Grey clouds over yellow skies

Team Sky wins the Tour de France. For anyone with even a passing interest in road cycling over the last half-decade, that announcement has become the norm, as the increasingly hostile grand tour-winning machine helmed by Sir Dave Brailsford has stormed to victory in six of the last seven editions of cycling’s greatest race. Sky riders have worn the yellow jersey for a staggering 87 of the last 147 days of the Tour in that period, with three men – Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas – now owning well over half of all of the yellow jerseys to have been awarded over that stretch.

But that Geraint Thomas addition is the news, and has been all tour; while Team Sky’s endlessly deep pockets and the lack of a credible external threat since Nairo Quintana put time into Froome in the last week of the 2015 race all but guaranteed yet another Victory For British Cycling when the peleton first set off from the Vendée more than three weeks ago, the exact shape of that victory has been something of a surprise.

But, critically, something of a false surprise. The headlines of this Tour and the headings I shall use to comment upon it – Sky rider wins, sprinters abandon in droves, farmers cause some localised ruckus – could be pasted into a blog post commenting on any of the last seven editions of the race save, of course, from the 2014 contest. At times, this Tour has appeared random and unpredictable, and even randomly and unpredictably so, with injuries, abandonments, dirty great sprinting descents off the backs of mountains and heroic solo breakaways that fall oh so close to the line. But looking back at the last three and a bit weeks of racing as a whole, it appears that this – a ‘this’ poked at and prodded in the following thousand or two words – is simply the norm for the world’s greatest race.

Sterile Sky domination

In many ways, this was a textbook Sky victory: strings of workhorses decked out in ‘#PassOnPlastic’ and ‘Ocean Rescue’-branded apparel chugged resolutely up and down mountains; the team leader distanced himself from rivals in time trials, remained upright through hilled and cobbled stages; and a publicly-loyal super-domestique was there to shepherd and offer moral support as and when was needed.

Prior to the start of the season, Kieran Pender reported that the average budget of a World Tour team is £15m; Sky alone spent double that in 2016, and it would not be unreasonable to assume that investment in the team has only increased as it has diversified its goals, moving from annual Tour-winning to launching legitimate assaults on all three Grand Tours within a single season.

In 2016, Froome signed a contract worth £4m a year, making him the richest rider in the peleton, and has since gone on to win two Tour titles, along with the 2017 Vuelta a España and this year’s Giro d’Italia. While his talents are certainly remarkable, and the support work that goes into preparing him for such continued athletic excellence as he pushes deeper into his 30s is deserving of credit, there is the simple fact that Sky can afford to spend on one rider what Pender concludes some teams must make do with for their entire annual operating budget.

Team Sky rolls off the start ramp at the third stage of this year’s race. Credit: Russ Ellis and Team Sky

A quick flick through the current Sky roster, and the laundry list of riders who have deputised for a Froome or Wiggins and gone on to be Grand Tour contenders in their own right, is staggering. Alongside Grand Tour winners Froome and Thomas, and Wiggins before them, the team employs the supremely talented Egan Bernal, who finished 15th in this year’s Tour at the age of 21; Sergio Henao, who won the 2017 Paris-Nice; Michał Kwiatkowski, a winner of both the world championships and Milan-San Remo; and riders such as Vasil Kiryienka, Christian Knees and Luke Rowe, all of whom have turned peleton-towing and Froome bodyguarding into an art form. Sky has also called upon Rigoberto Urán, winner of the 2012 Giro’s young riders classification and who has since podiumed at three Grand Tours, and Richie Porte who, despite his reputation as the unluckiest man in cycling, is a two-time winner of Paris-Nice and another former white jersey winner at the Giro.

Sky has become the Henry Ford of the modern Tour, each edition of the race a conveyor belt upon which is dumped a hatful of rouleurs, onto which is then grafted three riders with the potential to win a Grand Tour, before a leader and a lieutenant are nailed onto the bonnet of this year’s monster. The system is also strong enough to withstand all manner of additions and assembly line faults, such as the rivalry between Froome and Wiggins and carrying Mark Cavendish’s rainbow jersey through France in 2012, and still churn out Tour winners.

A scarred peleton

The only thing to have derailed the Sky machine in recent years is injury. A fractured wrist and hand were enough to boot Froome from the 2014 edition of the race, and left a bewildered and headless Sky to rally around Mikel Nieve, who valiantly and completely unsuccessfully lead cycling’s biggest team to 18th place in the race they would come to dominate, finishing nearly an hour down on eventual winner Vincenzo Nibali. The inherently random and dangerous nature of chucking oneself off a mountain with only a skinsuit and a pair of sunglasses for protection, or the equally mad pastime of surrounding yourself with people surging along at 50km/h through the crosswinds of western France, means the race always has the potential for injury, and this year has been no exception.

