Does anyone like Sky? Does anyone see them on the front of the peloton with eighty-two kilometres to go on a gently rolling stage between Saint-Vincent-de-Saucisson and Saint-Jean-de-Croissant and rub their hands in glee? I'll answer my own question: I should say so. British people are flocking to the sport, and they bring a right to support Sky. I think that the sense of shame I notice in people saying they support Sky is strange — in the fantastical scenario that Team Aquablue got a massive of cash and became a big team which rode like Sky but won like them as well, with Irish flags beside the riders names on the results sheet, I can tell you that I would be ecstatic. I would support them at every race, for the same reason one might support their national football team at the World Cup no matter their playing style. Is cycling any different? I suppose it must be.
What We Expected
Addict kindly supplied last year's capsule.
Bathos in May, domination in July, windmill tilting in August. Garnished with dominance in April? They will marshal their forces for another full on assault on the Tour, and sweep up the prep stage races (or not) as it suits them. Landa will be thrown the Giro to keep him sweet, but how prepped and supported he is there time will tell. Spain will be what Spain will be. The real intrigue around Sky is whether they can continue their advances on the Cobbles (Stannard is hoping for an Arctic downpour on April 10th), and whether Kwiatkowski delivers in the Ronde or Ardennes. Truth be told, with the talent and investment they now have, the team needs to commit to April in the same way it commits to July.
What We Got
To accurately describe the season that Sky had, you must make one important distinction between the team's riders. The first category targeted certain races, had certain aims, and made up the majority of the team's appeal. The second was less important to the team's image and function. Yes, category one is the "Froomes," or "F's" for short, containing Chris Froome. Category two is the "non-Froome's," or "NF's" containing...er, everyone else. I shorten the name not only because I love acronyms, but also as a reminder that if an NF wants to, say, have a go at the Vuelta, the answer is usually "F off," and also that an NF is far more likely to DNF a race they are targeting. The Fs had a good start to the season in the Herald Sun Tour at the expense of one of the NFs, Peter Kennaugh. The Fs then had a quiet March and April before a stage win in the Tour de Romandie and a dominant Dauphiné win. They then went to the Tour de France, and it's here where I drop this joke and actually talk about what Froome did there.
I went into the Tour de France actively disliking Froome. I hoped that he would not win the Tour de France, without really hoping that any particular other rider would win it, which is how you know you definitely know you don't like a rider, rather than are just indifferent about them. I had numerous reasons, none unique to myself, for this — he rode too conservatively, I thought, Sky's tactics were a drain on entertainment, also the management is a little smug at times, and anyway, he's won it twice, I reasoned. However, Froome put up inarguably the most entertaining race of all the GC contenders. He took risks on the Peyresourde, he made numerous attacks on Ventoux, he showed the spirit to run up the mountain, and when met with challenges such as a slippy Alpine descent on stage nineteen causing a crash, he didn't panic. He simply rode the best race, and personally, I warmed to him. I no longer actively dislike him. I may inactively dislike him, but he basically answered all the queries I had about him personally and thus I have very little ill to say of him. Apart from when it comes to the Vuelta. Once again he came to the Spanish race with the intention of winning it, couldn't quite turn it on and eventually lost to a Spanish-speaking climber who just had better legs. I just don't think it's going to happen for him there, and one of the NFs should be given a go.
Speaking of the NFs, Mikel Landa, transferred in from Astana to be chief of them, absolutely bombed at the Giro. He was there one day, and the next day he was gone...well, that's half true. He was sort of, almost there one day, and two days later (there was a rest day) he was certainly gone. He achieved nothing, or as we call it these days, the Giro del Trentino. Another one, Michał Kwiatkowski had an odd season. Having ridden one successful classic before in his life (and that was Dwars, and not a well-contested Dwars at that), he turned up at E3 Harelbeke, proceeding to escape with Peter Sagan and then outsprint him. Is it inconsiderate to say "and then he was done for the season?" I don't care. Then he was done for the season. It was the team's only cobbled success, but ignoring Luke Rowe's top fives in Omloop het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Flanders would be remiss of me.
Now let's look at Froome's top climbing lieutenants. Geraint Thomas and Sergio Henao spent the early season depressing Alberto Contador by riding up steep hills as well as or better than he was. They rode the Tour, finished fifteenth and twelfth, and were there in front of Froome most days. Leopold König (no wonder he jumped ship) had four months out, and four more months of nothing. Wout Poels doubled his wages with Sky's first ever Ardennes success and some truly amazing help for Froome in the Tour. He finished well ahead of top GC contenders on two final week summit finishes.
