MONT SAINT MICHEL, France When Nicolas Portal was offered a sports director position at Team Sky, the Frenchman thought it was a joke, yet he is now guiding rider Chris Froome's bid for Tour de France victory.
Portal, at 34 the youngest sports director, or DS (directeur sportif) in the three-week race, took the number one position after Briton Sean Yates left the team following last year's Tour.
"When Dave (Brailsford) offered me the job I thought it was a joke, some kind of British humour," Portal, a former professional rider who ended his career with Sky after the 2010 season, told Reuters.
"I had four out of 20 in my oral test and two out of 20 in my written test at my A levels."
That was not enough for Brailsford to rule Portal out of the position and he is now the one calling the shots from the team car.
"He's got a real feeling of the race. He has ridden for big leaders, he knows the Tour de France," Brailsford told Reuters.
"I like the fact that he was French, I like the French. We're British with an international team."
Portal, who completed six Tours as a rider for the AG2R and Caisse d'Epargne teams, was not sure initially he had what it takes to succeed at Sky, where nothing is left to chance.
"How could I be a DS while I'm younger than some of the riders, I don't speak English?," he queried.
"Even Brad (Wiggins) and Chris (who both speak French) speak to me only in English. So for 15 days, I thought about it night and day before accepting."
As usual, Brailsford had it all figured out.
"If you break it down it's knowledge, skills and behaviour," he explained. "That's what you look at when you appoint somebody.
"Knowledge is something you get from experience and he's got experience. You can teach him skills, like language skills," Brailsford added, although Portal still has a thing or two to learn in that department.
"The other day I was explaining to the young guys that everything was bigger on the Tour, that they needed to recuperate as soon as they could. And I said ‘when you're on the massage table, have a night cap'... I mixed it up, I wanted to say ‘lie in'," Portal said.
"Chris was already smiling but I saw Geraint (Thomas) looking at me with big eyes..."
This is one of the things Brailsford liked about Portal - his fresh attitude.
"That's why we took him on board," he said.
Portal learnt the ropes with Yates, the man behind the wheel when Wiggins became the first Briton to win the Tour last year.
"He got along very well with Sean," said Brailsford.
"He learnt an awful lot from Sean so when Sean stopped working at the team it pushed him up the list and there he is."
Brailsford believes Portal still needs ‘flying air miles' and the Frenchman got some very important ones last Sunday when Froome survived an early ambush from his rivals.
"That day I lost a year of my life in the car," Portal said.
"I really enjoyed my role as a director. It was as if I was on the bike, as if I was one of his team mates in the mountain.
"I loved that day (on Sunday). It was so intense I did not even drink or eat. I was so absorbed. My brain was calculating everything," he added.
A rather laidback character, Portal revels in Sky's high-tech environment.
"They are very rigorous, everyone gives more than 100 percent. It's a huge challenge for me," he said.
"I like that. All the riders listen to me. I'm not sure some French ‘star' riders would listen to me. When I speak, Brad, Chris, Geraint or Peter Kennaugh listen to me. It's such a pleasure working with them."
(Editing By Alison Wildey)
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