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Offseason Capsule: Team Sky

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Another year of glory in the high mountains, but 2018 came with some fresh new faces. Scarily for the rest of the peloton, the youth movement shows no signs of abating.

What we said last year

I spent a while on the youth movement (as I will this year) and a while on the off-bike stuff (which, pleasingly, I will brush past in this capsule) but did eventually make some predictions about the 2018 season. I predicted that Froome would win the Giro and pick up a podium in the Tour. We certainly went the scenic route, but that’s not bad, huh? I was too optimistic about their chances in the Vuelta and on the cobbles. Also, having not predicted the Quick Step juggernaut, I saw them ascending to the top of the pile in overall rankings.

What we got in 2018

Let’s start with the highlights. Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin both lined up in Jerusalem planning an assault on the Giro-Tour double. Froome appeared the weaker of the two initially, and after 17 stages was trailling surprise package Simon Yates by nearly four minutes, and Dumoulin by nearly three, despite a win on Zoncolan. Stage 19 will be talked about for years, but after Yates cracked and Froome launched on Finistere with about 75km to go, everything changed. He’d finish the stage in pink and retain it to Rome.

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Next up was France, and again the race was tipped as a contest between Froome and Dumoulin, with a British gatecrasher once again. Happily for Team Sky, this time around the interloper was in Sky’s outfit, and Geraint Thomas rode serenely into Paris in yellow for a maiden grand tour win that justified his decisions to focus on grand tours, to stay at Team Sky, and to remain unflinching despite bad luck with injuries. Froome would take third (behind Dumoulin) whilst Bernal finished second in the youth competition whilst filling the “key domestique in week three” role despite being a 21 year-old in his first grand tour.

The team would finish second in wins (despite my earlier claim that FDJ gained this position) and in VDS points, with twelve individual winners racking up 43 victories between them. World Tour wins came at Tirenno-Adriatico (Kwiatkowski), California (Bernal), Dauphine (Thomas), Poland (Kwiatkowski again) and Guangxi (Moscon). The team also own six national TT champs and two on the road. What they don’t own is victories in any major one-day races. Moscon’s fifth in the world championships was a very solid result, albeit in Italian colours, but the monuments and the spring classics largely passed this team by.

Off the bike, there were fewer headlines, a fact that will no doubt have delighted the powers that be. The rumours surrounding Disney’s relative lack of interest in the Team Sky project appear to have been shoved aside, whilst Sir Bradley’s continued attacks have been further from the front pages, and Gianni Moscon appears to have behaved rather better in 2018 than previously.

FSA-DS Ranking 2018

2nd – a distance behind a rampaging Quick Step squad and a comfortable margin ahead of Bora. The most useful comparison may be to 2017, when they scored nearly 2,000 more points. That drop is close enough to Viviani’s 2017 output to be at least anecdotally interesting.

Top Highlights

1. Chris Froome won the Giro, and briefly held all three grand tour titles concurrently. There’s a lot to that story, but the lede is extraordinary. The fact he won it with one of the most thrilling rides in years is the cherry on the cake. Stage 19 of the Giro leads our highlights package.

1a. There’s a rule at Sky that winning the Tour trumps everything else. Not this year, Geraint, but it was such a huge achievement that I’m altering my template and giving you 1a instead of 2.

3. This was a year with many wins and several of them were more prestigious than Egan Bernal’s win in California. That tops this list, though, as it was yet another demonstration of the young Colombian’s electric talent. By the time he was the lead climber in the final week of the Tour, it was hardly even a surprise. This is your friendly reminder that he’s still only 21.

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Bottom Lowlights

1. After wrapping up monuments in consecutive years and showing signs of life in the classics (wins in E3, Strade Bianche, etc) in ’16 and ’17, the hope was that this deep and talented team might produce more glory in the spring. Nope. In one-day races, their best collective result was probably Wisniowski’s 2nd in Omloop. Not good enough, and the Ardennes were if anything worse than the cobbles.

2. That said, the cobbles were pretty bad, and Dylan van Baarle will need to have a much better second year at Sky to justify the expectations. There were excuses, but his spring was poor. At least he showed signs of improvement later in the year.

3. We talk about a team with depth, detailed planning and a massive focus on the grand tours, and rightly. Judged on that basis, de la Cruz’s anonymous 15th should not be the best GC result from La Vuelta, particularly as the team failed to take a stage.

Comings and goings for 2019

Ins: Filippo Ganna (UAE Team Emirates), Eddie Dunbar (Aqua Blue Sport), Jhonathan Narvaez (Quick Step), Ivan Sosa (Androni), Ben Swift (UAE Team Emirates)

Outs: Sergio Henao (UAE Team Emirates), Lukasz Wisniowski (CCC), Benat Intxausti (Euskadi), David Lopez (retired), Phillip Deignan (retired).

Renewals: Vasil Kiryienka, Geraint Thomas, Sebastian Henao, Owain Doull, Tao Geoghan Hart, Luke Rowe, Kenny Elissonde, Salvatore Puccio

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This is rapidly turning into a young team. By my calculations, the median age of the squad is 28, with the retained Luke Rowe and Kenny Elissonde, who I’m pretty sure only just left school hovering around that average. Ganna, Dunbar, Sosa and Narvaez bring the number of twenty-three and under riders to nine, which is astounding for a team with a win-now mentality. Yet you can’t look at any of them and see a concern for current success.

There are plenty of renewals, including the Tour champ, which I confess surprised me a little at the time, though it is hardly fresh news. There is also a little roster change, with two retirements and two departures. Sergio Henao is a talented rider but was beginning to be squeezed out and I can see the logic in letting him go, and whilst I rate Wisniowski highly (and think he’s a great pick up for CCC) again, he wasn’t really needed on the Deathstar.

