors on the team coach;  Søren Kristiansen preparing the evening meal with the concentration and care of a Michelin chef;  a ripped and dejected Mark Cavendish sitting alone having fallen in the bunch sprint in Rouen;  hugs of congratulation from the mechanics and soigneurs.

These private, behind the scenes moments, juxtapose with photographs of the world outside the bubble -  portraits of the peloton, sweeping landscapes, the crowds and the circus.

Not surprisingly,  for a man whose twitter handle is @modcyclingphoto, Mitchell has much in common with Bradley Wiggins and his portraits of Sky's team leader are testament to their friendship.  No more so than after Stage 7 of the Tour when Wiggins had wrestled the yellow jersey from Fabian Cancellara. A still rather incredulous looking Wiggins stares out of his hotel room window with the yellow jersey lying neatly beside him.

Nothing, it seems, is immune from the roaming eye of Mitchell. His work is very much that of  a photo journalist. Every image tells a story or offers a tantalising view of the closed world of Team Sky.  Even the  mundane assumes a grandeur when viewed through his lens - a brush dislodging the dirt from the links on a chain or jerseys casually flung on the floor, soiled by the rigours of the road, all convey the devotion to the cause.

Mitchell's photographs sit perfectly with Sarah Edworthy's illuminating commentary. Together they record what was, without doubt,  a brilliantly executed plan.  Every member of the team performing their respective tasks to perfection with the one single, galvanising objective: to achieve a  British victory in the Tour de France for the first time in the history of the event.  

I say 'British victory' as the intention was always for Bradley Wiggins to lead the team, but Chris Froome offered a strong Plan B should Wiggins's falter.  The rest of the story is now part of cycling lore, though the Wiggins-Froome story is touched on in the book - Yates admits he was 'pissed off' when Froome went AWOL on Stage 11, a move that left the yellow jersey 'unprotected and in trouble' and put the Team Sky press office on the back foot.

This was the only slight glitch in the carefully planned strategy and as if to underline the team effort, Bradley Wiggins is only fleetingly quoted in the book. OK, much of the book inevitably centres around  him, but since his win in Paris, Wiggins has made it clear he would not have achieved his historic victory without the solidarity of those around him, which allowed him to perform with such metronomic efficiency.

As David Brailsford notes in his introduction:  'for those 21 days you don't think about the outcome, you don't think about the 'what if's'; you focus instead on the process, and on delivering that on a  minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-to-day basis, because focusing on the process increases the chance of getting the outcome you want.'

The meticulous attention to planning and training of Team Sky has been well documented before - the  'aggregation of marginal gains' philosophy of Brailsford has underpinned the growing success of Team Sky since its baptism of fire in the Tour de France of 2010. It is a mindset that has permeated throughout the whole team and 21 Days to Glory illustrates the attention to detail and planning all the team members exhibited. A great deal of which had started at the end of 2011, when the riders gathered for their first training sessions and the management began to prepare the squad that would ultimately come to dominate the 2012 edition of the Tour.

Take this quote from soigneur (or carer) Mario Pafundi, for example:  'It's about looking for marginal gains everywhere. I clean hotel rooms, remove dust and dirt, check under beds and furniture. When its hot, we put in air conditioning or a dehumidifier. We transport anallergic  bed sheets and thermogel mattresses for each rider. We work hard to create the best atmosphere for the full complement of staff. If riders sense other people around them are tired, it is contaminating.'

You can't deny that checking for dust under beds is shows an impressive level  of care, but one wonders  how quickly the wheels might have come off the purring machine that was Team Sky had things not gone strictly to plan. When you are in the ascendency and team morale is buoyant those tedious but necessary tasks are so much easier to perform.  Somehow, I  can't imagine that Pafundi's counterpart at BMC was fluffing up the pillows of Cadel Evans with much enthusiasm  as the Tour made its way through the Pyrenees.

It is a long, arduous journey to Paris and Sarah Edworthy documents the race as it unfolds. Her words are elegantly entwined with Mitchell's photography and take us through that tense first week when the main objective was to keep Wiggins safe, even though all the riders were chomping at the bit to get to the mountains where they could really begin to take the race by the scruff of the neck .

The securing of the yellow jersey on La Planche des Belles Fillesis presented almost as an inevitability, such was the confidence in the team. Then came the battle to ensure that it was not relinquished and, like knights of old, the riders of Sky surrounded their king, prepared to defend him to the death. Pretenders to the throne were ruthlessly despatched as the Team Sky game plan was executed to perfection.

What shines through is the team ethic. Mark Cavendish was obviously desperate to do the rainbow jersey of World Champion proud, but fully aware that Team Sky was about Wiggins, not him.  It was a new world also for Sky's Austrian rider,  Bernie Eisel, who, like Cavendish, had joined Sky from HTC, principally to be  right hand man for the World Champion.  It was not lost on Eisel that his priority was to support Wiggins - a job he did admirably in the early stages and continued into the mountains.  Sean Yates is quoted in the book extolling the virtues of the Austrian, and the determination and passion that Eisel demonstrated may go some way to explaining why he decided to stay with Team Sky rather than follow Cavendish to Omega Pharma-Quick Step. He tasted victory and now he wants a second helping.

