What's Interesting About Team Sky:
The Money. The other interesting story would be the rise of British Cycling, but if you've clicked on CyclingWeekly in the last 18 months, you know enough about that already. So to me, what makes the Sky project interesting is the money behind them. Sky's power grabs were the talk of the offseason, not only for the names caught in their tractor beam but for the rumors of what seemed like unlimited funds. Reported to be as high as €54 million ($200 gazillion USD), team guru Dav Brailsford insists that's a myth:
"We may circulate the UCI list [detailing teams' budgets]," said Brailsford. "I think we're sixth in the league table. It's a total myth [that Sky is the best-funded] and I think we'll try to put that right by providing some facts. It doesn't do us any favours to have people think that."
Source: the Guardian. Maybe so, but the myth will be hard to play down. Sky are backed by British Sky Broadcasting, a company that counts its budget in the tens of billions of Euros, which represents but a fraction of the Murdoch media empire. So however realistic the investment may be, no other team can enjoy the security of having enthusiastic support from James Murdoch and, if needed, his bottomless money pit. Most teams, in fact, live in fear of that phone call from the principal sponsor, the one they knew all along would come someday, announcing that it was time to move on from the sport. Sky, by contrast, may languish in the "lower end of the top six" on the money table, but are far more likely to get a call from Murdoch doubling down on some free agent star than pulling the plug.
Moreover, the "backroom staff" is another place where Sky expect to enjoy advantages. In addition to team activities, they will share some facilities and personnel with British Cycling, bankrolled by Sky for some €50 million, and provide a ready source of technological and physiological research. There's talk of working with F1 designers to gain an edge. Lordy knows what else (my mind is full of blanks for our UK readers to fill in!); but to be sure riders at Sky will enjoy the fruits of innovation, tremendous facilities and equipment, and coaching. Unprecedented? Well, other teams have their own competitive advantages, but name another team that started off from Day One with so many. And then there are the results: a win in their first event, their first Belgian classic, five victories in their first two months and a #4 world ranking. Surely that will extend the media bleating for a few more weeks.
What lasting effect Team Sky has on the sport remains to be seen. Thus far, Katusha supposedly have operated with a higher budget than Sky's but have not perceptibly altered the salary landscape, as far as I've heard. Sky are slick and new, but other teams are slick too. One clear effect, mentioned above, is the British-ness of the team, giving a place in the sport to a large, curiously detached neighbor to the cycling world. Give them five years and we shall see if they've made an impact beyond an influx of UK youth.
The Rest of the Story... on the flip.
Who Makes Them Tick
The headliners are well known: Edvald Boasson Hagen, the world's most exciting rider under 30 (or 25, or 23), and Bradley Wiggins, owner of the bloodiest offseason transfer as well as a pretty fair skillset for those few races where Boasson Hagen won't be a factor. Like most angelsachians, Wiggins will likely embark on an unhealthy, doomed focus on the Tour de France, foregoing a number of stage races where his excellent time trialling and respectable climbling would make him a good bet to win. But I'm American, I know about anglo teams playing to their base. I'm over it. [Update] In the comments, I admit that this criticism of Wiggo is kind of silly.
Who Might Surprise You:
Tough one. This is a team loaded with young guys who could break out... or not. Two names come to mind: Morris Possoni and Ben Swift. Possoni because he has a nice combination of climbing and time-trialing in his arsenal, and because he fits the typical profile of a rider who changed situations after finding himself pretty well blocked at HTC-Columbia. He and Thomas Lofkvist could well be their protected riders in the Giro. [Whether Lofkvist improved his place by switching teams is another matter, but Possoni was blocked by Martin and Monfort too.] Swift, meanwhile, has beaten a few famous sprinters already in his very brief, young career, but probably his best performance was a third in a Giro stage last year, behind only Petacchi and Cavendish. If he can swap elbows with that group, he probably belongs in the sprint peloton and will likely demonstrate that soon enough.
Where They will Rise Up:
Sprint races. Pretty much everywhere. True to their track roots, Sky are loaded with finishers. Obviously Boasson Hagen will get first crack at whatever he wants, but Swift, Greg Henderson and Chris Sutton are all capable of the odd win or more. Put together, that's a potentially very tough unit... assuming they put them together. Sprinters don't always join forces successfully, even if they want to, so another possibility is that they'll simply have at least one solid sprinter at every race in Europe. Either way, they will continue to win races. And speaking of sprints, Boasson Hagen could probably set the green jersey record if that were his ambition. Oh, and smaller stage races -- Lofkvist is only 25 and has a pretty nice reputation in the one-week variety of hilly tours. Paired with the likes of Possoni, Simon Gerrans, Wiggins and occasionally Boasson Hagen, Sky just might enjoy that breakout season peope have expected from Lofkvist since like forever. For his age, the Swede is already a pretty hardened warrior. Peter Kennaugh will bear watching, though it's probably way too early to see much.
Where They Will Fall Down:
The Classics. Despite an excellent start to their Belgium campaign this past weekend, I would remind people that it was still February. Getting all worked up about Juan Antonio Flecha's form six weeks before Paris-Roubaix is a recipe for a letdown. And while Boasson Hagen is all that, he could probably use a year or two before he can single-handedly slay the Quick Step dragon.
Random, Vaguely Interesting Question:
How many track guys does it take to assemble a formidable road team? Sky are loaded with track refuges, unsurprisingly. Ian Stannard, one of the heroes of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, demonstrated his hard shell on the flatter roads last weekend. Swift has used his track background to get involved in some sprints. Geraint Thomas, part of the gold medal-winning pursuit team in Beijing. Aussies Sutton and Henderson have some track background, as do Russell Downing, Peter Kennaugh, and even Bradley Wiggins. Obviously each rider has to develop a different skillset for the road, but surely there are elements of their track background which will be of benefit. Sprinting? Time trials? Both are likely to be team strengths. The cohesion of adopting so many British Cycling alumni can't hurt either.
The Sky-versus-the-world meme has to die out soon. Sky's rocky adjustment (if the media are to be believed) has to do with being new, prising away a few riders from reluctant former teams, and riding in the front of the peloton. Real cycling rivalries are not usually based in petty jealousies; the sport is too hard for people to indulge in distractions, except maybe in winter training races. Soon enough, everyone will be up to full speed, other teams will take their turns on the front (once Sky have exhausted themselves), and Sky won't be any more or less of a target than anyone else in the way of a prospective winner. Ultimately respect will be earned with wins, a process which is already underway.
Photo by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport