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Turning the Page on the Tour: Have Sky Bought Cycling?

Money equals power, but is that all there is to it?

Kenzo Tribouillard

I don't really know how to assess this Tour de France, even assuming anyone was still talking about it. I guess we'll always remember the steady diet of cool stage battles and Chris Froome's many roles (descender, runner, winner) en route to his third Tour title, but not much else.

One piece from this Tour though is definitely the role of Team Sky. Earlier in the week the Wall Street Journal's Jason Gay wrote a story about maybe having salary caps in cycling. Gay is a good writer and has some reasonable insights into the sport of cycling -- I suppose; his stuff leans more toward reporting than opinion -- and for a few hours the subject of creating limits on what teams could spend got kicked around. The reason, of course, is because of the success of Team Sky.

According to the piece, Sky are rumored to have about $35 million or so at their disposal. Poorer teams were at half that number, but Sky weren't in the stratosphere all by themselves. Who else is close isn't mentioned, but surely BMC and Movistar are not terribly far off. One of my great regrets as a self-appointed cycling analyst is the lack of available financial data, so we could attach cold numbers to each rider and team and divine his/their relative value, further draining the blood from the experience of watching cycling. But that's Ursula's department anyway.

Still, confirming that Sky is the richest team does... what, exactly? We already pretty much knew that, but had an idea that they weren't lapping the entire field. We also knew that there wasn't a damn thing anyone could do about their richness, assuming the Cycling Establishment even wanted to do something. [Note to Cycling Establishment: limiting the inflow of money to the sport is probably a bad idea.] We also knew that Sky would be the strongest team at the Tour, which they were.

So, question: is that because of the money? And anyway, do we care?

Money and Power

The first question is whether money equals power. I'll start by saying, it can't hurt, but it's not that simple. Money can help fill out a roster, but riders nowadays don't always take the first nice offer they get. If they have choices, and the money isn't terribly different, they're likely to find teams that support their goals and help them feel generally good, like for example when their teammates speak the same language. Sky are the flagship program for the evolution of English-speaking influence on cycling, which went from pretty minimal to pretty dominant in a short period of time. The US Postal escapades definitely carved out an American presence, but which was later washed away and is barely perceptible in terms of its influence on the entire sport. [American cyclists are there and doing fine, but they aren't a dominant theme.] Certainly Australia has contributed to this. And by the time Sky got started the English language was in vogue in the sport as a more broadly common linguistic denominator than the traditional French.

So the door was open, and Sky went blasting through it. Using its money, but also its experience through the British Cycling program and a stable of athletes honed on track power, Sky quickly asserted itself as a team to talk about. Then it won a Tour with Bradley Wiggins, and even more dauntingly, with a young Chris Froome on the ascent. The rest is history in terms of Tour victories, and in terms of Sky taking its position at the front of the race.

Success begat success, and since the rest of the peloton expected Sky to take over the front, Sky turned to a strategy of really taking over the front. In 2012 they had the 1-2 of Wiggins and Froome, plus Richie Porte and Mick Rogers hammering away on the tepid Tour parcours, but they also had to mind the interests of Mark Cavendish, then the world champion, chasing stages and getting people excited for the London Olympics.

By 2013, Cavendish and his green jersey distraction were gone, and Froome made his first run behind a revised core of Brits (Stannard, Kennaugh and Thomas) plus Porte. In 2014, when things fell apart, Thomas was the only Brit helper, along with Vasil Kiryienka, Porte, and the newly added Mikel Nieve. Wout Poels was the major addition for 2015, and in 2016 Porte was replaced with Mikel Landa, while long-time prospect Sergio Henao graduated to the Tour team.

Is this really some sort of money-driven Murderer's Row? Nieve was picked up from the Euskaltel collapse. Landa had to get the hell out of Astana if he were ever to have a chance. Henao was developed from within, and has been on board as long as the British Cycling guys have. Poels was poached from Etixx-Quick Step, but was never ranked in the top 100 until he joined Sky. Of all these key lieutenants, only one -- Landa -- smacks of purchasing power, since Landa was undoubtedly in demand last summer, and while he's a great rider, he's not someone I'd point to as having done much for Froome this month, thanks to his disjointed season. [He could very well graduate to mega-super-domestique as early as next summer, but that hasn't happened yet.]

No, what Sky have done is found the right people and made the most of their skills. Every one of them, save the newly-added Landa, has improved their ranking once they joined Team Sky. Unless you want to wander off into unfounded doping accusations, it's obvious that Sky are simply preparing their riders well. And here is the one place where I would say the money absolutely makes a difference. I'm not a backstage presence, not even close, but we see enough articles about all the ways that Sky support their athletes, from the lab to the gear. They are doing it right, in large part because they can afford to. So yes, on some level money in cycling is power. But not in a way that can be fixed with a salary cap.

