Blazin' Saddles: Sudden departure proves Sky has a limit after all
After a decade involved in professional cycling, Team Sky's lead sponsor will walk away from the sport at the end of 2019. While weighing up Sky's achievements and legacy, Felix Lowe asks what their sudden departure will mean for Sir Dave Brailsford's British team and its star riders Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.
McLaren, the Woking-based British Formula One team, picked the wrong day to announce its new partnership with the Bahrain-Merida team of Vincenzo Nibali. Wait twenty-four hours and they could have found a far better match closer to home.
When news broke on Tuesday that one of the biggest names in motorsport was dipping its toes into the world of professional cycling, it was thought that McLaren's expertise, prestige and deep pockets would propel Bahrain-Merida forward in its bid to topple the Grand Tour hegemony of Team Sky.
Since the inception of Team Sky in 2010, the broadcaster has presided over unprecedented success in pro cycling, including victories in eight Grand Tours and two Monuments.
If the timing had a teasing sense of irony with regards to McLaren's anticipated arrival on the grid, then it could not have been better for Team Sky: half an hour later, the British nation's focus had shifted to far more important matters as it was confirmed that Conservative MPs had triggered a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. It was a good day to bury bad news.
We can forgive her for not giving Team Sky much thought, but Mrs May would be well served to remember that success in Europe is no guarantor of longevity and prolonged power.
Sky's Grand Tour dominance
Three years later, Bradley Wiggins stood atop the podium in Paris. He has since been followed by Chris Froome on four occasions and Geraint Thomas once.
On top of delivering Britain's first Tour winner, Sky have seen its star rider Froome become crowned the first British man to win both the Vuelta and the Giro – completing what was an historic Grand Slam of successive Grand Tour victories.
Throw into the pot wins for Wout Poels in Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2016 as well as Michal Kwiatkowski last year in Milan-Sanremo, five overall Paris-Nice titles, six Criterium du Dauphine crowns, and countless one-day and stage wins, and it's fair to say that, on a sporting plane at least, Sky's huge investment – which has made Team Sky the richest outfit in world cycling – has been a resounding success.
How surprising is Sky's exit?
It's believed that when Sky executives informed Team Sky that they felt the partnership had come to a natural conclusion, manager Sir Dave Brailsford was shocked.
After all, it was not so long ago that the team prolonged the contracts of many of their top riders, while also poaching the signature of Colombian prospect Ivan Sosa, despite the youngster having already come to an agreement with Trek-Segafredo. Such actions are hardly those of a management knowing its time is coming to an end.
Team Sky currently have 12 riders with contracts beyond 2019, including their four-time Tour champion Froome. The reigning Tour winner Thomas and fellow Welshman Luke Rowe recently extended to 2021 along with Salvatore Puccio, while Colombian tyro Egan Bernal – who Brailsford sees as Froome's natural successor – this summer signed an unprecedented five-year deal keeping him at the team until 2023.
Once again, these are not the signs of a team harbouring doubts about its future.
But that said, the recent Sky takeover by Comcast and the departure of James Murdoch – for whom Team Sky was always a bit of a pet project – did muddy the waters earlier this year, although Graham McWilliam, the chairman of Team Sky has said that the decision was made without any input or pressure from Comcast.
For all their victories on the road, it had been far from plain sailing for the team this year, what with the parliamentary committee's damning report into doping in sport, Froome's on-going salbutamol case and the constant rumblings from Wiggins' still inconclusive Jiffy-bag incident. All this must have given Sky's public relations team a severe run for their money.
With such unprecedented success comes continued suspicion and scorn; perhaps, with so much negativity emanating from a tsunami of compromising stories and equally slapdash explanations from the part of team management, the elastic band finally broke and Sky decided that it indeed does have a limit.
What next for the riders and 'Team Sky'?
Well, a bullish although understandably downcast Brailsford has come out kicking, vowing to keep the team alive with a "new partner".
" While Sky will be moving on at the end of next year, the team is open-minded about the future and the potential of working with a new partner, should the right opportunity present itself. For now, I would like to thank all Team Sky riders and staff, past and present – and above all the fans who have supported us on this adventure."
If, among a press release that was not exactly as emphatic about the team's continuation as many have wished, Brailsford did put his whiff of resignation aside to hint that the show would still go on.
