Arguing With Myself About Team Sky

I was once told my view on Team Sky’s dominance – and jiffy bags – was balanced and refreshing. I don’t like Sky, but I try not to obsess on one collection of riders. I’d rather talk about key moments in races, winning moves or bold tactics. I’ve also been told my view on Team Sky is dull and inconclusive. I don’t make my mind up. I don’t love Chris Froome (he’s never been my preferred race winner) but nor do I condemn him.

If somebody asked me which team have won six tours in the last seven years I’d say Team Sky with no hesitation or caveat. Unfortunately, alarm bells have been ringing almost the entire time. Following Geraint Thomas’ victory at this year’s Tour – a race where Froome looked surprisingly human, but former E3 Harelbeke winner Thomas delivered a flawless climbing performance – it’s time to make my mind up on the issues which make the Sky regime quite so dubious.

Sky Car

They’re terrible at making friends…

The Problem

Chapter one of ‘Cycling Management for Dummies’ may well read ‘when at the Tour, don’t make fun of the French’. Obviously Dave Brailsford’s copy lies unopened in the hotel as he frequently took shots at French fans for their understandable response to the ruling which allowed Chris Froome to start this year’s Tour. Other chapters may include tips for working with other teams, not chasing every breakaway, and answering questions without sounding like a robot.

The Excuse

At the 2008 Olympics Brailsford was a likeable character. He has developed a snappy side since being backed into various corners by everybody in the sport, both inside and outside of Sky. It’s difficult not to look smug when you win a Grand Tour amongst a backdrop of hate and cynicism. It boiled over this year as Sky were subject to physical roadside abuse. Their riding can be bland, but ‘winning ugly’ has never before been received this badly. Are they really doing anything wrong?

Are Team Sky to blame? Yes!

Even if we excused their riding style – which can be bold – Sky have done little to endear themselves to traditional pro cycling fans. To make things worse, their own rhetoric brings more groans than reassurance.

Tour de Romandie 2014

Their Grand Tour winners weren’t that good…

The Problem

Why do all Team Sky’s Grand Tour winners have a “rag to riches” story? Chris Froome’s early career is an almost comical recollection of events with no major results, disqualification from the Giro and a fear of losing his contract. Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas had more success, but in disciplines which rarely breed winners of the Tour. It would be unfair to describe any moment of Wiggins’ stunning track career as ‘rags’ but he did come 123rd, 121st and 134th in his first three Grand Tours. Thomas, meanwhile, was pencilled in as a future rider for the cobbled classics.

The Excuse

Essentially… so what? Team Sky wanted a British Grand Tour winner and multiple Gold medalist Bradley Wiggins clearly wasn’t bad on two wheels. He had already made the jump to finish third in 2009 (riding for Garmin-Slipstream). Froome’s story makes less sense but cannot be taken as absolute proof of wrongdoing, whilst Thomas’ transition has been the slowest of them all. The transition of riders such as Tom Dumoulin and Primoz Roglic (2nd and 4th at the Tour) also takes the pressure off Sky. Not all champions were flying at 22.

Are Team Sky to blame? No!

Not all transitions are as dramatic as Froome’s, so it’s no surprise that his results receive the most scrutiny. Nevertheless, results alone cannot be used to predict success in a sport such as cycling. When a 23-year old Vincenzo Nibali finished 19th at his first Tour he was already an accomplished climber. When a 21-year old Thomas finished 139th on his debut he was barely out of the velodrome.

800px-Chris_Froome_Tour_De_France_2008

Riders do better when at Sky…

The Problem

A recent concern surrounding Team Sky is that riders perform much better in Sky jerseys. Mikel Landa’s two year spell at Sky is my latest cause for worry. Despite known problems – such as sickness at the 2016 Giro – Landa would always look strong at the Tour de France. In 2017 Landa hauled Froome through the final week despite edging towards the end of a wonderful three month peak. When he roared round the final time trial to close in on the podium the #FreeLanda campaign was full throttle. Now at Movistar, Landa could only manage a distant seventh place and was never able to get on terms with even a sub-standard Froome. For other examples see Peter Kennaugh, who had four successful years at Sky – often being used in the mountains – but now seems unable to produce that level of form for BORA.

The Excuse

Just because Sky do it better, doesn’t mean it’s illegal. Sky have the most money. Money buys nice things. Sky are superb at delivering rigorous training programmes. Every rider becomes a better time-triallist. Their bikes are better. And even taking into account all of this, not every signing has been a success story. What’s happened to poor Kenny Elissonde?

Are Team Sky to blame? No!

Money talks.

