How Sir Dave Brailsford transformed British Cycling after damning Manchester United audit

Sir David Brailsford
Sir David Brailsford -Credit:Eddie Keogh - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Ineos sporting director Sir Dave Brailsford has concluded that Manchester United’s Carrington training complex is unfit for purpose for such an elite club and is recommending relocation.

The 60-year-old has been reviewing all sporting departments within the club amid several boardroom changes as he helps with Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s overhaul, having done the same at OGC Nice in 2022.

Brailsford is best known by the wider public as the man who transformed British Cycling under his ‘marginal gains’ thesis. His mantra stated that by improving every aspect of an entity by just one per cent, massive changes can be garnered when married together.

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In the 100 years before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Britain had won just one gold medal at the Games in cycling disciplines. The nation's efforts were so poor that one manufacturer refused to sell bikes to the team out of fear they would damage its business reputation.

Brailsford was appointed as British Cycling chief in 2003 and went about making minor but hugely significant changes. Every stone was turned. Better seats, electric overshorts to maintain temperature, new aerodynamic suits and alcohol-rubbed tyres for grip were all implemented.

As James Clear wrote in his book ‘Atomic Habits’: “They tested different types of massage gels to see which one led to the fastest muscle recovery. They hired a surgeon to teach each rider the best way to wash their hands to reduce the chances of catching a cold.

“They determined the type of pillow and mattress that led to the best night’s sleep for each rider. They even painted the inside of the team truck white, which helped them spot little bits of dust that would normally slip by unnoticed but could degrade the performance of the finely tuned bikes.”

Brailsford’s meticulous attention to detail bore fruit to dramatic success in Beijing. Team GB won 60 per cent of the gold medals on offer before setting nine Olympic and seven world records four years later at London 2012.

In 110 years, no British cyclist had won the Tour de France until Sir Bradley Wiggins - who had initially branded the marginal gains theory as “a load of rubbish” - did in 2012.

Colleague Chris Froome would go on to win the sport’s showpiece event three consecutive times between 2015 and 2017. Within that prior decade, Britain won 178 world championship titles, 66 Olympic and Paralympic golds and now five Tour de France victories.

Brailsford has since used this theory across multiple sports within Ineos’ portfolio including in Formula One, sailing and football. "You can take the best learnings from that and shift it across into football or into the sailing team,” Brailsford told ITV Sport.

"It could be the data and analytics or strategic planning of the F1 team and bring it here [to cycling]. So there's a 'cross-pollination' of ideas.”

It’s likely he will advise that certain similar measures be adopted at United as Ratcliffe and co seek to climb the club back to the elite table once more. One of his mantras of not missing twice - i.e. you can make mistakes, but make sure they are not repeated - seems apt for United.

However, Brailsford has been at the centre of some recent controversy. In August, former Team Sky and British Cycling medical lead Richard Freeman was banned from all sport for four years for breaking anti-doping rules. Brailsford, Ineos and Team Sky have always denied any wrongdoing, stating that Freeman had acted alone without their knowledge.

It had also emerged that Wiggins had benefited from therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) for triamcinolone to treat asthma and allergies before three race victories. A 2018 conclusive report from MPs accused Team Sky of "crossing an ethical line" in its use of TUEs in its general practice.

Team Sky, Wiggins and Freeman all underlined they had operated clean cycling. Ratcliffe stuck by Brailsford throughout, insisting he had his “full support”.

Brailsford was a key aide during the initial years of his takeover of Nice, which was completed in 2019. He has stepped away from duties at Nice over the past year, coinciding with Ineos’ bid for United.

It’s unclear what role Brailsford will play in the United hierarchy set-up once his audit recommendations have been carried out but he certainly has proven he can be successful at transforming a sporting entity.