" We aren't finished yet by any means. There is another exciting year of racing ahead of us and we will be doing everything we can to deliver more Team Sky success in 2019."
The team is currently on a training camp in Mallorca, where the riders learnt of their plight on Wednesday morning. Froome praised a 'special team' on Twitter and seemed determined to help secure fresh back, adding: "We plan to be together in 2020."
Opportunity or crisis?
Brailsford may be right to remain hopeful. For a big sponsor with a desire to win the Tour straight away, stepping into Sky's shoes is as close to a safe bet as you can get – provided you don't mind the significant baggage that would come with taking on a jiffy bag of bile as a legacy.
Recent signings and high-profile contract extensions suggests that the team management had not been contemplating an exit any time soon, even despite the winds of change blowing in with the recent Comcast take-over of Sky.
That perhaps suggests that Brailsford has a few pistes to explore – or, at least, that he remains confident that a replacement can be found.
Richard Branson, for instance, is a renowned cycling fan. Could all this open the door for a Virgin cycling team? Then there's the case of HSBC, who are already heavily involved in the British Cycling set-up.
The very fact that a sponsor as huge as McLaren only this week entered the fray and backed a top team suggests that there are opportunities out there.
The big stumbling block, however, will be the British nature of the team: attracting the right sponsor to keep the continuity going may be tricky.
A deep-pocketed sugar daddy in the mould of Oleg Tinkov or Roman Abramovich – or a small oil-rich nation a la UAE or Bahrain – would solve the funding issue but would undermine the raison d'etre of the team and create a raft of fresh concerns. These are all issues that Brailsford and his colleagues will have to face these next few months.
Beginning of the end of Britain's golden era?
Perhaps more than any other team in the WorldTour, Team Sky was effectively a national team, with sponsors happy to stick to a primarily British focus.
With all that in mind, it could well prove impossible to come up with a potential replacement who would perpetuate the current model – a new like-for-like British sponsor prepared to pick up an annual bill of around €35m as well as handle all the baggage that comes with the team.
Given the on-going Brexit shambles and the uncertainty currently facing most British businesses, the team has a real battle on their hands to secure a new UK sponsor before the summer, by which time most riders will be getting itchy feet and wanting to see security and commitment.
Big questions also remain over Brailsford's desire to continue: the past couple of years have hardly been a walk in the park for the British Cycling supremo; perhaps once the dust settles on this news, he will decide it's the right time to call time on his own physical and psychological investment in the team.
As for Froome, Thomas and other top British riders at the team, you wouldn't think finding new teams would pose too much of a problem: out of the ashes, something always grows in cycling. Of course, it would not be on the same scale as Sky. While it may be a long time before we see such a concentration of British talent on one team, the achievement of Simon Yates in winning the Vuelta in September is evidence that British riders can still blossom elsewhere.
Silver lining to Sky's fall
The news that the team whose stranglehold on the Tour de France has squeezed the interest out of the world's biggest bike race will be music to many fans' ears – especially the French, whose long wait for a winner in their national race could now come to an end sooner rather than later.
Even the most partisan supporters of Sky would also admit that the sharing out of their stockpile of talent may make for more exciting races: for instance, having a 23-year-old Bernal riding to win the yellow jersey – and not in support of a team-mate in yellow – in 2020.
Funnily enough, cycling is a sport that comes in cycles. Whatever happens to Team Sky, Sky's departure represents the end of an era. But life will go on: for the most part, the riders will find new homes and fresh challenges, if not elsewhere then under a new umbrella that will be forced to implement compromises and change.
It's inconceivable to think Team Sky will disappear just like that in the puff of an inhaler. But it's just as impossible that an off-the-rack replacement will step in before next July and – hey presto – wave a magic wand to conjure up €35m. The likely scenario is that a sponsor – or series of sponsors – will step in, the budget will be significantly slashed, the British focus of the team will be lost and certain riders (perhaps even Froome and Thomas) will be allowed to move on to free up funds.
Here, having someone like Bernal tied down for five years will come into its own. The young climber carries no baggage and represents the future of the sport; he is a scandal-free star sponsors can get behind. As such, the future of British cycling could well be Colombian.
It is always sad to see huge sponsors walking away from the sport – not least when considering the livelihoods of all riders and staff involved – but this is a demise that will be welcomed by most fans as unequivocally as Theresa May's ousting from Downing Street. The question now is simple: who steps in to take over control?