Report Card: Sky Pro Cycling

2012 report card: In sporting terms, Sky’s 2012 campaign could hardly have gone better. The Tour de France, where Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome took first and second, was the climactic installment of a long series of startlingly dominant team displays in stage races. From February to July, Sky’s men swarmed to the front of the peloton when the road went uphill and squeezed the life out of every race they encountered, while Wiggins repeatedly performed against the watch and elsewhere.

Romantics may have winced when Wiggins – a man with a genuine appreciation of cycling history – stated baldly during the Tour that the Pyrenean Circle of Death was just another series of climbs where “you need to average 400 watts,” but it was hard to quibble when that mathematical approach also yielded overall victory at the Volta ao Algarve, Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie, Bayern Rundfahrt and the Critérium du Dauphiné for Team Sky.

Such was the remarkable nature of Sky’s season that the 15 wins of Mark Cavendish went largely unheralded, which was a shame seeing as the Manxman thumbed his nose at the curse of the rainbow jersey by delivering even with limited support. Elsewhere, Edvald Boasson Hagen produced a virtuoso display to win the GP Ouest France, while Rigoberto Uran carried off the white jersey at the Giro d’Italia and an Olympic silver medal. All told, the squad picked up 50 victories.

Not content with dominating affairs on the road, Sky hogged headlines in the off-season too when manager Dave Brailsford produced a new zero-tolerance policy in response to Michael Barry’s belated doping confession and the Lance Armstrong case in general. Although, with only sporting directors Bobby Julich and Steven De Jongh leaving the squad after making public admissions of wrongdoing, the policy has provoked far more questions than it has answered.

Indeed, Sky’s at times Stephen Colbert-esque No Fact Zone approach to public relations provided an unintentionally comical – but exasperating – footnote to their season. From denying the imminent Jonathan Tiernan-Locke transfer to Brailsford’s terse interview after Froome dropped Wiggins at La Toussuire, not to mention the curious case of Geert Leinders' P45 and the infamous “no doping questions” rest day press conference at the Tour, Sky’s War On Information spun into overdrive in 2012, reaching its apotheosis with Sean Yates’ retirement and Michael Rogers’ peculiar late-year switch to Saxo-Tinkoff.

What to expect in 2013: Dave Brailsford played Brian Epstein to keep his own Lennon/McCartney pairing singing from the same hymn sheet last season, but in spite of his efforts, The Ballad of "Wiggo" and "Froomey" will again dominate the column inches in the British press in 2013. For now, Wiggins is tentatively pencilled in to be lone leader at the Giro d’Italia and is expected to line up at the Tour alongside Froome, where pre-race form will decide the hierarchy. Like a Republican primary, however, a hefty portion of the leadership contest will be fought through the (Murdoch-owned) media.

Regardless of who ultimately gets the nod in July, the Tour will surely be a closer-fought thing than in 2012. With less time trialling, more summit finishes and the return of Alberto Contador, Sky’s already impressive collective might will need to be at least marginally better to ensure a second successive British maillot jaune.

Outside of the Tour, Froome and Wiggins seem likely to race apart more often in 2013, and with the A-team of support riders split between two leaders, Sky’s dominance in week-long stage racing theoretically ought not to be as absolute as in 2012. It will also be interesting to see if the likes of Richie Porte are rewarded for last season’s fealty with increased opportunities in the spring.

As yet, Sky’s stage racing ascendancy has not quite transferred to the Classics but Boasson Hagen’s world championship silver medal suggests that he now has the ability to be very competitive indeed over 250 kilometres. With Geraint Thomas also returning to the fray, it’s easy to see why there is a renewed focus on one-day racing. Intriguingly, Sky have already announced that their classics squad will skip Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico in favour of a collective training camp ahead of Milan-San Remo.

Meanwhile, in the absence of Cavendish, Boasson Hagen, Luke Rowe and Ben Swift will look to weigh in with some sprint victories, but don’t expect to see a Sky lead-out train at the Giro or Tour.

Best signing: Not a new signing per se, but after effectively sacrificing a road season to play a part in Great Britain’s dominance on the track at the London 2012 Olympics, Geraint Thomas makes a welcome return to full duty. The multi-talented Welshman will likely be allotted the role of storm trooper for Wiggins and/or Froome at the Tour, but he will be allowed considerable scope for invention in the cobbled classics, where he and Boasson Hagen should form a dynamic partnership.

Biggest loss: Mark Cavendish’s mutual consent transfer to Omega Pharma-QuickStep is one that Sky will surely come to rue, especially if a post-2012 hangover sets in. Wiggins may have enjoyed an annus mirabilis but – by his own admission – he will be hard-pressed to scale the same heights repeatedly over the coming seasons. For Cavendish, meanwhile, every year is more or less a career year, and the Manxman is the closest thing to guaranteed money in the bank in contemporary cycling. With limited support in 2012, he still added six more grand tour stage wins and a semi-classic (Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne) to his extensive palmares, and he is destined to reach some historic milestones in the next five years.

Man to watch: Perhaps a victim of his own versatility, Edvald Boasson Hagen has been called upon to play fire-fighter in a variety of roles in his time at Sky. Perhaps as a consequence, he has not progressed in the classics as he would have liked since winning Gent-Wevelgem in 2009, but that could all change in 2013.

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