Luis León Sánchez broke his elbow on the second stage of this year’s race, and there were a full seven abandoments, none of which were based on time limits, before the peleton even reached the cobbled roads of stage nine. This particular stage claimed the aforementioned, and snakebitten Porte as its highest-profile victim, the Australian shattering a clavicle before even reaching the dreaded cobbles, but a further three riders –  José Joaquin Rojas, Alexis Vuillermoz and Jens Keukeleire – didn’t start the next stage.

Of the 176 riders to start this year’s race, 31 abandoned, meWianing 18% of those on the start line did not make it to Paris. Last year’s race saw an eerily identical abandonment count of 31, but with a larger field of 198 riders, the rate of abandonment was 17%. This year-on-year increase is, of course, small in relative terms, but with the financial insecurity of much of the professional peleton dependent on positive results to secure sponsorship money, random events like Philippe Gilbert flying off the Col de Portet d’Aspet – and, to his astonishing credit, hobbling on for 60km with a broken knee – and planned sorties that invite undue risk, such as the Tour’s recent obsession with introducing cobbled sections, pose a significant risk to the finances and infrastructure of the race, alongside obvious dangers to rider safety.

And with the crowds in France reacting with increasing hostility to the Sky-branded production line of Tour winners – even the French police got in on the act, pulling Froome from his bike and pepper-spraying Thomas in the midst of a farmers’ protest in scenes that were surely accidental, but too metaphorically significant not to be picked up upon – it is not inconceivalble to imagine a Tour where, in a few years, a 38-year-old Froome is seconds away from winning his eighth Tour title, before he is tackled off his bike by a disgruntled spectator. With Brailsford helpfully easing the situation by insulting all of France, starting, for some reason, with the mayors of its cities, a combination of in-saddle injury and out-of-saddle dissent caused a grey cloud to hang over much of this year’s race.

Unless, of course, your name is Lawson Craddock. The American fractured his shoulder blade on the very first stage of the race, but has limped through cobbles, mountains and time limits to complete the race in last position, heroically finishing more than four and a half hours after Thomas. He has ridden to raise money for the repairs of a velodrome in his hometown of Houston that was partially destroyed by Hurricane Harvey and his will be one of the more memorable lanterne rouges, an unofficial award for the last-placed rider in the race.

The incredible disappearing sprinter act

Unlike Craddock, many of this year’s big names did not make it through all 21 days of the race, with a particularly high number of sprinters abandoning before the famous finish on the Champs-Élysées. What was once held up as the unofficial sprinters’ world championship has experienced something of a reversal of the fortunes of the yellow jersey. That is to say it has gone from being the plaything of a supremely talented British individual – Mark Cavendish and his four successive wins on the Tour’s final stage from 2009 to 2012 – to one contested by whoever has survived following three weeks of injuries, abandonments and standard race-randomising Tour fare. Meanwhile, the randomness of the late noughties in the race’s general classification in a post-Armstrong world – remember when Michael Rasmussen and Kim Kirchen wore the yellow jersey, and Carlos Sastre was winning the damn thing? – has been replaced by the dominance of Team Sky. It is also interesting to note that 2012, and the below image in particular, with yellow jersey-clad Wiggins and rainbow jersey-clad Cavendish riding towards the former’s first victory for Sky, and the latter’s last victory on the Champs-Élysées, was the only point at which these two eras intersected. It was also, with the years of tedious Sky dominance to come, in my estimation the peak of British involvement in the Tour, at least in the ten or so years I’ve been following the race.

Bradley Wiggins, in yellow, leads Mark Cavendish, in the rainbow jersey, in a neat metaphorical encapsulation of the golden age of British road race in the 21st century. Credit: Wikimedia

However, this year, the final stage of the Tour seemed to be somewhat lacking in comparison to previous editions; at least insofar as the promise of winning on the Champs-Élysées was not sufficient for a-list sprinters Fernando Gaviria, Dylan Groenewegen and André Greipel, who between them have on 31 Grand Tour stages, to haul themselves over the more mountainous terrain of the race’s middle weeks. And these were not riders ditched by injury or lack of form – Gaviria and Groenewegen had won four of the opening eight stages of this year’s race – but who simply abandoned.

Of course, there is more to this than ‘these professional cyclists don’t want to do some cycling’; perhaps abandoning during the mountainous stages was part of a premeditated plan, akin to what many sprinters do in the Tour that immediately precedes a Summer Olympics when they have Olympic interests at stake; or perhaps the relative youth of Gaviria and Groenewegen, aged 23 and 25 respectively, meant the higher-ups in their teams were unwilling to expose them to a full Grand Tour. But it is true that the recent format of the race, with several consecutive flat stages before plunging into cobbled and hilly terrain, encourages many teams to pack a squad with sprinters, go for as many of those obvious bunch sprint-friendly stages in the opening week, then get the stars out of there before they become exhausted, injured, or the unwilling victims of farmers armed with bales of hay.

