28 September 2010 1 Comment

Team Sky – Have the Marginal Gains Amounted to Much?

Team Sky debuted as a British registered pro cycling team at the highest level this year amid much brouhaha, fanfare and not a little controversy. For British cycling fans this was big news: at last we had a team that has avowedly set out its stall to take on the best and win the world’s biggest cycle race, the Tour de France. As the leaves begin to fall off the trees and the season winds down with the World Championships in Geelong, Australia this weekend, it’s time to take stock.

The controversy started early with the contractual tug of war between Team Sky and Garmin Slipstream to sign Bradley Wiggins. Dave Brailsford, head honcho at Sky and sometime miracle worker (see Britain’s performance at the velodrome in Beijing in 2008) had identified Wiggins as the man to lead the team into the Tour and ended up by paying handsomely to buy Wiggins out of his Garmin contract. Wiggins, along with Sir Chris Hoy are probably the only two British male cyclists to register on the wider British public consciousness, and after his fantastic 4th place on the Tour in ’09 was seen (rightly) as the only Brit capable of leading a podium assault at this stage.

So, the personnel were in place, the iPods were plugged in on the Team Sky megabus and we waited for the victories to roll in. To be fair, the team got off to the perfect start with Chris Sutton leading home Greg Henderson in a remarkable one two on Stage 6 of their first ever race, The Tour Down Under in January. This was followed up by a victory in the team time trial in the Tour of Qatar. The team’s Norwegian star, Edvald Boasson Hagen, also won 2 stages and the points classification in the Tour of Oman, and, perhaps best of all, Juan Antonio Flecha won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a highly respected early season classic. With further wins by Russell Downing, Greg Henderson and Boasson Hagen in prestigious races like Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice, the team could hardly complain as they lined up for their first Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia. True, they hadn’t won a Monument like Milan-San Remo, or Paris-Roubaix, but the team had acquitted itself admirably in  its first spring on the road.

Brad Wiggins won the first stage of the Giro with a stunning time trial performance that won him the maglia rosa, the pink jersey being the equivalent of the Tour de France’s yellow. After that, things kind of dried up. True, young Brit, Ben Swift (whose transfer from Russian team Katusha to Sky in the close season had created almost as much a kerfuffle in the sport as Wiggins’ saddle change), took out the overall in the Tour of Picardie and Russ Downing took a memorable overall by winning the last stage at the Tour of Wallonie, but these races barely register among cycling cognoscenti, let alone regular sports fans. Where it mattered, the team came up short. And it mattered in the Tour de France.

In three weeks of racing, the best the team had to show was a great ride by Geraint Thomas to finish second on the classic cobbled stage 3 to Arenberg. Steady Eddie B-H weighed in with a couple of third places on stages 4 and 5, but when the road pointed Sky-wards the boys in black were found wanting. Wiggins’ much vaunted challenge dwindled and he finished 24th with Thomas Lovkvist (“Who?” asks the British sports fan) actually ending the race as Sky’s leading rider in 17th. I can’t imagine the sponsors or team management came out of the 3 weeks satisfied with their efforts. Was the Brailsford magic touch with the track squad that had won so many World Championships and Olympic Golds not transferable to the road?

Moreover, there have been questions about the management structure of the new team. Brailsford retains his role as Performance Director at British Cycling and Team Sky use many of the same coaches and specialists that the BC Track Squad use. There is supposed to be an arm’s length relationship, but many observers find it hard to spot the line where British Cycling ends and Team Sky begins; nowhere more so than this week, when so many Team Sky riders have withdrawn from the Commonwealth Games. Since funding for top level sport in the UK is based on medal performance, shouldn’t British Cycling be trying to take their strongest possible squad to Delhi? Instead we have the unedifying sight of rider after rider withdrawing citing health concerns and not wanting to compromise longer term aims. Whose longer term aims? British Cycling’s or Team Sky’s? We also had Brailsford claiming that the withdrawn riders were under no instruction to do so from Team Sky. The potential conflict of interest between Team Sky and British Cycling is being formally investigated by Deloitte.

Tragically for the team, the last Grand Tour in which they could hope to make an impact, La Vuelta a Espana, ended with several riders being severely ill, and the death of one of the backroom staff, Txema Gonzalez. Out of respect, the team withdrew from the race. Since then we have had the very tough Tour of Britain which was dominated by a 4 man HTC Columbia team and the home team was restricted to a stage win by Kiwi, Greg Henderson in Stoke-on-Trent and a few podium places. Henderson also took the overall points classification. Apart from that, significant results have been thin on the ground.

Currently the team lies 15th on the UCI’s team ranking behind relative minnows, Basque team Euskaltel Euskadi. The highest ranked individual rider is Boasson Hagen, also in 15th. After that, you’re looking at Henderson in 52nd and Flecha (68th) being the only other Sky rider to trouble the scorers in the top 100. Wiggins lies in 130th. And here lies another potential conflict of interest. GB are currently 16th in the world rankings allowing Mark Cavendish only 2 support riders in the World Championship road race. The charge is that by hoovering up the best British young talent (such as Ben Swift) and getting them to work for team leaders rather than allowing them the freedom to go for high finishes (and thus UCI ranking points) which they might be permitted to do on smaller teams, Team Sky have compromised the potential for winning the World’s with a British rider by limiting the number of riders to support Cav. Even if this argument is stretching a point a bit, it’s the perception that the management has feet in both camps that causes the problem. With the announcement that Team Sky have signed another Brit wunderkind in the form of Alex Dowsett, you have to hope that these guys get their chance to shine.

When the bean counters at Sky look at their multi-million pound investment, I wonder if they think they have got value for money so far? A single Grand Tour time-trial stage, one Classic, 2 week long minor stage race overalls and a handful of stages and lesser 1 day races hardly represents the huge impact that the team hoped to make. Worse, there is a certain amount of schadenfreude (borne mostly out of jealousy) around concerning the travails of the new squad that has the biggest budget in the peloton. Its ability to seemingly buy any rider out of a contract which, although commonplace in other sports, is not the case in cycling, has ruffled feathers and made few friends.

Brailsford, I’m sure, would argue that you can’t build Rome in a day and he is, of course, correct. But would he admit that the translation of his philosophy of the aggregation of marginal gains is proving much harder to implement successfully on the road than it is on the much more controlled environment of the track?

Edvald Boasson Hagen - a rare Sky success story

Picture by Schwebbes under a Creative Commons licence on Flickr

Further reading

From the excellent Inner Ring blog:

Team Sky v Great Britain, examining the potential conflict of interest.

Brailsford Confused over Commonwealth Games

From the Team Sky official website:

Team Sky official results list 2010

Also:

Tour De France final classification 2010

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