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Cioni Q&A: Sky’s transparency, Wiggins, and winning Tours

Sky's point man for finish-line PR at the Tour talks about balancing the team's transparency and privacy, Wiggins' growth, and winning tours

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Dario Cioni probably has a wider view of the cycling world than most. He raced professionally for 12 years for some of the top teams, including Italian powerhouse Mapei–Quick Step, Fassa Bortolo, Liquigas-Bianchi, Predictor-Lotto, and Sky. In 2004 he won the Italian time trial championship, and finished fourth in the Giro d’Italia and third in the Tour de Suisse. In all, he completed 19 grand tours before retiring from racing in 2011. He holds a university degree in international business with a specialization in sports management, and he is a member of the Athletes’ Commission for the sport’s governing body, the UCI.

Since hanging up the bike as rider for Sky, Cioni has continued working for the team as business manager for Italy and in a public relations role. VeloNews recently caught up with Cioni to talk about Sky’s 2012 Tour de France victory with Bradley Wiggins, some critics’ perceptions of the team, and staying at the top of the sport. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

VeloNews: Last year you went to the Tour not as a rider but as race PR for Sky. How did your experience as a rider help the team achieve its goals?
Dario Cioni: My main job at the Tour was finish-line management — doing all the media, anti-doping, and taking Brad to the hotel as fast as possible. And with experience and being around races a long time, you sort of know how races work, like the best places to get out and make it to the car and so forth. That’s how I ended up doing a bit of PR, a bit by chance. It came naturally for me. I also made sure that Brad had everything he needed at the finish and made sure the soigneurs took his finish bag. Like with the hydration — always making sure Brad had a bottle after the stage. That’s a really important part of the team’s way of recovering. When Brad gets into the car we always have some food there. It’s all part of the performance strategy. It’s important to know that as race leader he had one hour less than everyone else, so over the course of a grand tour that adds up. The old rule in racing says that all the minutes gained in the bed on a grand tour, if you look at the total, is like one more day of sleep, one more day of recovery. So we were sort of having to do the opposite.

VN: How do you manage the needs of the media and Wiggins’ need for rest?
DC: You have to find a balance between giving access and making people happy, but keeping it all in a controlled amount of time. If you fall behind the requests, you’re there until night. But you also understand that that is part of the job. All the while, you’re trying to do your own job, too. You need to find a balance point. Sometimes you get it right and everyone is happy; sometimes you get it wrong and someone won’t be happy.

VN: Some observers questioned Sky’s dominating performance at the 2012 Tour, suggesting it was suspiciously similar to the way Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal team took ownership of the race.
DC: From the beginning, Sky took a different way. If you remember the team’s first year [2010], it was like a half-disaster. Mistakes were made, and there was some inexperience on the road, though they had massive experience on the track. They were also unlucky and the team was under-performing. But some of our ideas were good, and I think what happened was over that winter they went through the process of saying, “ok, we did this, this, and this, so let’s analyze what worked, what didn’t work, and see where we can improve. And whatever doesn’t affect performance, well that isn’t a priority.” That was fundamental to the start of the improvement process. Like with coaching and [sports scientist] Tim Kerrison. In the first year it was just observing mostly; in the second year, he started working with Brad. Then they saw with Brad it worked. And then they tried to extend it with everyone, to build up the structure of the team.

I know people will say, “you know, the team was really dominant,” and they were. Basically, they had one big goal: win the Tour. All the team was working with that big goal in mind. If you look at the riders who were there, most of them would have been leaders in any other team, so I think the performance is also due to the quality of the horsepower you had there. Another thing is that Brad really did a year that was one-thousand percent for the bike, one-thousand percent committed. And that’s something people don’t see at home, or maybe don’t realize. It’s the amount of effort he put in, and the amount of sacrifice. It’s time away from family, hours and hours and hours on the bike. I mean, even the altitude camps. When you go to Tenerife and you go to altitude, it’s going to be hard training because you’ve got long climbs and often they are also isolated places. So that’s a sacrifice. You say, “ok, I asked my family to not to see me for two weeks, three weeks,” hoping that that will pay off.

