Team Sky: Adoration, loathing and ambivalence

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Froome, Brailsford and Thomas react to Sky’s sponsorship withdrawal

By the end with Team Sky, what had begun as a happy love affair for most Britons had divided its followers into three implacable factions: those who still adored them unconditionally, those convinced that they were malevolence personified and those who liked much of what they achieved but not necessarily all they did in its pursuit.

That’s what sporting success can do. It’s far easier to be forgiving of underdogs and charming bumblers than it is a relentlessly triumphant outfit who make winning their sport’s greatest prize appear almost routine.

Sky sprang from Britain’s unprecedented Olympic success on the track and initially felt like that Manchester Velodrome medal factory taken out on the road: the same coaches, the same star riders, the same nerdish attention to detail fuelled by unparalleled funding.

In the early years they carried that exultant wave of national support with them. Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France in 2012, walked out in yellow at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics and then won time-trial gold and lounged in a throne at Hampton Court. Sky were British cycling and British cycling were Sky and all of it was golden.

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They ended up closer to Manchester City: a behemoth backed by so much money that their rivals struggled to compete; a multinational collection of talents around a British core but with many home-grown young talents choosing to develop elsewhere; a sporting facade to a commercial rebranding exercise. The home support was still there but never again could it be so unequivocal.

Like City, Sky were not just about big signings. They developed riders that other teams were unconvinced by – Chris Froome, Wout Poels – and improved others whose talents were obvious: Geraint Thomas, Michal Kwiatkowski. They employed outstanding coaches who changed how the game could be played.

The way they won did not attract as many plaudits from the romantics as Pep Guardiola’s team, but neither were they the robots they were sometimes made out to be; Froome’s astonishing solo ride on stage 19 of this year’s Giro d’Italia could have come straight from cycling’s glory years, while Thomas’s two summit stage wins en route to the Tour’s yellow jersey in July were as much about flair as team control.


Froome’s spectacular 80km solo breakaway split the 2018 Giro d’Italia asunder

The point of sport is to win. Sky worked out how best they could achieve that and then did it, again and again.

The most successful riders have always had teams who could control races. Some of the most decorated did exactly what they had to do and no more. There was no great poetry in the way that Miguel Indurain won his five Tour titles but few carped at his methods.

It would puzzle some within Sky. Why did rugby union eulogise about the All Blacks’ relentless success but not their own? Why did the same French fans who roared Rafa Nadal to 11 French Open titles find tedium in Sky’s six Tour victories in seven years and jeer them from the roadsides each summer?

Success can stir jealousy. Its pursuit also brings temptations, and it was in the gap between how Sky publicly vowed to be and where they sometimes ended up that some of those answers can be found.

No Sky rider ever failed a drugs test. Other teams within professional cycling did not and still don’t come under the same public scrutiny. But the team brought much of that on themselves by too often becoming lost in hubris and ethical grey areas when they had promised to be as black and white as their jerseys.

When you set up a huge project like Team Sky from scratch and aim as high as they did, you will make mistakes. Harder to forgive sometimes was the team’s inability to recognise its errors and be entirely honest about them.

Sky was about more than Sir Dave Brailsford, but like Team GB’s track success became defined by him. During Wiggins’ miraculous year he was somewhere between new-age management guru and shaven-headed king. After being called to face a parliamentary select committee, after the DCMS report declared his team had “crossed an ethical line”, that crown had slipped.


Stripped of its lavish Sky funding, Sir Dave Brailsford’s team faces an uncertain future

It was a trajectory that followed the one traced by cycling in Britain as a whole. The Beijing Olympics’ medal haul kickstarted a revolution that took a niche sport and made it mainstream, and Sky’s wins fuelled that ascent.

Middle-aged men wore Lycra rather than carried golf clubs. Kids rode Sky-branded bikes. Bike shops opened everywhere, and every weekend saw a sportive somewhere on the nation’s more picturesque roads.

The old acolytes of the sport were often uncomfortable with the commercialisation of their passion. You had sometimes worn a jersey of a favourite rider but usually your club kit. Suddenly cycling was football and Sky replica kits were ubiquitous.

It left some of the old guard feeling disenfranchised. Sky went from Adidas jerseys to Rapha, moving from the high street to the top end. The company abandoned their commitment to mass participation sponsorship and became only about the elite. Passion became monetised.

Maybe it is a natural time for it all to come to an end. Few sponsors last as long as Sky. Great riders live on even as their teams die or metamorphose. Eddie Merckx outlived Molteni. Bernard Hinault was so much more than just La Vie Claire.

Both those jerseys have remained iconic, more in demand now in retro remakes than they ever were at the time, as popular outside those riders’ native lands as they are in Belgium and Brittany. Whether the same will be said of Sky’s black kit in another 20 years’ time remains to be seen.

Cycling’s economics are illogical. Most teams are either the product of a millionaire’s vanity or a hard-nosed corporate push. They don’t have a ground or stadium to sell on to the next prospective owner nor any slice of the sport’s television revenues.

It will make it harder for Brailsford to replicate the same level of funding his team have enjoyed over the past eight years. Sky plc wanted a slice of the golden Olympic glow that washed over terrestrial television. They got it, they worked it, they moved on.

It was as ruthless as Brailsford and his team could be. And ruthlessness can be easier to admire than adore.