Team Sky 2.0: More 'fun', more surprising, more attacking

Froome in yellow again but British team appeal to the imagination with new Tour de France approach

'No one likes us we don't care'. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine that refrain, born on the terraces at Millwall Football Club, being chanted from the Team Sky bus in the past.

The British outfit has acquired something of an unfavourable reputation over the course of its six-year existence – perceived in some corners as sucking the life from races through an almost suffocating control of proceedings. Not that it has bothered them; they exist to win bike races and three Tour de France victories in four years have provided ample justification of their means.

But has that all changed? Have they started caring?

Team principal Dave Brailsford's comments in the aftermath of stage 11 would seem to suggest so. "Fans of this sport like it when there's a race, and we're trying to make a race of it," he said after Chris Froome had launched his second surprise ambush of the Tour so far.

Froome in yellow may be a familiar sight, but it would seem that something of a change of identity has taken place. The Sky train has still been witnessed grinding up climbs, but we've also seen tactics of a more imaginative and spontaneous nature.

"We wanted, maybe, to become a bit more aggressive, and to try to use the element of surprise a little more than in previous years," Brailsford continued, and Froome has indeed caught his rivals napping on two occasions.

While Nairo Quintana sat up and took a bidon going over the top of the Col de Peyresourde, Froome struck out and embarked on a daring descent that took him alone to the finish. Few saw it coming, and few envisaged a scenario on Tuesday whereby the race leader was off the front in a split of four with the world champion at the end of what should – on paper at least – have been as sprint stage.

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Whereas the only summit finish of the race so far drew a stalemate between the two runaway favourites, Froome and Quintana, the sum reward of the Briton's two improbable attacks amounts to a not-inconsiderable 35 seconds.

"We came here to be more offensive this year and to go on the attack," continued Brailsford.

"We thought about it over the winter, about tactics in the sport. We try to find the right tactics to win, and for us this year, we have the riders to be able to play the surprise card, and try to make the race a bit more."

In statements that signaled a departure from the voice of rigid pragmatism to which we have grown accustomed, Brailsford touched on the importance of appealing to the hearts and imaginations of the viewing public.

"We love this sport because, as youngsters, we were all 'fous de course' – mad for the race –" he said, speaking in French to an international gathering of journalists. "That's the fun of it."

"Maybe he'll lose; maybe he'll win. We don't know. That's racing."

It's not just Froome's box of surprises; Sky seem more willing here, compared with past Grand Tours, to use other riders to mix up their tactics. Sergio Henao is up in the top 10 overall, and has attacked on numerous occasions to help soften up Froome's rivals – a tactic found in pretty much every textbook but one that was so frantically discouraged on the slopes of La Toussuire during that infamous episode when Froome accelerated away from Bradley Wiggins.

"It's a bit of a different way of racing," Sky directeur sportif Servais Knaven told Cyclingnews and a couple of other reporters in Montpellier.

"I think it works, and if you look at other GC contenders, Quintana is always follow follow follow but at the end of the day he has already lost 35 seconds because he is only following.

"Chris is getting more and more experienced. Three years ago in the crosswinds he got caught in the second group, the team in general was a little bit behind the guys who were riding, trying to play it smart, but then the split came and they were all surprised. So now we do it like we do in Qatar or wherever – just 'ok when the wind is right, just be ready, and we can do it ourselves or just be straight on the wheel of the guys who go'."

There is the argument, put forward by some of Froome's rivals themselves, that the two ambushes have entailed a considerable effort for a relatively measly reward in terms of time gain. Certainly, Quintana will be hoping that his waiting game in the first portion of the race will enable him to recoup that time with interest in the Alps.

"Every second is a second," however, would be Knaven's riposte, and Froome will no doubt tell you that the Tour can be won and lost by the finest margins.

Whatever happens, "that's the fun of it", to return to Brailsford's comments. Sky, fun. Those two words, in the same sentence. Is this the birth of Sky 2.0? 

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