WorldTour ranking: 3rd (up from 9th)
Win count: 43 (up from 26)
Top riders: Christopher Froome (6th), Richie Porte (11th), Geraint Thomas (14th)
Back with a bang. It’s fair to say there was more than a little pressure on the shoulders of Team Sky going into this year but their 2014 report card, characterised by disappointment, injury, and under-achievement, now seems a distant memory.
"There was something amiss last year. We were trying hard but it wasn’t coming off," said team principal Dave Brailsford, speaking on the Cyclingnews Podcast in September. "This time last year we were busily racking our brains, really working hard about how to turn the situation around."
Whatever it is they’ve done – and Brailsford points to an improved winter period and the reinvigorating effect of a general shake-up – it has worked. Sky have racked up no fewer than 43 victories this year and, most importantly, have returned to the top of their Tour de France perch, with Chris Froome taking his second overall yellow jersey. When the team was launched in 2010 their mission statement was to have a British winner of the Tour within five years; here we are, and they’ve done it three times over.
While the team didn’t match its highest-ever win tally of 51, the success was more varied, with more contributors, than that Wiggins and Cavendish-oriented 2012 campaign. Froome weighed in with overall wins at the Ruta del Sol and the Critérium du Dauphiné before the Tour, but his win-rate was bettered by Elia Viviani, who enjoyed his finest season to date with eight victories – the home soil sprint on stage 2 of the Giro d’Italia being the biggest of his career.
Then there’s Vasil Kiryienka, who also won a stage at the Giro and made sure the rainbow skinsuit stayed in the Sky family by repeating Bradley Wiggins’ individual time trial triumph at the World Championships. Richie Porte, the team’s most prolific rider with nine victories, was on fire in the early portion of the season, and his overall wins at Paris-Nice, the Volta a Catalunya and the Giro del Trentino confirmed it was time to step out from Froome’s shadow.
That brings us onto one of Sky’s shortcomings: their relative scarcity of success in Grand Tours that don’t take place in France. They have achieved some decent overall placings – Wiggins and Froome went 2-3 at the 2011 Vuelta a Espana, while Froome was fourth and second in the race in 2012 and 2014 respectively. In the Giro Rigoberto Urán was second in 2013 but that was only after Plan A (Wiggins) had gone flying out of the window.
It is an issue that hasn’t been corrected this term, despite the high hopes for Porte heading into the Giro. The Tasmanian was up there during the first week but then a combination of injury, bad luck, and that pesky rule number 2.3.029 conspired against him, only adding weight to the notion that he lacks the consistency to compete over three weeks.
The Tour de France triumph was a big enough achievement to offset most other perceived shortcomings, but in itself it was a difficult one to savour. Coverage over Froome’s performances provided an acerbic undercurrent to the occasion and Sky were faced with a barrage of urine, boos, and thinly-veiled accusations. Moreover, the team – admittedly faced with the impossibility of proving a negative – hardly helped themselves in the situation, as Cyclingnews argued at the time.
Their only proactive steps, such as releasing data of questionable accuracy from a portion of Froome’s ride on stage 10, muddied the waters rather than clearing the air, and they adopted something of a siege mentality with the media. The problem was exacerbated by a recent interview Froome gave with The Sunday Times in which he revealed he was so sick towards the end of the Tour that he was encouraged to apply for a TUE but refused because he didn’t want the ensuing ‘aggression’. Sky had previously seemed so firm in their stance on TUE’s – which were used to allow Froome to win last year’s Tour de Romandie – but this has uncovered a troubling lack of clarity and consistency on an ethical level.
Returning to sporting issues, one area where Sky have been subject to criticism is the Classics and they have gone some way to redressing that this year, though a monument win remains elusive.
Ian Stannard produced one of the performances of the season to outwit an Etixx-QuickStep triumvirate and win Omloop-Het Nieuwsblad for a second straight year. There is every sign that a bigger win is within his grasp. The same can be said of Geraint Thomas, who made a genuine step forward as a one-day racer, winning E3-Harelbeke and finishing on the podium at Gent-Wevelgem. The fact that he entered the Tour of Flanders as a top favourite and found himself a marked man speaks volumes.
Add Luke Rowe’s top-10 Paris-Roubaix finish – largely overshadowed by a certain Mr Wiggins making his final bow on the road – into the mix, along with Sergio Henao’s top-10 at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and you have the makings of a decent spring. Still, a team of Sky’s scale and budget should be winning monuments, and that remains an itch that is yet to be scratched.
What to expect in 2016:
Team Sky might have been a dominant force this year, but there's no sign of any laurels being rested upon. If last year’s string of signings was a considered trip around the transfer market, then this year’s dealings have resembled something of a spree in the sport’s top designer stores.
Bolstering an already-strong squad with last year’s world champion Michal Kwiatkowski and one of the most promising up-and-coming Grand Tour talents in Mikel Landa is some statement of intent. Then there’s two-time Grand Tour top-10 finisher Beñat Intxausti, who will, despite Sky saying he’ll get his own opportunities, be something of a luxury support rider.
It might be a pleasant headache to bear, but Sky will still have a job on their hands affording sufficient freedom and opportunity for the likes of Intxausti, Landa, Thomas, Sergio Henao, and Leopold Konig, who all have reason to aim high in their own right.
The team have also invested in youth – not that Landa and Kwiatkowski, both 25, cannot be considered in the same bracket – with British talent Alex Peters joining as a neo-pro following his stagiaire stint along with the exciting under-23 Italian champion Gianni Moscon. Danny Van Poppel, who fell out of favour with Trek but proved with his Vuelta stage win that there is potential to be unlocked at this early stage in his career. The signings should prepare the team nicely for the coming years, while the acquisition of Peters will go some way to quelling the criticism that Sky don't do enough to help rear British talent.
The Tour de France will remain Sky's number one priority and the route, recently announced in Paris, should suit Froome – but then again you’d struggle to design a route that wouldn’t. Landa looks good to launch a bid for the Giro, but expectations will be dampened somewhat by the proliferation of time trialling – the discipline which lost him four minutes to Contador in this year’s race. Vuelta leadership will be sorted later on but, as touched on above, there will hardly be a shortage of riders looking to put themselves forward.
That’s the Grand Tours covered, then, but what about that monument? Stannard and Rowe should once again go well on the pavé, but Geraint Thomas’ planned stage race focus is certainly a setback. That said, in Kwiatkowski, who will be less conspicuous in Sky black than in the rainbow bands, they have a rider who will go into Liège as a bona fide favourite.
Mikel Landa really stepped up this year, sparkling at the Giro d’Italia, where he won two stages, finished third overall, and justifiably felt aggrieved at being held back by the team’s designation of Fabio Aru as leader. Further confirmation of that promise came at the Vuelta where the Spaniard skipped away to take victory on the brutal Andorran stage, which some were calling one of the toughest Grand Tour stages ever.
Sky might not seem the obvious choice for someone looking to step up and be the main man, but Landa is set to slot straight in at the top of the pecking order in terms of the team’s Grand Tour ambitions that don’t revolve around Froome and the Tour. He has been touted as a successor to Spain’s ageing ‘golden generation’ of Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde, and as such represents a very exciting prospect for the team.
Richie Porte has been an important figure for Sky in his four years at the team, weighing in with big victories and playing a key role in their Tour de France success, and his switch to BMC does weaken the team.
Perhaps the loss will be felt most keenly by Froome, whose two Tour victories have been heavily underpinned by Porte’s efforts. Brailsford said ahead of this year’s Tour that there is no better GC leader-super domestique partnership anywhere in the world and the pair’s close-knit relationship has been plain to see. Froome is clearly not short of talented support riders but that special bond is something rather more rarefied.
Man to watch:
2016 will be a huge year for Geraint Thomas, who, over the course of this remarkable season, has found himself nearing a fork in the road and with a difficult dilemma to ponder. The aforementioned spring success points to a top classics rider in the making, but it has become increasingly clear that Thomas sees himself as a stage racer going forward – and who could blame him after his Algarve win and standout performance at the Tour.
The Welshman, surely now a Grand Tour leader in waiting, is open to the idea of changing teams in the future in the hope of going for Tour de France glory. The Vuelta next year is not really an option given Thomas’s desire to ride the Olympics as well as the Tour – a race where he is set to be a protected back-up GC rider, rather than a mere domestique.
There will be no Grand Tour leadership role, then, but 2016 will act as a stepping stone. With its clarity of focus, it should be a hugely formative year for Thomas, and a crucial one in terms of his career trajectory.