Gianni Moscon won a lump of salmon and an inflated VDS price at the Arctic Roll of Norway, Nicolas Roche only won things that were a few kilometres from my house, Elia Viviani puzzled people by reminding them both that he exists and that he rides for Sky a few insignificant times, Benat Intxausti got sick while pining for the time when he was the fourth or fifth guy in the GC pecking order, rather than the eighth or ninth. Vasil Kiryienka tried really hard to forget he was wearing the TT rainbow jersey and just blend in. Ben Swift prayed for a race he was capable of winning (and one must exist) to be designed. Salvatore Puccio and Christian Knees...Christ, I don't know. Maybe they sat around questioning why they were never on television? Maybe they continually checked the figure at the bottom of their contracts? Because I certainly don't remember seeing them.
Top 3 Highlights
- The Tour, obviously: It goes without saying that Froome's third Tour win is Sky's main achievement of the year.
- Ardennes, for once: Addict said last year that the big gap in Sky's palmares was a win in the Ardennes and Poels duly supplied, outsprinting Michael Albasini - no mean feat - in the process.
- The Promenade: Geraint Thomas is a really good rider, and I can't say I was saddened to see him win at basically the first try when given leadership. He won Paris-Nice by seconds, but ask anyone, that's how you win Paris-Nice.
Bottom 3 Lowlights
- Can you lose a race? Froome is never the same in September as he is in July, but he's always the same in September as he is in September. Every Vuelta he tries the same trick — falling off the back at the start of a climb and trying to pry his way back up to the front, but stage fifteen lost him the race once and for all, while highlighting the problems Sky seemed to have dealt with in the Tour. They are capable of being outfoxed and outraced.
- I think you can: Mikel Landa was all set to benefit from being the best climber in the 2015 Giro by being the guy wearing the most pink at the 2016 Giro, but after a lacklustre first week he DNFd on stage ten.
- Especially if you crash: Sky were on the front of the main group in Paris-Roubaix with umpteen riders and sixty kilometres to go, with numerous potential winners amongst their number. Their momentum was robbed by a fall. Stannard saved a podium, but a win could have been on the cards for such a strong team.
Tao Geoghegan Hart plays Russian Roulette with his chances of ever leading a team, the world's worst person to draft behind, Kenny Elissonde signs up for at least two years of pulling on the front up the second-last climb of the day, Owain Doull and Jon Dibben move up from Team Wiggins, Lukasz Wisniowski arrives from Quickstep and Diego Rosa makes the jump from Astana for some reason.
Nicolas Roche leaves for BMC in hope of forgetting that he threw away the last two years of his prime, Leopold König escapes back to Bora, Ben Swift, Andy Fenn and Alex Peters are three young Brits who couldn't make it at Sky. Only Swift does not drop a level. Lars Petter Nordhaug leaves as well, and Xabier Zandio retires, opening up the slot for "last guy in the list when Team Sky are put in alphabetical order."
It's probably a net gain for Sky. Geoghegan Hart genuinely stands a chance of being a great climber and Rosa's move, though ill-judged for him, is a great coup for Sky. Roche was no use to them and König was scarcely better. I don't think that three British riders leaving the team looks like great publicity, for them, however.
To deal with the obvious first, Chris Froome is going to win the Tour de France barring a disaster. He is the best stage racer in the world still, by a margin. To predict before any racing has happened that he will lose to Porte, Bardet, Quintana or anyone else seems nonsensical to me. However, he will again not win the Vuelta, and not for lack of trying. The NFs will do their thing, but VDS owners who were burned last year will have trouble trusting Landa. I certainly don’t trust him to do anything in the Giro. Genuinely, I think Thomas might have a better chance at doing well if he does target the Italian race. Have Sky made their cobbles breakthrough yet? If they haven't, they might this year. In Thomas, Stannard, Kwiatkowski and Rowe they have four riders more than capable of winning big cobbled classics, and Gianni Moscon looks like an emerging talent for these races as well. Ultimately, we know what we'll get from Sky: stage racing competence before Tour de France supremacy and a lottery on the cobbles. They'll have a high UCI ranking notched up in...well, a jiffy.