Then there’s the small things, like the warm-downs. You know, cycling is the only sport where you get to the finish and you go inside the bus. And then you don’t turn your legs until the next day, probably just at the sign-on. And then out of the sign-on in a hundred meters or so you are probably at threshold. If you say you did that in any other sport, they’d say you’re crazy. The physiology! Like, just because you’re a cyclist you’ve got the magic warm-up and magic warm-down? Maybe others were doing warm-downs after time trials or something, but I think we were the first to do it systematically. And it’s not an option. That is another thing that came in slowly, and at first it was just Bradley doing it. Then it would be Bradley and someone else. And people saw Bradley doing it and said, “ah, let’s do it too.”

VN: Speaking of Tenerife, what would you say to those who express suspicion when it comes to Sky’s training camps there, given Armstrong’s infamous connection with the island?
DC: The team has already commented on that, but if you think of altitude in Europe, there aren’t that many places you can go. You’ve sort of got, say, Livingo [Italy] and St. Moritz [Switzerland]. They are both about 1,800 meters, but I don’t think Livigno would even be considered altitude by international standards. The [Passo di] Stelvio is over 2,700 meters, but it’s closed during the winter. Then if you try to go to these places in February, you’re going skiing; there’s no chance you’re going on a bike. In Tenerife, you can go all winter. Sierra Nevada [Spain] in winter has snow, so there are a lot of things that put Tenerife above the other places.

But even before, it was the best place to train, and if Ferrari used to go there, it doesn’t mean everyone who goes there is linked to Ferrari. That is the best place to train. That is the only reason Sky goes there. There is just no other location that offers the possibility to train all year round. And remember, the way that the team trains is systematic. They like to have the same circuits, the same rides to repeat. So if you went to, say, Sierra Nevada, you could go there in July but you couldn’t go there in winter. It would make it impossible to compare tests. The team doesn’t do any lab tests. Bradley does field tests on the road, so for him to be able to go to the same place, month after month, means he can compare his tests.

VN: Do you think Sky has always done a good job about being transparent?
DC: You know, it’s a hard to position to be in. Whichever side you go, you will always be on the wrong side for someone. So I think what they’ve done is they’ve taken a line. And this, at times, will make some unhappy. If you look into the amount of effort that the team is putting into communication, trying to answer questions, I think we have come a long way, especially compared to other teams. But it’s not our job to look at what others do; we’re not interested in that. [Team Sky boss] Dave Brailsford has his own ideas, and he goes with them. That’s how the team operates. If we’re wrong, we’ll fail; and in that case, if we fail we’ll go back and look at why we failed, and look at what we could have done differently. It’s hard to be perfect.

VN: On the first rest day of last year’s Tour, with Wiggins in yellow, Sky held a press conference. Before it started, a Sky representative told the all journalists not to ask any questions about doping. Why?
DC: I think there was a misunderstanding. If you remember, it was the same day the Cofidis rider got caught up [in a doping scandal] and Brad had the jersey. What we didn’t want to end up happening was that even with such an important thing as the stage win and the jersey we’d end up talking about the Cofidis guy who we knew nothing about and couldn’t even comment on. So that’s why, I think, things were misunderstood. And time was limited. At press conferences we try to do our best, but there isn’t infinite time, and TV still needs to do the one-to-ones. And, unluckily, you can’t have one day for press and no training. What we really wanted to avoid was sort of having this half hour and going on for 15 minutes about doping on Cofidis, which we knew nothing about anyway.

VN: Wiggins lost his temper at the Tour on one or two occasions when the subject of doping came up. Has Sky discussed that with him?
DC: Bradley has had some contact with our PR, and I think that is quite a common thing for a lot of teams, to have PR experts coming in. But Brad is still a person, so he will always have his own character that at some moments will come out. And if you go and look, Brad has always been Brad, so that is part of Brad. He knows he swears, and he knows he shouldn’t swear, and he’s sorry for swearing, but he’s already sworn, you know? Not to excuse him, because he knows he shouldn’t swear, especially in public now that he’s an example for future generations. But he’s trying to improve. You can’t change a person in one day. You don’t have a switch for that.

