In defence of Team Sky
2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins leads a new era of clean cycling. AFP PHOTO / JOEL SAGET
After year’s of planning, studying and complete devotion to the task, Team Sky have achieved their ultimate goal – getting a British rider to the top step of the podium at the Tour de France.
In what was a stellar display by a brilliant group of riders, Sky strangled their opponents to death with a precision not seen since the Armstrong led teams of last decade.
Unfortunately for Sky, this has inevitably led to speculation about how they achieved their results.
I usually avoid commenting on such speculation, believing that the cheaters will eventually be caught, but I am sick and tired of every half decent performance having its validity questioned.
As spectators, we would be the first to bemoan the sport if there were no attacks and the peloton cruised along all day at 35 kilometres per hour.
Yet, as soon as we are treated to a performance worthy of admiration, the suspicious among us begin the whisper campaign.
Of course I understand why many feel this way – I too have been disappointed by Ulrich and Landis and Ricco and I hate that horrible smudge of an asterix that is scattered throughout cycling’s record books. But we have to have faith.
The sport has moved forward and the testing and scrutiny of its participants is more intense than ever. There will always be idiots who think they can get away with cheating – in sport and in life – but let’s not mistrust everyone. Especially not Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky at this, their finest hour.
Team Sky won simply because they rode a smart race. They played to their strengths and didn’t allow their weaknesses to be exploited. They dictated the race and left no room for revolution. They did it by building the perfect team and Wiggins was the perfect leader.
He was the spearhead, and it was up to him to establish a strong platform from which his team could work. This he did with a solid prologue on day one and a scintillating individual time trial at the start of week two. Nothing suspicious here, in fact this was the expected result, his time trialling ability has never been in question.
From that moment on it was up to the other teams to make the race. Sky had a handy lead and they were only ever going to defend it. Aware that Wiggins was perhaps most vulnerable in the high mountains, Sky assembled an armada of riders charged with ushering their leader over the highest passes.
Christian Knees and Edvald Boasson Hagen did the early grunt work. The hard working Knees is a veteran of six Tours and has finished as high as 21st overall, while Boasson Hagen is strong and a proven winner. He hunted down two Tour victories last year and is one of the young stars of the professional peloton. Nothing suspicious here.
The Australian super domestiques, Richie Porte and Michael Rogers, took over when Knees and Boasson Hagen swung away. Porte burst onto the international scene in 2010 where he was the best young rider at the Giro d’Italia. He even wore the maglia rosa before finishing seventh overall. The Tasmanian has been helping Wiggins win races all year. He has ridden tirelessly at the Tour, but that is what he does. For him, it is nothing out of the ordinary.
Rogers is a former Tour contender. He has a top ten finish to his name and in 2007 was virtual leader on the road before crashing out. He is a three time world time trial champion and has finally come back to full fitness after several years of debilitating illness. His form should be of no surprise to those who have followed his career and to suggest otherwise is just plain disrespectful.
And this brings us to Chris Froome. He may be awkward and somewhat of a loose cannon, but he has always had the talent.
Inconsistency and perhaps a lack of confidence has hindered him at times, but his performance at the Vuelta last year gave him the self belief that he needed. He has probably gained the most benefit from Sky’s scientific approach to the sport, and at 27 years of age he is entering his prime.
He looked to be the strongest climber of the Tour and this can be put down to increased experience and the fact that he was riding for Wiggins. Where once he was trigger happy, shooting off on explosive attacks and expending massive amounts of energy, only to be blown moments later, he is now more conservative.
Speaking after last year’s Vuelta Froome said, “I’d get into the front groups on the climbs in the Tour de Suisse or Romandy, and I’d just be carried away with the excitement of it all and I’d attack and completely blow my chances like that. But Bradley has shown me that you don’t need to do that if you want to be up on GC. It’s strange, it almost feels like cheating: just follow the other guys and take a steady pace, you’re at the front of the bike race and you’re not actually doing that much work to be there.”
Rather than having to resort to sinister methods to improve his performance, Froome has learnt better how to ply his craft.
As for Wiggins himself, for the most part he was safely ensconced within his team’s protective embrace. He rode efficiently, especially on the earlier stages where Cadel Evans was desperate to make up the few seconds he’d lost in the prologue. Wiggins played Pepe le Pew to Evans’ frantic cat, skipping along calmly behind the Australian who was all over his bike in what was little more than an urgent panic.
Wiggins went to the Tour in the form of his life. The only question hanging over his head was whether or not he could sustain that form over the full three weeks of the Tour. That question has been answered and he should be applauded for his effort, not whispered about in hushed tones.
The man is an elite athlete. He showed us glimpses of what he could do on the road back in 2009, and since ditching the track to concentrate solely on road racing, he has been singular in his focus on winning the Tour de France.
Of course you don’t just win the Tour de France. Talent plays its part, but luck and good fortune, and being in the right place at the right time also come into it. That Sky Procycling was created at the same moment that Wiggins was beginning to make his mark on road cycling was fortuitous for both.
The British team had their leader, they just needed to build a team around him that was capable of going the journey in France. And build a team they did, perhaps one of the strongest ever assembled for a Grand Tour.
Rogers, Porte and Froome could have all rode for general classification and Froome could have won it. Their loyalty and commitment to the cause, coupled with the sacrifices made by Cavendish and Boasson Hagen, contributed to this victory.
Whether or not Sky can keep this group together for a repeat performance remains to be seen. Personal ambition will eventually see key members of the armada go their separate ways, but for the moment let them celebrate.
While Wiggins is the one who stood on the top step of the podium, this victory belongs to the team as a whole. They were able to put personal ego aside and completely devote themselves to the cause. The sacrifices made, no doubt painful at the time, are well worth it now. Let’s not sour their moment with unfounded whispering.