· 4 min read · Features

Sky staff get on their bikes

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As part of its sponsorship of the GB cycling squad and to promote the benefits of cycling, Sky encouraged staff participation in the gruelling L'Etape du Tour event as a health and engagement tool.

The 181 kilometres of road that stretches between Pau in the Pyrenees to the summit of the Col du Tourmalet (the mountain's highest road) is one of the most feared stages of this year's just-finished Tour de France. Boasting an average gradient per kilometre of 7.4% and a 4,400 metre climb overall, this leg-breaking, lung-busting stage - which this year celebrated its 100th year of inclusion in the Tour - is where champions are made and pretenders exposed.

But while the Lance Armstrongs, Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendishs will have pedalled it out as the 16th stage of the famous Tour in July, two days earlier 100 Sky employees (some of whom confessed to being 'lumps of lard') lined up to ride the exact same course, competing in L'Etape du Tour, a cycling event open to fewer than 10,000 semi-professional riders globally, which is widely considered to be the most gruelling event of its kind. In 2009, 2,000 of the 9,500 starters failed to finish. Remarkably, of Sky's 100 racers, 92 of them finished (against the 60% figure for this year's race overall), smashing the target Sky's director of cycling, Corin Dimopoulos, set of an 85% completion rate.

Sky's association with cycling is just two years old, but in that time it has already made its presence felt. Just before GB's stunning performance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Sky signed a five-year (reputedly £30 million) deal to become British Cycling's (BC's) principal sponsor, and in 2009 BC's performance director, Dave Brailsford, and Sky jointly announced the formation of 'Team Sky', a 26-person road cycling team that will borrow GB stars like Wiggins and Olympic and world gold medallist Geraint Thomas. The aim of the team is to produce a British Tour de France champion by 2014 (Wiggins was fourth in 2009). And while the Etape is possibly most people's idea of punishment, the event is the pinnacle of a year-long employee healthcare benefits programme to bring the company's wider sponsorship of the GB cycling squad and the promotion of grass-roots cycling (with its nationwide Sky Rides events) squarely back into the business as a health and engagement tool.

"As a piece of social policy and grass-roots development, the broader Sky aim is to have an extra 75,000 people in the UK take a bicycle ride at least once a month," says Dimopoulos. "There are 13 million bikes in the UK that are currently unused. We realised that, to promote this, the sensible starting point would be to get staff on board and they would soon act as word-of-mouth champions of Sky's mission."

As soon as Sky's commercial sponsorship packages had been thrashed out, Dimopoulos turned to Sarah Myers, Sky's director of talent management, to see how cycling could be presented to staff. "Some of it is subtle, some more overt," she says. "We've built new shower-rooms and put in washing machines and dryers so people's kit doesn't smell. This has been supported by more bike bays," she adds. "We've built an online portal, where people can find out about biking generally. It's been supported by a system where staff can see who their 'bike buddies' are - staff that live fewer than five miles from each other and who are willing to go out for rides with other people. Our 'Let's Ride' scheme then lets staff facilitate a group ride, but even people who have never tried biking aren't left out. We have pool bikes, where staff can test ride different types of bike to see what suits them."

These relatively modest, but well promoted schemes, have had a dramatic impact. Some 15% of staff at Sky's Isleworth HQ now cycle to work, and 23% of staff say they have some experience of cycling in any given month. Such is the growing cycling culture that an Evan Cycles shop has opened on its campus, supporting the firms Cycle2Work scheme, providing repairs and selling accessories.

It is perhaps unsurprising that when entries were opened for staff to apply for the Etape race, there were 380 applications (10% of the workforce) for the 100 spots. And, rather than simply pick the 100 fittest, Dimopoulos said he deliberately chose staff for whom completing the challenge would be a tall order. "We wanted all abilities, and compiled 10 groups of 10 with a wide range of fitness. We had everyone from 21-stone, obese men to middle-aged people. Our female ratio is also an impressive 21%. The Etape overall is only 4% female."

Once people had applied and were accepted, the training was rigorous. A six-month plan with weekly goals was set in January 2010 by British Cycling's Rod Ellinsworth, Dan Hunt and Matt Parker. This was phased-in over the course of the training period. Participants received a bespoke email programme every week and staff had to prove they had stuck to it. Each group had its own mentor and nutritionist, was given Team Sky kit, could hear talks from Team Sky riders and enjoy discounts on cycling kit. For the fastest riders in the Etape itself there was even the prize of a day with cycling legend Sir Chris Hoy. Because there has been a 20%-30% drop-out rate as the scale of the task unfolded, Dimopoulos and Myers have also needed to keep the reserve pool of people engaged, and these have had some of the same benefits and have organised their own rides and competitions.

"Looking after people's health and wellbeing has well and truly been one of our motives," says Dimopoulos. "Some of the changes in body shape have been amazing. It completely supports our wellbeing approach, but also the broader company mission around 'inspiration'."

Myers says she's already seeing how this benefits programme is having an even greater impact. "British Cycling's viewpoint of 'being the best' is now used in our high-performance and developing potential programmes as well as in our senior women's network group. Sky believes in high-performance teams, so the fit with cycling is clear."

Read Sky employee Nick Dodds' account of completing the gruelling race at www.hrmagazine.co.uk/skybikes