Mikel+Landa+Le+Tour+de+France+2017+Rest+Day+WfSLMqf1rCtl

Too many mountain goats…

The Problem

Jonathan Castroviejo, Wout Poels, Gianni Moscon and Michal Kwiatkowski. These are four quality bike riders with the last man on the list being a Monument winner and former World Champion. The problem is that at no point in their career prior to joining Sky did they look like the sort of riders who would destroy mountains. They set tempos which shrink a peloton of climbers down to the most elite of selections. They’ve dropped riders such as Jakob Fuglsang, Ilnur Zakarin and even Romain Bardet. Egan Bernal is the latest addition to the list – and is a prodigious young climber – but he made Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali look like they were riding through thick mud when they attempted to attack.

The Excuse

These riders are asked almost exclusively to set a frightening tempo for between 1 and 5 kilometres. When Kwiatkowski’s shift is done, he practically parks up at the side of the road. He may have dropped Bardet, but he’ll wind up finishing 20 minutes behind the Frenchman. It’s just ruthless racing.

Are Team Sky to blame? Yes!

It doesn’t look good. They’ll be nine riders left in the front group and five of them will be from Team Sky. Rival teams have stacked their line-ups with climbers but are unable to repeat such feats so late into a stage. It’s weird. Moscon contests Roubaix and Kwiatkowski sprinted past Peter Sagan in Sanremo.

Mountain train

Too much success…

The Problem

Chris Froome won four Tours in five years. He also won four Grand Tours in a row stretching from the 2017 Tour to the 2018 Giro. We all raised a beer to Adam Hansen when he merely completed three in a calendar year; Froome won four in a row! Talented riders of this era are getting frustrated. They can’t attack. They can’t smell weakness. They’re numbers improve but they get absolutely nowhere.

The Excuse

Lance Armstrong made winning streaks so uncool that we now question everybody who wins anything. Sometimes it seems that we’ll only ever be happy if each Tour podium is entirely different to the last. Froome came close to winning five Grand Tours in a row including a Giro/Tour double but Tom Dumoulin (my favourite rider) completed both just 13 seconds slower. Good performances happen, let’s stop hating them.

Are Team Sky to blame? No!

I don’t think I’d have any issue with Sky’s success if it wasn’t for the style of victory and the questionable personnel involved. I won’t hate on success just because it’s success.

Success.jpg

The jiffy bag was seriously weird…

The Problem

‘Pushing hard’ in a ‘competitive environment’ is the excuse given by Team Sky for the use of TUEs for Wiggins and Froome. Both riders were given TUEs as approved treatments, but a mysterious jiffy bag was delivered by Simon Cope to Sky doctor Richard Freeman at the 2011 Criterium du Dauphine. Nothing illegal has been proven but Sky have made a mess of looking transparent. They have failed to clear up this situation. Why so suspicious?

The Excuse

What jiffy bag? Oh that was something from Amazon.

Are Team Sky to blame? Yes!

Not good for Team Sky. The jiffy bag can’t be used as proof of a ten year doping programme but they obviously knew whatever they were doing would be – at the very least – frowned upon.

Brailsford

It’s getting awkward…

The Problem

Everything that anybody connected to Team Sky has ever said has been dug out and cross referenced over the last few years. The result is an awkward patchwork of moments including Thomas saying “…if you’ve got asthma, go and work in an office or something” when asked in 2016 about the lax way that TUEs are handed out. Wiggins recently said on Eurosport that “there’s a few people [connected to Sky] bricking it”. Why are they bricking it?

The Excuse

When riders break free from the rehearsed lines pedalled out by Team Sky, does it not suggest they weren’t involved in any wrongdoing? Geraint Thomas sounded so casual when questioning TUEs that it’s difficult to believe he was involved in – or had knowledge of – a programme of abuse. Sky has struggled to uphold their ‘zero tolerance’ mantra but that doesn’t mean every performance by every rider has been dirty.

Are Team Sky to blame? Yes!

Information within the Sky set-up will likely be shared on a need-to-know basis. Thomas is the most believable and likeable of Sky riders – but does he know everything that goes on behind closed doors?


 

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2 thoughts on “Arguing With Myself About Team Sky

  1. It’s resentment built because of dominanceand success, being British, not having a Usian Bolt figure in the team, suspicion, easy social media outrage.
    Indurain and Armstrong (pre scandal emerging) both managed to ride a tide of praise. But in the modern era they too would have been hated. Money has talked….other teams are jealous and would have taken the same route if they’d had the chance.
    Article hits the issues.

    Liked by 1 person

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