Can cycling's centre hold in 2018?

Team Sky, Chris Froome, and professional cycling as a whole, may be facing another year of living dangerously

"Things fall apart — the centre will not hold." It's a famous literary quote, a little high-minded perhaps for the world of professional cycling, but as the 2018 season looms large, it heads seemingly inevitably towards confrontation and controversy, and those words — suggesting a collapsing empire and a sense of the end of days — may prove prescient.

There are clouds looming large on the horizon, both over the sport's biggest name, Chris Froome, and also over the long-suspected use of motors by a series of high profile riders, past and present. It's a conspiracy theory that won't go away and that is now gathering momentum, day by day.

Before even a wheel has been turned in anger, the New Year has begun with the knives already out for Team Sky's two most high profile figures, Froome and Dave Brailsford.

Brailsford has been depicted as "secretive" by Greg LeMond, and Froome has been rounded on by his peers, as well as by LeMond, for his refusal to accept culpability for the salbutamol excesses that provoked his Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF) in last year's Vuelta a Espana.

After LeMond, came former WADA President Dick Pound, long-term nemesis of cycling's various credibility crises, who, in sardonically citing a long history of "heroic asthmatics," left nobody in any doubt as to who his prime target was.

Now other riders — Mathieu van der Poel, Rohan Dennis, Jan Bakelants — are finding their voice, wearied by the prospect of a season overshadowed by the Froome case. The catalogue of resentments against Sky's domination, particularly in France, are building. There is a palpable sense that things could get worse.

Pound thinks Froome will probably serve a ban. Like LeMond, Pound believes, whatever the mitigation offered, that he deserves it.

"If you're over the threshold by 100 per cent, that needs some explanation," Pound said. "At that level, it will be hard for the International Cycling Union (UCI) to not do something in terms of sanction."

While Froome and his legal team may well be prepared to sit out the process aiming to justify his levels of salbutamol, the sport — and the millions who believe in Froome just as much as those who doubt him — is clamouring for resolution, one way or another.

It is unthinkable for new UCI President David Lappartient, and just as much for Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme, that Froome could start July's Tour with the process over his AAF ongoing.

Yet, with Froome and his legal team able to take their time, that scenario could happen. But then why would he accelerate it? Why would he speed up the process and risk losing one Grand Tour and being banned from competing in his two primary targets of 2018?

A stalling tactic will do little to enhance Sky's popularity, but the sense is that they have long gone past caring on that score. After last year's tense affair, even the annual pre-season media get-together in Mallorca has this January been abandoned. There won't be any media bike rides with Dave any time soon.

So against this backdrop, how long has the team got?

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In principle, nothing has changed, but in the context of the past year or so, the taint on Froome's name caused by the AAF is unlikely to be easily dispelled. While in 2017 he remained detached from the team's many controversies, a sleight of hand he somehow achieved throughout the season, he can no longer remain aloof. Froome is now at the very heart of them.

You can be sure, however, that Team Sky will remain defiant, even as the pressure increases: neither Sky nor Brailsford will wilt under media pressure. The clique at the heart of the team has developed too thick a skin. Brailsford will point to "the facts," staring down any detractors, citing due process, and insisting, as he always does, that they do things, "the right way."

Others meanwhile, mindful of what LeMond described as the team's "bogus" TUEs, continue to wonder exactly what Brailsford means by "the right way," to wonder where he stands on the blurred line between ethical and legal, and they will ponder too another phrase he used a couple of years ago, in which he stated that Team Sky needed to "make the unbelievable believable."

Away from the races, the team's sponsorship is potentially fragile. Sources within News UK will not be drawn but the $50 billion sale of a hefty slab of Rupert Murdoch's media empire to Disney is unlikely to have strengthened the team's hand.

As the Murdochs loosen their grip on Sky, could James Murdoch — for so long a driving force behind the team sponsorship and the multi-millionaire devoted fan in the crowds celebrating Wiggins' success on the Champs Elysees in July 2012 — become increasingly distanced?

What will Disney, their brand gurus and their marketeers, make of the current level of investment in a team dogged by Sky's ongoing scandals? How will Disney, conscious of their brand's wholesome image, view a rider such as Gianni Moscon, for example?

And will the law of diminishing returns — the sense that after six Grand Tour wins, the best days for the sponsorship are now well and truly over — fuel a wind down?

Meanwhile, the riders have signed contracts, the kit has been unveiled and the racing is around the corner.

The siege mentality that fuelled Froome's 2015 Tour de France win, that somehow survived the contradictions of the Jiffybag hearings and the chaos surrounding their medical record keeping, will be tapped into once again as the season begins in earnest.

Business will be carried out as usual, with Geraint Thomas likely to be fronting up in March and April, while a clutch of highly rated new signings — Egan Bernal, Chris Lawless, Pavel Sivakov — will be expected to make their mark in early season stage races.

But these will all be sub-plots to the main drama, which revolves around Froome. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Intriguingly, the plot could be about to get even thicker.

As Christian Prudhomme and the Tour de France organisation count down the days to July's Tour, fretting that Froome's case will be resolved before the race starts in the Vendee, they may soon have another crisis to deal with.

That's because renowned French journalist Philippe Brunel is about to publish a new book, thought to provide the most revealing expose yet of the extent of technological fraud - motor doping - in the professional peloton.

And it's still only early January.

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