VN: In what ways have you personally seen Wiggins change since winning the Tour?
DC: I actually think he changed more before the Tour. I knew him a little bit for many years, but I got to know him better when I joined the team [as a rider in 2010]. I’d say the big change was from early 2011 to 2012, and of course that was part of his big increase in performance. But again, we can go back to the idea of one hour with the press each day. If you can’t manage that properly, it’s going to be tough.

He has said himself publicly that it’s not his preferred part of the job. He’s always struggled a bit with the press, but he’s making an effort to reach that balance where you get what you want but he does it in a manner that is not too extended or too stressful. In the past, he was probably fighting this too much. He knows that people want to hear from him. When he wrote that piece in the newspaper, I think that was the real Brad sort of being vocal. He was clear. He put his emotions and thoughts out there. He felt better to put it on paper than to express it in person. Some people are more introverted and prefer to write it down.

VN: If so, why did Brad stop using Twitter?
DC: I think he just became tired of having random people harass him. They’d ask questions with so little knowledge, and it’s not that he didn’t want to answer questions. Through Twitter some would attack him and attack his wife even. He said, “I can’t lose a night’s sleep over this.” I think that is sort of the limit of Twitter, that it’s not a face. That’s why I prefer to be on Skype with you right now; I can see you. With Twitter, you don’t know who’s behind it most of the time; there’s no signature. So some don’t understand that even if they don’t have a name, they are still responsible for what they are writing and also responsible for what they’re retweeting.

He was one of the first to go on Twitter, and Bradley’s Twitter could’ve been colorful because he could express himself freely. But in the end, he was just tired of these random and anonymous people asking him questions and leaving him bad comments. Twitter can be quite good when you’re on the road; it’s one of the best ways to follow races. There are some really good guys on Twitter, and what they write is really 100-percent spot-on. But there are some really random guys fighting about something they don’t know much about. That is sort of the limit of Twitter. But of course, that’s just my opinion.

VN: And what about Sky’s plans this year to win the Giro with Brad and the Tour with Froome? How will they pull off both?
DC: You know, last year was a really good year for Team Sky, especially if you look at the Tour. The goal was to win the Tour as Team Sky, and Brad was in the best position at the time to win the Tour. They looked at the Tour course, they looked at the riders who could go there, and Bradley had the perfect match to perform on that terrain. Chris had the second perfect match; that is why he was always second on the hierarchy.

In the future they will always try to go in with two possible leaders. After 2011, when there was one leader, Brad crashed and broke his collarbone. We had a GC team with no GC rider. So it makes things difficult from the performance point of view. So in the future, especially at the Tour, we will always have a plan A and a plan B. Ideally we will stick to plan A, but you want to have a back-up. Cycling is not math. Right now, Chris is going for the Tour and Bradley is going for the Giro.

And of course, as defending champion he would like to go to the Tour and have no. 1 on his back. And he doesn’t want to be the first rider pulling. It could be that Chris doesn’t hit his targets and he’s underperforming, so in that case the plan is still to win the Tour with a Team Sky rider. But if Froome is not fit enough, it will be a management choice. It could be that someone else is better than Brad so the team goes for a third rider. It would be stupid to go into the Tour and say, “ah, because we decided that Chris would be the leader, we’re going to sit with that, even if we know that Chris is only at 70 percent of his performance level.” He’s not going to win it in that case. Last year Chris could sort of attend to his own race with Bradley, because no one really put us in a position where we had to use Froome to defend the leadership. There was never an attack that forced Froome to work to his depth. That’s why they finished first and second. He had an incredible ride and proved what kind of rider he is.

VN: What is a myth about Sky that you’d like to debunk?
DC: Probably there is a general perception about Sky that just because they have money life is easy; but it’s not the case that you buy success. What people don’t see is all the work that goes on. Like people don’t see that our mechanics are always the last ones to close up the truck at races. In the Giro, you go there and it’ll be 10 o’clock at night and they’re still at the truck. They go through everything with such detail. And the soigneurs, they do everything so spot-on. Everyone has such pride. And this sort of commitment, to always do your best, to always give your best, I think that’s what a lot of people don’t see and yet is probably one of the keys to the team’s results.