Dec 5, 2016 – Team Sky has made “marginal gains” an everyday expression in the sport of cycling, and the British WorldTour team has emphasized that message by constantly pushing the envelope in every aspect of performance, training, diet and equipment. And when it comes to equipment, no one is better placed than Danish official Carsten Jeppesen, who oversees all technical developments within Team Sky.
Words and Images by James Startt
A recruit from the former CSC team, Carsten Jeppesen has been with Sky since its inception eight years ago and, in this interview with Peloton, he relates from a technical perspective how he has seen the British organization reach its current preeminent status.
Peloton: Carsten, I see you all over the world at races and events. How many days a year are you on the road?
Carsten Jeppesen: Oh, I just looked at it actually and I just crossed the 200-day mark for this year and I will probably end up with 215 days by the end of 2016 since we have a December training camp coming up. So, yeah, I would say between 200 and 220 days a year.
Peloton: Wow! That’s twice as much as most cyclists and more than most sports directors too!
Jeppesen: Yeah, well, I do a lot of different jobs really. I represent Sky but also Velon. I am a board member of the AIGCP [the international association of professional teams]. And, along with Rolf Aldag [the Dimension Data performance director], I represent the teams on the UCI equipment commission. So I have a lot of responsibilities.
Peloton: Your official title at Sky is “head of technical operations and commercial.” What does that entail exactly?
Jeppesen: Well, I’m in charge of making sure that we have the best package out there in terms of equipment—the bikes, the helmets, the skinsuits, everything. Of course, it is not just me, but I am the one that heads it up and backs it up in terms of contracts so that it all fits together. And I have to be able to stand in front of the riders and say: “You have the best package out there.” And so we’re always testing our products and other products as well, so we know where the other brands are.
Peloton: So you would be the first contact for any equipment supplier interested in working with Team Sky?
Jeppesen: Yeah, that’s right. And depending on what it is—be it a power meter or food or something on the bike—I take it to those on the team most focused on that element. It’s a working tool for them and so I need their buy-in. It’s not just a check. We really try to get the best parts out there. I know it is a bit of a cliché, but we are really performance-driven. It is the athletes first. We want the best bikes out there, the best skinsuits, and so on. And we work our ass off to make sure they have it.
I think a really good example was in the Tour de France this year when Chris [Froome] was riding a TT bike in the mountain time trial to Megève. I think a lot of people were surprised to see a full TT setup. But to make that happen, we worked a lot to get the weight of the bike down. I’ve been the one pushing Fausto Pinarello and his group to make it happen. This was exactly what we were after. In recent years, it seems that a TT bike is becoming more demanding. That is just one example.
Peloton: You’ve been with the team since 2009, when the team first started?
Jeppesen: Well, actually 2008, because I spent a full year getting everything set up.
Peloton: And you’ve been working with Pinarello since then….
Jeppesen: Yeah, we made a deal in 2009. We really liked the Pinarello story and legacy. At the time, they were probably lacking a little bit in the performance of their bikes. We were quite hard at the start, but Fausto loved it. He invested a lot and has done so ever since. I think that, since we started with them, we have had something new coming out every year and sometimes we’ve even had two new bikes in the same year.
Our problem is that we often know the demands of an event quite late. In an Olympic program, you have four years to prepare, but here, much less. It is only in mid-October that you know what the Tour de France course will be for the next year. That gives you limited time for product development and it is really important that our partners can move quickly to meet the demands. We’re looking for partners that are willing to work hard for us and with us. I know our team can be a pain in the ass, but it is in a good way, because we are always pushing for the next thing. Fausto is always shaking his head when they are delivering a new product, because we are already onto the next thing.
Peloton: Like a lot of people in the sport, you must have a unique profile. There is no university degree to qualify you for this job. What is your background? How did you become a technical director at Sky?
Jeppesen: Oh, well, if I was completely honest, a ski accident. I have a background in IT and economics. One year I was training for the Vasaloppet 90-kilometer cross-country event and I fell and broke my hands. So I came back home. I got back to Denmark and got a call from Bjarne Riis, who I had known since growing up, since his dad was the coach in my club. I’d been away from the sport for years, but Bjarne was just getting started with this team, Jack & Jones [a predecessor of Team CSC]. He was doing some contracts on a weekend and the server was down, so he called to see if I could have a look. I got out there and he said: “What do you know about running a team?” But probably, if I hadn’t broken my hands, he would have found someone else.
Peloton: Interesting, because Bjarne was one of the first guys to really talk about marginal gains and all of that stuff, something that has been key to Sky. Are you the marginal-gains link?
Jeppesen: Well, to be fair, I think Dave Brailsford, Shane [Sutton] and the whole of British Cycling had that pretty much wrapped up and that I just fit really well into it.
Peloton: What’s the hardest thing about your job?
Jeppesen: All of the travel.
Peloton: What’s the best thing?
Jeppesen: That you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I really like that. It would be hard for me to go back to a job where you know exactly what you are going to do tomorrow. Obviously, with Sky, we are always trying to plan everything, but there is always something…and I really like that!