You've heard about how it can take a year for a new (or reconstructed) cycling team to gel? Take the case of the Sky Professional Cycling Team. A year ago they were a Murdoch-family vanity joint venture with British Cycling, a national program that was starting to pay big dividends. The latter promised talent, while the former gave the team an operating budget and contract mission that ruffled a number of feathers in the sport. The hostile takeover of Bradley Wiggins, then under contract with Garmin, fueled some sniggering when Wiggins' form went missing at the Tour de France. A hot start to the season tempered drastically by July, and there was a sense a year ago that the first year was a disappointment.
A year later, Sky have turned the tables on their critics. How, why and what next... on the flip!
What We Thought Coming In
Frankly, not much. Wiggins was being written off by some as a flash in the pan and a difficult character. Edvald Boasson Hagen had company in the sprinty/classics rising star world, and a troubling injury record. The other big names in the squad, like Juan Antonio Flecha and Thomas Lofkvist, didn't inspire big dreams. The raft of solid sprinters were thought to maybe be keeping Mark Cavendish's seat warm. In other words, the team that came in with a good deal of fanfare had succeeded in that first year in lowering everyone's expectations.
What We Got
Without question, one of the top three teams in cycling. CQRanking had them #1 on points (up from 13th in 2010). The Cafe Rankings had them a close second to LeopardTrek (good year for vanity projects!). They were a complete team for the entire calendar. They won something in every month, including stages of the Tour and Vuelta, the latter notable for their taking second and third overall. The following riders improved by some significant measure over their 2010 performance: Boasson Hagen, Steve Cummings, Alex Dowsett, Chris Froome, Simon Gerrans, Matt Hayman, Peter Kennaugh, Chris Sutton, Ben Swift, Geraint Thomas, Rigoberto Uran, and of course Wiggins.
What the team lacked was the spectacular. Boasson Hagen's two stage wins in the Tour de France were pretty spectacular, particularly the Pinerolo ride over the Alps. And his Vattenfalls win wasn't bad either. But Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne marked their only classics win of the spring, following Flecha's narrow loss the day before at the Omloop, and Wiggins' win in the Dauphine marked their biggest stage race success of the season. More "solid" than great.
Still, the depth across the team was impressive. Flecha and Thomas threatened the Ronde field all the way to Ninove, and that was without Boasson Hagen -- who figures to impress in Flanders very soon -- at full strength. The Tour team saw Wiggins show more flashes of what he could be, with the Dauphine win and third at the Vuelta sandwiched around crashing out of the Tour. More importantly, it saw Froome break out quite dramatically at the Vuelta and saw young Uran develop into a major climbing classics threat (3rd in Lombardia, 5th in Liege) while giving Sky another grand tour weapon. Simon Gerrans came back strong from a down (largely injured) 2010 season to nearly win the Amstel Gold Race (3rd) and GP Ouest-France (2nd), with a victory in Denmark to quench his thirst a bit. The World's Best Overlooked Sprint Team (Sutton, Hayman, Henderson and Swift) notched 11 more wins. There simply isn't much fat anywhere on this roster. And that, my friends, is the mark of a true cycling team... not a mere vanity project.
Top Three Highlights
- Boasson Hagen's win in Pinerolo. Take this as a symbolic #1, as it signalled the return to potential greatness -- a status that he proceeded to underline regularly from July onward -- of the team's most talented rider. Boasson Hagen bludgeoned his break-mates on the final climb over the Pramartino, a day after losing in Gap to countryman Hushovd. The combination of climbing prowess, to go along with everything else he does well, suggested that Eddy Boss was back on his game, and at a mere 24 that's a scary prospect.
- Froome's win in Pena Cabarga. True, he spent only a few moments in virtual Rojo that day but the only guy to put JJ Cobo in difficulty in the latter stages of the Vuelta a Espana was a 26-year-old Kenyan wrapping up his third grand tour. A stylish win on a truly riveting day, and one that signals good things ahead.
- Wiggins' third in the Vuelta. Let's face it, the team is still pretty heavily invested in Wiggins, so to see him perform well anywhere is a huge deal. You could pick his Dauphine win here instead, or even his good work at the Worlds, but I'll go with a cracking good Vuelta, lost only on the Angliru, his second biggest grand tour result ever.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Wiggins crashes out of the Tour. Wiggins' promising run-up went out the window on stage 7 when a pileup left him without a functioning collarbone.
- Flecha pipped in the Omloop. Classics vet made his mark in the 2010 Omloop, and looked like the strongest guy in the race when he tracked down the attacking Dutchman. But he fell a few inches short in Gent.
- Boasson Hagen's Scheldeprijs crash. Scary moment further derails his spring plans, not that they were going anywhere too fast. But hitting a tree... I guess it builds mental toughness, right?
Where do they go from here?
To the elite level, if they weren't already there. Imagine a classics team headed by a healthy Boasson Hagen, savvy Flecha, frisky Thomas, and now sporting the versatile Bernie Eisel and occasionally the World's Fastest Man, Mark Cavendish. Done. Then check out a Tour squad with a healthy Wiggins supported by Froome, Gerrans, Uran, maybe Peter Kennaugh before long... and adding Richie Porte and Kanstantin Siutsou. In a crono-heavy Tour they should bag their first Paris podium, one way or another. Signing Cavendish, which was in the works for years, adds more sprint wins, but that's not what excites me about this team (they were doing OK in that department anyway). Sky have added winning talent and superb depth for the Classics and grand tours. Cav in the Olympics may get all the headlines, but the rest of this team's body of work promises to leave a greater mark on the sport in 2012.
Photo by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport