cycling, Team Sky, David Brailsford, United Kingdom
Sky team-mates Richie Porte and Chris Froome at the recent Criterium International (Getty)

Just two weekends ago, a public spat in Formula One reminded sports fans that professional athletes are, by nature, a rather narcissistic bunch. While Webber and Vettel continue to bicker, it is easy to see the potential for a similar scenario unfolding in professional cycling.

With a veritable glut of talent on their roster, it is not a stretch to imagine that Sky may have a problem managing the personalities and egos within their team, in a similar fashion to the discourse at Red Bull Racing.  

So when does a stacked deck turn into a clash of egos, and what can be done to mitigate the impact on the team? For most teams, having more than one rider at short odds to win a monument or a grand tour is an absolute dream. For a team like Sky, flush with talent and potential, it has to be one of the most pressing issues.

In 2013, Australian Richie Porte has taken his performances up a notch. In doing so, he has given Sky a realistic third option for Grand Tour success in 2013. Managing Wiggins and Froome has already proven challenging, but Sky team management have thus far done a particularly good job of keeping the peace.

While their over supply of talent has been meticulously managed within an inch of positive public relations capability, it is only a matter of time before three potential tour winners realise that they want to be the team leader, and not the lieutenant.

Handling egos can’t be an easy game, but there seem a few things that may keep the athletes focused on what they are there to do.

Dave Brailsford, principle at Team Sky, has shown how courageous and flexible leadership leads to more control around quality of performance. Ultimately, responsibility rests not just on the riders, but also with team management, and the decisions they have made.

With no equivocation, Sky has set the bar higher than most teams. In doing this, focusing on the expectations of the individuals, it has forced the riders into simply getting on with their jobs. There is little space for jostling, and jockeying, rather the riders have to earn their keep and continually show why they are being invested in. This includes a clear understanding of the expectations around performance, attitude and behaviour.

Chris Froome seems to intrinsically understand his boundaries. At the Criterium International last week, Froome challenged Porte’s leaders jersey, calling into question the rivalries within the team. Although it seemed strange to have Sky attacking Sky, we can only assume he was following team instructions. Porte later praised Froome, and the pair gained 1-2 positions on the podium.

This was quite opposite to the final climb to Peyragudes in Stage 17 of the 2012 Tour de France, where team instruction saw Froome slow for team leader Bradley Wiggins.

When trust is intrinsically built within the team, the riders don’t question their instructions. This autonomy is a defining advantage Sky have over many other teams.

Instead of letting egos become destabalising, Sky have used them to strengthen the team. Successful athletes appreciate being around other successful athletes, and they like to prove why they should be the team leader. This competitive element has been used as an advantage, and the competition for opportunities keeps their athletes on their toes. Their stacked roster indicates they understand the power of this.

At all costs, it must be remembered that the team is bigger than any individual athlete. As such, team goals always come first. Sky has shown they have an unwaveringly strong vision, even if it comes at what others might see as a high cost.

A better example can’t be seen than Mark Cavendish at Stage 18 of the 2012 Tour. Even as reigning world champion, Cav almost had to beg his team to lead him out for the sprint. Not only did Cavendish win the stage, but he did so in commanding fashion. In his interview afterwards, he insinuated that he wanted to prove a point to Sky, and show that they should respect his position more than they were. Even as a multiple stage winner at the Tour, Sky was happy to let him negotiate his future with another team.

To Sky’s credit, they were there to win the maillot jaune, even if it came at the cost of stage wins and egos. Team management realised that for the good of the organisation, and the individual involved, moving on was the only workable option for both Cavendish, and Sky.

It will be interesting to see if David Brailsford's robust management style will continue to pay dividends for Sky, or if the end of 2013 will see the big players parting ways in search of individual glory. Regardless, Sky Pro Cycling is certainly an interesting showcase for the power of visionary and structured management within the professional sporting sphere.

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