A bit of a departure from the usually reflective nature of these columns, this Thursday I’m turning my attention to a couple of items that need more immediate attention. Beginning, of course, with the big news from the evil empire. Because of the need for timeliness, this is running a day earlier than usual.
Team Sky to cease sponsorship after 2019
In a brief statement released early on Wednesday morning in the UK, Sky announced that they will cease funding Team Sky following the 2019 season. The team’s website carried the story, noting that no decision had been made about the longer-term future and that “the team is open-minded about the future and the potential of working with a new partner, should the right opportunity present itself.” No changes are currently expected for the forthcoming season.
The team also released an open letter to fans, thanking them for support and speaking in more optimistic tones about the possibility of the endeavour continuing under another banner. Further news, editorialising and rider-reaction will doubtless follow through the day.
What caused this?
In my 2017/18 offseason piece I wrote about the uncertainty over Team Sky’s long-term future. James Murdoch, the son of the Sky corporation’s patriarch Rupert has been a big part of the business for many years and is a known cycling fan and supporter of Team Sky. With Comcast’s takeover of Sky, Murdoch was becoming marginalised and the business’ focus may have changed.
Moreover, Team Sky’s reputation has taken a fall in the last few years. Whether this constitutes a collapse in support and credibility or a survivable dip is a question of perspective, but the continued questions over Froome’s TUE positive in 2017, over the contents of Wiggins’ jiffy bag delivered in 2011 (and the fallout in the UK parliament in 2017), over Moscon’s alleged racism and unproven on-bike violence in 2017, and over more tangential links to other scandals cannot have helped.
It is also fair to say that Sky may consider this mission accomplished. When they stepped into the sport, their stated goal was to win a Tour de France. They’ve won all three grand tours, with three riders winning six of the last seven editions of Le Tour, as well as picking up two monuments and (their count, which I’m trusting) 322 total wins. What more is left?
All that said, there was cause for optimism after a 2018 season that, off the bike, was quiet. As recently as October and following a large number of riders signing long-term contracts, reputable journalists felt confident in stating that the threat of the team folding was reducing. The timing may be driven by boardroom politics that we’ll never see, but there are reasons to be curious. The number of riders hired with a long-term focus suggests that this decision wasn’t anticipated by team management.
Certainly, Sky have picked a day when there is plenty of other news about in the UK. There is a decent chance that, between me typing this and you reading it, we’ll have a new Prime Minister. However grudgingly, domestic attention is firmly focused on Brexit and this may not be a bad time to bury bad news. Additionally, the ongoing links between British Cycling and Team Sky may have caused the ongoing Jess Varnish employment tribunal to be seen as the final straw for corporate involvement. That would seem premature, but the headlines so far do not make for good PR.
What will this mean for the cyclists and staff?
It is probably too early to say. Finding title sponsors for cycling teams is notoriously difficult. As Patrick Lefevre has demonstrated, colossal success doesn’t make that problem go away. Moreover, part of the animus towards Team Sky stems from the fact that they’re simply richer than everyone else. To maintain the current approach doesn’t just need a “normal” sponsor, it needs a “huge” sponsor. That said, the team boasts some of the most recognisable names in the peloton, and some of the brightest talents. It is, perhaps, the only globally-recognised team in the sport and therefore a unique opportunity. I’m not optimistic that they’ll continue, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
If the team does fold, or continue in a much-reduced way, it would create enormous waves in the sport. There are 28 riders on the team, and no more than three or four of them have any reason to consider retirement or a drop to Pro-Conti level. As I’ve talked about at length, this team contains nine of the most talented youngsters in the peloton, as well as numerous riders who would expect to compete for leadership roles at any other squad. Come August, every rider in the peloton will have cause to wonder what Sky’s demise means for them.
Team Sky is more than just the riders, of course, and the prospects for the enormous support crew look no rosier. Other teams may help, and British Cycling will continue (the primary funding for BC flows from the National Lottery through UK Sport, and is tied to the Olympic cycle, so there are no immediate concerns on that front) but there will be more people than jobs by the end of it, which will put dedicated and talented people on the street.
One of the less pleasant quirks of cycling is that sponsorship is often fleeting, and in the absence of stadia or huge TV deals, if a sponsor leaves a team may fold. Sky are not the first to cause this domino effect. Nevertheless, by being the biggest and the richest, and by employing elite riders on long-term contracts, their departure may prove to be among the most traumatic in the sport’s history.
Other news – Dani Rowe retires
With that out of the way, I’ll turn to a topic I planned to spend longer on in this piece. Dani Rowe (nee King – she married Matthew in 2017, and a rafting accident on his stag do caused his brother Luke’s broken leg) announced last Wednesday that she’s retiring from cycling.
As Dani King, she was part of the UK track cycling team from 2011 to 2014, a time that coincided with perhaps the greatest period of dominance in the sport for the women’s endurance group. She, along with Laura Trott (now Kenny), Wendy Houvenagel, Joanna Rowsell (now Shand) and Elinor Barker took home consecutive world championship team pursuit golds in 2011, 2012 and 2013. With Trott and Rowsell she won Olympic Gold in front of a home crowd in London, setting a world record time of 3.14.051.
That record-breaking trio first set a new benchmark in the qualification round, going faster in the first round, and dropping almost to 3.14 dead in the final. It is highly likely that their record will never be touched, as the event is now held over 4,000m in a four-women team. Individually, she added bronze in the world scratch in 2011 and silver in the European points in 2013 (she was a twice gold team pursuiter at a European level).
Dani proved herself on the road, too, though without reaching the same heights. She won commonwealth bronze in 2018 on the Gold Coast and was second in the UK national champs and the Tour de Yorkshire, as well as third in the Energy Women’s Tour. 2018 was her most successful road season, and since 2013 she’s accumulated a palmares of many high places but few wins, in part because she served much of her time as a domestique at Wiggle from 2013 to 2016.
Rowe joins her husband in retirement from professional cycling and will focus on elite coaching (she is part of a company with Matthew, Luke, and her father-in-law and noted Paralympian coach Courtney). She goes with an MBE, a gold post box, and a permanent world record. Not bad.
We don’t routinely cover track cycling on this page, and my crippling ignorance makes it hard to cover women’s cycling as I’d wish to (and I know my fellow-editors would also like to cover the women’s sport more, granted the time and knowledge) so why am I spending time on a reflection on Dani Rowe? Well, I think she deserves it. That may be parochial of me, but Britain has lagged badly behind the Netherlands and Australia (to name but two) in supporting women’s cycling.
The journey to meaningful recognition and equality is far from finished, but the steps that have been made in the UK are thanks in no small part to the band of elite women who led the sport through the late noughties and into the current decade. Exceptional achievers on the bike, as a group they also carried themselves with patience, tolerance, grace and erudition off the bike. We now have 4,000m team pursuits, an equal number of Olympic medals, coverage of (a few) women’s road races on UK TV and female cyclists as household names and role models for the next generation.
For your part in that, Dani, our thanks.