Incidentally, if you did want to put a salary cap to work in cycling, you'd probably want to travel back in time when there really were Murderer's Row teams. From 1981 to 86, the yellow jersey resided in two teams -- Renault-(insert) and its La Vie Claire spinoff. Year after year you had one team with two riders on the podium, culminating in the 1986 horror show when it's not clear why anyone else besides La Vie Claire even bothered. In 1949, the top rider after Coppi and his "teammate" Bartali was Jacques Marinelli, over 25 minutes back. I'm sure I could comb through the historical records and find years when the winner benefited from an impossible advantage. I don't think Sky's performance, on paper, looks all that remarkable.

No doubt, though, they took up the mantle of leadership and used it to bludgeon their opponents, for the fourth time this decade. Maybe it's time their opponents did something about it.

Where Are Your Eggs?

One little-acknowledged fact about Team Sky is that they don't actually lead any rankings very often. Sky dominated the World Tour rankings in 2012 and were second in 2013, but Movistar have led that category almost non-stop since. The Podium Cafe rankings and CQRanking say roughly the same: that apart from a dominant 2012, they're more like top three, at best, and cratered briefly in 2014. Until Poels won Liege three months ago, the team had never won a Monumental classic and had only scored a handful of wins in Belgium in Springtime. No Sky rider has ever won the world championships road race while a member of the team (Cav was on HTC in 2011). Sky/British Cycling lost the coveted Olympic gold on its home course to Alexander Vinokourov (don't let's start). They have won zero titles at the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana. They do one thing exceptionally well -- win the Tour de France -- and nothing else with anything approaching historic distinction.

So really, that's the secret to their success: pouring whatever advantages it has into winning a single three-week race. They assemble a coterie of riders who understand their hierarchy on that Tour team, and prepare them to execute a well-defined plan. That plan happens to work, not because they are well-paid but because they operate with a clear path full of riders who accept their precisely defined role in support of a single leader.

Sky also happen to have the top athlete to support. Really, Sky's whole program is only as good as whatever Chris Froome is looking at in his magic stem. Take out Froome and they sink to the bottom half of the World Tour, as they did in 2014.

And as to all those other teams? For starters, they don't have Froome. They have, at best, Nairo Quintana or Adam Yates or Richie Porte or Alejandro Valverde or Vincenzo Nibali. All variables aside, only Quintana possesses the explosive climbing and the ability to negate Froome's crono advantage to even think it's possible to win without some luck on his side.

But even if their guy were equal to Froome, do they have anything close to what Froome has in support? Do riders on all these teams accept their Tour role in the same way as Sky's do, not merely to support their leader for three weeks but to spend the entire season preparing to support the guy? This is a factor in every team sport ever -- people knowing exactly where they fit in and agreeing to do just that -- and in cycling, Sky's example proves just how important it is.

Movistar have oodles of athletes, probably equal to better as far as a mountains team goes, in theory. But in practice, Valverde raced the Giro with the intent to win, and came into the Tour with that limitation in his legs. Quintana raced the Giro the year before, which was probably wise strategically, but the point is that they don't just save everyone for July. Amador, Betancur, Dowsett, Rojas and Visconti are among the interesting names left off the Tour roster for Movi. Valverde races all year not to get ready to help Nairo, but to score points for nine months straight. No reason he shouldn't; he's a star and will be a trendy pick in Rio. But that's a pretty big difference in how Movi allocate their resources for the Tour.

Astana did a bit more to support Nibali, but he too just raced the Giro, and was himself there to support Aru in the Sardinian's first Tour. The split in the squad is well documented. Astana could build a July juggernaut, but their athletes don't see the pecking order that way, and Nibali is on his way somewhere else to hammer that point home. BMC's approach probably most closely resembles Sky's, and the last time they had the guy to win the race, they did exactly that. But it was Cadel Evans' last hurrah as a top Tour guy, and they've been searching for a winning hand ever since.

Dutch, Spanish, Belgian and Italian teams will always feel other pressures to detract from the type of single-minded purpose Team Sky is able to muster. An American team could do it, or an Australian team perhaps, and a French team for dead-flipping-certain... if they had the athletes. Only Sky have the athletes, the cultural context for such single-mindedness, and... the money.

I don't think Sky are ruining cycling, but they are redefining how to approach the Tour, and until the rest of the peloton catches up, things aren't likely to change.