Recent rule changes have also indirectly encouraged this sort of thing, as the prevalence of ‘medium mountain stages’, cobbled roads and the increased importance of the intermediate sprint for the points classification have all but killed the green jersey competition. The rule changes were expected to award a well-rounded rider with a turn of pace in the mould of a Sean Kelly or a Thor Hushovd, but has coincided with perhaps the greatest Well-Rounded Rider With A Turn Of Pace in the history of cycling: Peter Sagan.

The Slovakian star, with his dyed green beard, wheelies and fondness for flinging himself off mountains when it is completely unnecessary, is a breath of fresh air in a Tour that has been dominated by oppressive Sky control for the better part of a decade, but it is also true that he has single-handedly dominated the points classification in a manner even more ruthless than anything Sky has achieved. This year he equally Erik Zabel’s record of winning six green jerseys and, at the age of just 28, he could conceivably have ten by the time he retires. He has worn the green jersey for 106 of the last 147 days of the Tour, an achievement that matches Sky’s in the yellow jersey in time, but exceeds it accomplishment. His margins of victory have been equally mind-boggling; in his six jersey-winning Tours he has averaged a total of 440 points in the classification, while the runners-up have averaged 287 in that period. He won the 2016 green jersey with a then-personal best of 470 points, more than double the 228 of his nearest competitor, Marcel Kittel. This year, he broke his record, scoring 477 points in the classification, the latest result in a consistently upward trend of sprinting prowess, starting with his 409 points in 2013. A combination of this year’s Tour route and a generational talent in Sagan made the first week of racing hopelessly enticing, and simultaneously rendered the green jersey all but impossible to achieve, and I hope that the Tour’s organisers find a way to encourage cycling’s biggest sprinters to stick it out until their world championship.

Geraint and Chris

While Sagan’s dominance seems all but assured for the next half-decade at least, there are question marks surrounding the longevity of the yellow-clad stranglehold that has mirrored his decidedly greener vice-grip. Chris Froome is 33. Geraint Thomas is 32. There are no striking young talents in the Sky squad that would be considered an obvious successor to the throne – Egal Bernal is clearly talented, but as someone younger than myself I would consider him a little too inexperienced to ask to deliver a Grand Tour, say, next season – and so we may be treated to a few more years of back and forth between Sky’s two principle riders. Someone get Michelle Cound and Catherine Wiggins on the line.

While Froome has, obviously, been as publicly supportive of Thomas as one might expect a beaming, virtuous older brother to be, the reality may well be closer to that of an ageing monarch, with decades of prestige and authority at his back, who is being talked down with increasing regularity by his suddenly middle-aged and suddenly supremely powerful son; does King Froome scowl at Prince Thomas as he strides into his court, draped in a Welsh flag and accompanied by a charming bunch of followers in Count Rowe and the Earl Egal?

For all of the implied one-two punch of Sky over the last few years, they have rarely fielded two genuine yellow jersey hopefuls in the manner of the Schleck brothers in the late noughties, or Alejandro Valverde and Quintana in Movistar’s more recent history. Mikel Landa’s fourth-placed finish in 2017 is the closest any of Froome’s domestiques have come to his crown in the years he won the race, and the last time two Sky riders finished on the podium prior to this year was 2012, and we all know how that ended up.

But, tragically, this is the most interesting point of speculation as the curtain comes down on one Tour and we look ahead to the next. Barring a dramatic improvement in the quality of riders such as Romain Bardet and Julian Alaphilippe, or a similarly impressive development in the support team around Tom Dumolin, next year’s Tour is Sky’s to lose, and I would imagine that both Froome and Thomas would want to be the one tasked primarily with not losing it.

I play a lot of Pro Cycling Manager, a sports sim developed by Focus and Cyanide, in which players manage a team of professional cyclists. I tend to build my squads for races where I’m targeting the general classification with as many climbing domestiques as I can, a super-domestique more suited to time-trialling and dragging peletons up mountains, and a leader more explosive and unpredictable than the others. However, sometimes the plan goes a smidgen awry; perhaps my super-domestique wins the opening time-trial, and then so effectively bosses the tempo of a seven-day race that there is no need for my nominal ‘leader’ to attack, as their second-in-command remains in a position of unchallenged superiority. This model works in a game – the sponsorship and bonus money is the same, and the game is not sophisticated enough to trigger a civil war between my riders should such a thing happen – but is less plausible in reality.

For all of Sky’s attempts to impose structure, predictability and a winning formula on one of the world’s most random and chaotic sports, they have failed to address the structural confusion that has plagued them since they first burst onto the scene, catapulting Mark Cavendish to his final victory on the Champs-Élysées, giving the British public a new hero in Sir Bradley Wiggins and kicking off a memorable summer of sporting excellence this tiny island off the coast of Europe hasn’t seen since.

That was just six years ago, but it’s a generation for the Tour, where grey clouds are gathering above Team Sky.

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