'When I look back, I see I was able to give more because we had the yellow jersey. Riding to defend it is energising, motivating. It's always a good feeling when you're leading your team at the front , but when it's the Tour de France, it's amazing. Every day you suffer, and suffer again, but for the honour of defending yellow, you know why you're putting yourself through it. '

The pressure on Wiggins was huge and 21 Days to Glory provides a picture of a man focused, but relaxed and at ease away from the public glare. A joker too,  constantly amusing the team with his ability to mimic other team members.  Team Sky, it seems, was a  happy ship - all the more important as the Tour progressed. The growing attention of the media - especially the British media who finally woke up to the fact that a something pretty bloody historic was happening across the Channel  - instilled a protective devotion to Wiggins, strengthening the sense of purpose within the team as a whole.

Richie Porte, one of the two Australians in the squad, comments; 'We all had great respect for Brad. He had to deal with all the pressure as well as ride the kilometres.'

Porte's compatriot, Michael Rogers, Team Sky's hugely experienced road captain makes the point: 'When you have a good leader like Bradley, and you see the work you do contributes to his role, and he can attain results because of your work, everyone buys in.'

And whilst Brad dealt with the pressure on and off the bike, the backroom staff got on with the massive logistical headache that constitutes the day-to-day operation of a professional cycling team contesting a Grand Tour. Every so often  Edworthy and Mitchell deviate from a commentary of the race to delve in a little more detail on the backroom team: the mechanics, the chef Søren Kristiansen, the Press machine, the sports directors.

This is where the image of the team working together, combined with meticulous planning - the 'aggregation of marginal gains'  - become so apparent. Detailed recces of the routes; menus that change in accordance with the terrain; individual  mattresses to ensure the riders sleep soundly; team briefings, massages, hydration, de-briefings, data analysis and . . . the list goes on and on . . . 

An then there is the nitty-gritty of day to day routines that continue out of sight:  preparing meals and snacks; keeping the bikes set-up and in perfect running order for the respective riders; the 60 suitcases that have to be lugged from the coach to the correct rooms - just imagine the hell to pay if Mark Cavendish (5' 9") emerged from the team hotel wearing the bib shorts of Sky's German powerhouse, Christian Knees (6' 4").  It's a complicated game but every member of the team knows their role and what is expected. That, in short, is why Team Sky succeeded.

Having arrived in Paris victorious, the book ends with an interesting stage by stage breakdown of the race, including comments by members of the team as to how the respective stages played out. Though it serves as a convenient breakdown of the 20 stages, it's always interesting to get hear the thoughts of the main protagonists .

Some may argue that this book is a little cocky and self-referential - a collective slap on back for a job well done, but  I beg to differ. 21 Days to Glory is a story of a team that came together with one simple objective - to win the Tour de France. It succeeded.  And did so ahead of schedule and that was due to a phenomenal team effort that this book illustrates so well.

Wiggins recalls that heady July day in Paris: 'It's difficult to know what to feel. The thing that's struck me most is just what my wins means to other people around me, like the Team Sky photographer [ rather aptly, Scott Mitchell] breaking down in my room and my mechanic being in tears. you just think, "F**king hell, everyone else around me is living it too."'

Indeed they did, and 21 Days to Glory echoes the words of the maillot jaune.

 

All photographs © Scott Mitchell/Team Sky

To see some more of Scott's photographs of Team Sky, visit their official website or click on the links below to view previous Wheelsuckers posts featuring his work during the Summer of 2012.
Team Sky TdF Photographic Retrospective
Team Sky Vuelta a España Photographic Retrospective
Life on the Road: a homage to the unsung heroes of Sky

You can also download the 21 Days to Glory app, which allow you to listen to commentary by Scott  on some of the photographs featured in the book.

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Comment by Andy Dawson on November 8, 2012 at 9:28

Great review Dave and I love Scott Mitchell's photography. Brings it all back! For lots of reasons, It was only Team Sky ripping the TdF apart and the Olympics that 'saved' 2012 for me otherwise I'd rather forget it!

Waiting for Xmas to get the book is the sensible thing to do but, sod it, I'm off to Waterstones now...

Comment by Dave Nash on November 7, 2012 at 20:44

I think that's a very good point to make Nick and Sean Yates is a case in point. He talks in the book about the closeness of his relationship with Wiggins and the experience that Yates brings to the team as a whole is clear - the way he reads the race and can make the right decision on how to react. He is going to be a massive loss - no doubt about it, but there are some experienced heads in Sky.  I'd argue that the greatest threat to the dominance of Sky is not so much the loss of certain individuals, but how the other teams react - the top teams are going to be gunning for them like never before!

Comment by Nick Williamson on November 7, 2012 at 17:40

Yet another book to add to my growing Xmas wish-list. It will be interesting to see how Team Sky operate next year having lost some key figures in recent weeks, like Sean Yates and Bobby Julich.

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