Then there’s the arrivals. Ben Swift comes back and it is hard to see where his opportunities will come from, but these days he’s an experienced rider at this level and will be a useful team body and occasional sprinter. I’m going to come onto the other four.

Most intriguing rider riders

For one team only, I’m turning this into a group award. The most intriguing rider is “all of the kids”.

Looked at another way, the most intriguing member of Team Sky is the poor bastard who has to hand Brailsford and his DSs a draft spreadsheet (come on, this is Sky, you know they overuse Excel) of rider programmes. How in the world will it come together?

Last offseason I wrote about the magnificent seven. Many of us wondered in the comments about Sky’s ability to develop riders, and in particular their ability to wean riders into the big bad world of world tour riding whilst still supporting their grand tour winner. Since then, they’ve added a second grand tour winner in need of support, and increased their list of kids by four.

A reminder of the magnificent seven:

  • Tao Geoghan Hart
  • Jon Dibben
  • Owain Doull
  • Egan Arley Bernal
  • Pavel Sivakov
  • Chris Lawless
  • Kristoffer Halvorsen

Who are joined in 2019 by:

  • Eddie Dunbar
  • Jhonathan Narvaez
  • Ivan Sosa
  • Filippo Ganna

Even if you knock Doull and Dibben off the list (the former remains hugely talented but is yet to win and is 25, whilst Dibben is yet to be re-signed and is a once-winning 24) you still have nine riders who are 23 or younger and deserving of experience and leadership opportunity. At least one of them is earmarked to win a grand tour sooner rather than later.

From an optimist’s position, this is a chance to mould a diverse range of world-class talents into one of the most dominant cycling teams ever assembled, with potential winners of every major race on the calendar. From a pessimist’s position, you have riders you cannot hope to either develop or retain, and have hollowed out an experienced mountain train to answer the psiren call of youth over proven ability.

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Me, I’m somewhere in the middle. I’d describe this as the mother of all optimisation problems, and I fear that some of these riders will struggle to get the opportunity they’d see elsewhere. My guess is that Bernal and Sosa are the team’s next leaders, with Hart, Doull, Ganna, Dunbar and Narvaez likely helpers (at least for a few years), and Lawless and Halvorsen sprinters and possible classics riders (Narvaez and Ganna can hope for cobbled chances, too). Which leaves Sivakov as the most intriguing member of the eleven. If I was in his cleats, I’d be asking Kwiatkowski lots of questions about preparing and training to be an elite all-rounder in modern cycling. He’s a climber and a time-triallist, yes, but he has the ability to be broader than that, and he might need to be.

People say Team Sky are boring. They win a lot, and they’re often infuriating, but if you’re bored, you’re not watching properly.

So, what happens next?

Lots and lots of team politics. I mean, loads.

Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas do appear to be a tighter unit than Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome ever were, but this is faint praise. For now, discussions and decisions on race programmes are being kept awfully quiet and the public message is of unity and of delaying decisions. With a shorter gap between this year’s Giro and Tour, it is hard to see either of them attempting the double, at least with a view to winning both races. What will they do?

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Both have a preference for the Tour, I think, and with a four-time champion against a defending champion, both have a very good case for riding their preferred race. Looking at the mountains and the time trials, you can equally make a case that the Giro would suit each of them better than the French alternative. You really can’t overstate the importance of getting this one right, though – it is the teams two biggest targets and two biggest riders, and it is difficult to determine the rest of the schedule before you’ve agreed where these two will be aimed. I think they’ll both go to France, and I think Froome will win.

I also think that’s the wrong decision and I’d send Geraint to Italy. He says he has unfinished business in the Giro, and I don’t think he’d retain his title if Froome and Dumoulin arrive in Brussels fully fit. If I’m right and they both go to the Tour, Bernal is the likeliest beneficiary as a Giro leader, though it is still awfully early in his career to get that kind of responsibility.

Wout Poels had bad luck with injuries in 2018 but will be back to take his place among the cavalcade of appealing supporting options. It is hard to see this team being as depleted when the Vuelta rolls around as they were last time, but it is even harder to work out who might be leading the team by that stage of the season. Froome could do it on his 2017 programme, or perhaps Sosa takes the Bernal “week three Tour” job and carries on to Spain. Maybe Thomas is the one with gas in the tank? It is almost impossible to say.

I’ve already talked about the difficulty of finding races for all of the kids on this team, but watching the development of the youngsters will be an intriguing sub-plot of the season and will also go some way to determining who can be relied upon as supporters in the biggest races. You need to find opportunities for the likes of Moscon and Kwiatkowski, too, though the classics will help in both cases.

All of these questions are about scheduling, however, and before I dive any deeper into that rabbit hole, let’s look at what we know. This is a team with the ambitions, support and talent to compete for every major stage race from January to October, and to compete for every grand tour. With more focus and a little more luck, they could also compete in every classic, though I think that is much less likely to happen. Still, Rowe, Stannard, Moscon and van Baarle is a pretty handy group to take to Flanders and you would be happy in the Ardennes with Poels, Kwiatkowski and Moscon. Halvorsen and Lawless can win some sprints, with Swift as a mentor and another fast option. As with last year, I’ve got to this point and I’ve barely mentioned superb riders like Rosa, Elissonde and Castroviejo.

There’s an embarrassment of riches here, and more importantly there’s a confusion of riches. I can’t see this year ending without some inter-squad polemica and possibly a few disgruntled riders moving on come autumn. Still, if you win enough that doesn’t matter. I said it in 2018 but I’ll say it again. 2019 will be the year this squad overtakes Quick Step at the top of the rankings.