2014 was always going to be a tricky year. After winning everything with Wiggo in 2012 and then everything again with Froome in 2013, how do you follow that up? It quickly became apparent that they didn't quite have the answer to that question as much of the good luck that had been on their side seemed to have deserted them by the time the big stageraces came around. And with no stageracing-magic there isn't much for Sky to fall back on despite all their attempts to become an all-round team.
What We Thought Coming In
Not that we actually paid attention last winter, being sick to death with Sky's monotonous winning grind of the two previous seasons but I think we were all expecting more of the same...and more and more ad nauseum. Froome was talking of his ambitions to win 5 Tours de France as if it was already more or less a done deal and Wiggins was moping around in the wings waiting to regain his place in the spotlight. And we were foolishly speculating that yes, this would perhaps be the year they got their shit together and finally produced a successful classics season.
What We Got Instead
Well they kept on grinding all right....to a halt. Froome started off promising as did Porte Down Under but somewhere around Tirreno it all went pearshaped and the stageracing juggernaut really did nought more jugging that season. Porte got sick and never showed up to challenge Quintana at the Giro. Froome looked frail and by the time of the Tour it only took him a few days of falling off left and right before his defense of the title was in the toilet. Before that we had seen a long public pissing match about Wiggins' "right" to ride the TdF and with Froome out and Porte soon falling to pieces, Wiggins was sorely missed. The rest of the squad couldn't do much to save the Tour, unlike their Tinkoff counterparts who stepped up when they lost their captain.
Peter Kennaugh who was also semi-oddly excluded from the TdF did what he could to help out by winning the Tour of Austria, that other big tour in July that.........everyone......pays tons of attention to. (it's in Austria, right?). That was his second win of the season in a smaller stagerace and that makes him the best rider for Sky along with Wiggo who did what he set out to do in winning California.
The classics season was traditionally underwhelming after Stannard had started off well, winning Omloop Het Niuewsblad. In the bigger races though the closest they came after Stannards injury was an honorable showing for Wiggins in the front group at Roubaix. Let's not count Thomas podium at E3 because let's be realistic, this team needs to do better to get a passing grade.
Beyond that, Ben Swift had an impressive year that probably moved him several pegs up in the hierarchy for 2015. With luck he can translate more support into bigger wins too. Sergio Henao was sidelined for much of the year as the team researched his odd bloodvalues from training at home at altitude in Colombia and we never really got to see him do much in 2014.
Top Three Highlights
- Wiggins keeps delivering
Sky kept their brit superstar from even starting the Tour at home in England and still he ended up being the one to save their season-bacon with big wins in California and TT Worlds. He came close enough in Roubaix too to qualify as their rider of the year by quite a margin.
- Ian Stannard gets a deserved victory
Omloop may have become Sky's slightly annoying consolation price as compensation for not winning one of the two coveted cobbles monuments but there's rarely been a more deserved winner than Stannard who has been knocking on the door to win a big one for years now. A true classics hardman, everything Sky really needs.
- Peter Kennaugh steps up
Wins in Settimana Coppi e Bartali and Austria. It's not huge but it's really promising signs from a promising stageracer. Fully healthy, who knows what results he might have had.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Froome fizzles
He talked all big about keeping up the domination but in hindsight it became pretty clear that he struggled with following up on 2013 after all the extra hubbub that comes with winning the TdF. With motivation and health at 95% or less you don't dominate in cycling unless your name is Vos.
- Classics disappointment *again*
Well that came as a huge surprise to exactly no one.
- Porte does nothing
He was looking like the next prince in line for greatness and he had been given the Giro as his chance to lead. Instead he had some lingering illness that pretty much made him useless from Tirreno and on. Just bad luck or a sign of how close to the edge the riders in the Sky system push themselves to be competitive?
Who's coming and going?
In: Nicolas Roche, Leopold König, Elia Viviani, Wout Poels, L-P Nordhaug, Andy Fenn
Out: Edvald Boasson Hagen, Josh Edmondson, Joe Dombrowski, Dario Cataldo, Gabriel Rasch
Verdict: Almost guaranteed improvement on all but one counts. Strong support riders plus potential GC winners and a medium-sized threat for the Ardennes in their re-hired norseman. A strong sprinter added in Viviani even though you wonder why they wont build on the similar styled Swift? Not strengthening the classics squad more seems like a white flag of surrender especially since they let the one they called the golden boy, EBH, go. At least he was a classics winner in theory.
What Happens Next?
Brailsford is talking about hitting the reset button and acting as if they are a brand new team starting from scratch. This could be a healthy attitude after a mediocre year. Froome sounds more convincing and Porte is clearly recovered if the Aussie TT nats are anything to go by.The supporting cast looks ridiculously strong too with additions like Roche, König and Poels and with any luck they'll be back to killing cycling again on the slopes of the big GT mountains in no time. The resolution of the Wiggins-dilemma (Wiggins rides for Sky until Roubaix and then moves on to his own Team WIGGINS to focus on track for Rio 2016) is probably making management draw a sigh of relief too. Now he can focus on the classics for his big farewell show, simultaneously staying out of Froome's (hair) and covering for the fact that Sky's classics squad is sort of crap. Or at least "not improved on paper from a lackluster 2014 edition" (read: crap) .
The big storyline that really determines if Sky turn out to be monomaniacal cycling-killers or one of the most interesting stageracing-teams out there is really how they choose to deploy all the talent they have assembled? They can be a fantastically attractive squad with a handful of riders sharing leadership duties in different races, König getting his chances, Porte getting his, Henao, Kennaugh, Roche, Nieve, Poels getting theirs etc. It could be a thing of beauty. Or it could be all that fine talent all told to focus mainly on pulling Froome along at the Tour and assorted other races and not much else. If that becomes the case there won't be many pretty words coming Sky's way from dedicated cycling fans. They could still be the darlings of mainstream brit sports-fans mind you as long as Froome keeps winning. It's really hard to get a reading on Sky's intentions, they do sometimes come off as the archetype of TdF-crazed anglo team but they also make noises about being the number one team in the world and in that context their talent-accumulation looks really promising. I mean, why would they bring in established guys like Roche and König? Surely the pay can't be that good that guys like them would just throw all their ambitions aside and become cogs in the machine? There has to be some kind of bigger plan and ambition one would think?