Former Tour de France winner Alberto Contador said it was "no surprise" to him when he learned that Sky would end its sponsorship of Team Sky after the 2019 season, given the length of time the British team has been in cycling and the scale of its achievements.
Viewed as one of the best stage racers of his generation before he retired in 2017, and now a regular TV commentator on racing for Eurosport, Contador was one of Team Sky's most tenacious and unpredictable rivals over the years in the Grand Tours. Contador, among others, provided the team with plenty of challenges at the Vuelta a España, the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia.
He also masterminded the breakaway at the 2016 Vuelta a España on the stage to Formigal – a move that sank Froome's bid to win the Spanish Grand Tour that year and enabled Nairo Quintana (Movistar) to retain his overall lead all the way to Madrid.
Rather than the sponsor quitting being a shock announcement, Contador said, it was only to be expected, given that Team Sky had achieved so much in cycling. He also argued that with more than a year until the team's main backer quits, there was still a lengthy margin for the team to find new financial support.
"It's not like they announced it in August and told the riders to start looking for a new squad for the next season," Contador pointed out.
"It's no surprise, given Sky have been in the peloton since 2010, that they are quitting," Contador told Cyclingnews on Wednesday morning. "Most title sponsors come in, become a familiar part of the peloton and then, after five years or so, they're gone and try another sport. I wish all the sponsors lasted nine or 10 years [like Sky].
"And, of course, they've done a great job in road racing, with a lot of their initial management and some of their riders coming over from a more track-based focus and [nonetheless] managing to win a lot of the top road events. Particularly, of course, the Tour de France, and on more than one occasion. So Sky have decided to go, but they've done a great job, and other sponsors will come in."
Team Sky's domination, finding sponsorship
Contador said Team Sky's era of domination had coincided with the rise of the power meter – which Contador believes should be banned – as a key part of cycling's technological armoury and that "although they [power meters] had been around before, they weren't so important".
"But you have to recognise Sky were – and are – really good in all sorts of areas. They've invested and researched a heck of a lot," he said. "On a personal level, I had to train harder to get even better than I already was if I wanted to remain competitive against them."
Contador himself knows what it is like to search for a new sponsor, and was also in teams where the sponsorship ended at the close of the season. His foundation – the Alberto Contador Foundation – remains on the hunt for long-term backers in the hope that in the future they can expand their Kometa-sponsored Continental team. At the same time, back in 2015, Contador tried to gain backing to create a WorldTour squad for the following season.
"It's one thing trying to form a team from scratch, but another when you've already got something up and running. All three of us – me, [foundation co-director] Ivan Basso and my brother, Fran, are trying to get more backing for my foundation further down the line, while always keeping in line with our underlying philosophies for the team. But that'll happen if it happens, and if it doesn't, we're already very happy with how the foundation's teams are looking right now."
Contador views the sheer size of Team Sky's budget – around £34 million for 2017 alone – as having advantages and drawbacks for a potential new sponsor.
"These are really big numbers, and when you go to a multinational to ask for backing, they look even bigger, because they know they've got to sign a deal for, normally, three to five years," he said.
"If Sky have such a big budget, it's because they've had some results that are virtually impossible to improve upon, and that's a guarantee to any big backer. Of course, you think that's a heck of a lot of money, but Sky have those results that really back them up."
At the other end of the operation are the riders themselves – some with contracts for a lengthy period of time.
"The good news is that they'll know about the likelihood of a new sponsor with some advance warning. It's not like they've been told in August that the squad was going to end at the end of the year," Contador reiterated.
He warned, however, that if a new sponsor doesn't sign on soon, as the 2019 season progresses, the riders would likely try to secure contracts elsewhere.
"I've experienced it a few times when I've known the sponsor was stopping: that as the season goes on, and the months go by, and nothing gets sorted out, people can get nervous.
"The riders at Sky are all high quality, and lots of teams will be interested in them. So, logically, if the season gets underway and there's no sign of a new sponsor, the phone calls to the riders will start."