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Offseason Capsule: Team Sky

2017 was superb. On the bike.  Off the bike?  Less so.

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A quick note – this is the last of the seventeen offseason capsules I’ve written. Throw in Chris’ coverage of UAE, and we’ve picked up all the World Tour Teams. For readers returning from their own offseason programmes, especially those thinking about the upcoming FSA-DS team deadline, you can find all of them here.

We’re finishing with the team who continue to be the most visible team on the road in just about every race, but who have begun to lose their ability to manage the story of their backroom activities.

What we said last year

This was Conor on the team who create the most headlines, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world.

As well as being ahead of the pack in addressing their support from the broader fandom that they’re bringing into cycling, he saw Froome bringing home another Tour win, no ifs and no buts. Good stuff. He was less positive about Froome’s chances in the Vuelta, and perhaps a little too positive about the cobbles squad and Thomas’ chances in Italy. All in all, though, another excellent bit of prognostication and a hard act for me to follow.

What we got in 2017

We got what is rapidly coming to feel like the “Team Sky season” – disappointing in Italy, dominant in France, and irrelevant on the cobbles. There were some changes, though, most notably a continuation of the improvement in Spain and in hilly one-day races.

The cycling season proper began with Kwiatkowski demonstrating his power and his climbing ability in picking up his second Strade Bianche. He reminded us all, if we needed it, that he just might be the most well-rounded rider in the peloton. Two weeks later, he out-sprinted Peter Sagan to win Milan – San Remo, his biggest win since the 2014 World Champs, and underlined that point. Oh, and then he came back after shining in a super-domestique role in France to win Classica San Seb. Throw in podiums in Amstel and Liege and you have the best season of his career.

With Kwiatkowski and Thomas pulled away from the cobbles, for the last couple of years Stannard and Rowe have been left to lead the team. Neither of them had particularly good 2017s, but Gianni Moscon picked up 5th in Paris-Roubaix as well as 15th in Flanders for a breakthrough season. Add incoming Dylan van Baarle and the 2018 cobbles squad looks like their best yet. Moscon rode very nicely in support for the rest of the year and, as a rider, looks impressive. As a human being, he is at best a work in progress.

The year for Sky, however, is all about the Grand Tours. Italy was, as I’ve trailed, something of a disaster. Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa, co-leaders, were both going nicely for 8 stages and it was looking good. However, despite being well-positioned at the front of the peloton they crashed after Kelderman tangled with a stationary moto and brought many riders down. Landa would recover to win stage 19, but his 17th was the team’s highest overall finish. It was another year where they didn’t make it work in the Giro.

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The Tour was business as usual, with Porte going in as a potential rival to Froome but crashing out early. Froome took yellow after stage seven and never looked like being beaten. It was the first year he took the overall without a stage win, and at the end he led Uran by just 54 seconds. That says more about the parcours and Froome’s defensive racing than it does about the race, which never felt close. More importantly, Froome was able to nurse and maintain his form moving into the Vuelta. After three second places in previous years, he picked up his first win at the year’s last Grand Tour. He led Nibali by 2 minutes 15 when they reached Madrid, and for good measure added a points jersey and two stages, one road and one time-trial.

The overall Vuelta win was the 34th and final win of the year for the team. They have won more races in previous years (though Ella Viviani picked up plenty to keep the totals high) but with two grand tours, a monument, and a number of big one-day races, they can’t have hoped for more prestige. The issue came with off-bike stuff. I’ll save that for the lowlights, but you can’t view this season purely though the lens of riding. Team Sky stepped backwards as a brand even as they stepped forward as a cycling team.

FSA-DS Ranking 2017

2nd – That’s good enough for most teams but doubtless disappointing for Team Sky. This is similar to their performance in inferior but more widely quoted rankings. Froome topped the individual rankings and was joined by Kwiatkowski, Viviani, Moscon and Landa in the 1,000 point club. Five names in that list is pretty impressive, and I confess that I was surprised by two of them.

Top Highlights

1. This team exists to win the Tour, and they won it. Everything else is secondary.

2. That said, following up with a Vuelta win got a monkey off their team captain’s back and was their first win at any non-French GT. Another huge moment.

3. Mikel Kwiatkowski picked up three big one-day wins. San Sebastian and Strade Bianche are big deals, but Milan – San Remo is a monument, and only the second one the team have picked up.

Corbis via Getty Images

Bottom Lowlights

1. All the off-road stuff. Ugh. Let’s get this over with. Whatever you think of the detail of the jiffy-bag story, the Froome/asthma medication story, the Gianni Moscon story, or their associations to the various rumblings in British cycling, it is hard to get away from the idea that their reputation has taken a major hit, despite a year of big wins on the road. There is even chatter about the team being disbanded altogether, with changes at the top of Sky/Fox/Disney impacting on the whole situation. Watch this space.

2. You can make a case that Sky have been unusually lucky in the Tour, with 2014 the only year that their leader didn’t make the end of the race. However, they have been snake-bitten in the Giro, and that continued in 2017. Landa regained credibility, but they had two potential pink-winners, neither of whom sniffed the podium.

3. Luke Rowe’s stag do mishap came when the cobbles were far from the presses, but it will have a serious impact on 2018’s squad. Twenty bones broken and we can’t expect to see him at his best in Flanders even if he makes the start.

Comings and goings for 2018

Ins: Egan Bernal (Androni Giocattoli–Sidermec), Jonathan Castroviejo (Movistar), David de la Cruz (Quick-Step Floors), Christopher Lawless (Axeon Hagens Berman), Pavel Sivakov (BMC Development), Dylan Van Baarle (Cannondale-Drapac).

Outs: Ian Boswell (Katusha-Alpecin), Peter Kennaugh (Bora-Hansgrohe), Mikel Landa (Movistar), Mikel Nieve (Orica-Scott), Danny Van Poppel (LottoNL-Jumbo), Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors)

Renewals: Chris Froome, Michael Golas, Christian Knees, Michal Kwiatkowski, Ian Stannard, Geraint Thomas.

I wrote about this at some length way back in September, when I dubbed the youth movement the “magnificent seven”. There’s been little movement since that piece ran, so I’m sticking with the analysis I produced then. Keeping Froome, Kwiat, and Thomas, despite the losses of Viviani, Nieve and Landa, shows their dedication to winning now.

This isn’t the magnificent seven I think of

Let’s deal with the easy stuff first. Viviani has reached the point where he needs support in some bigger races, and he and Sky knew that wouldn’t happen with their GC focus. That’s a move that makes sense. Kennaugh and Boswell struggled to get opportunities in a crowded roster of quality climbers and have moved on. Again, that makes sense.

What is odd is to see a team with money and a track record of success getting weaker in the GC squads. Castroviejo and de la Cruz are great, but they won’t match Landa and Nieve. Meanwhile, in Bernal, Sivakov, Halvorsen and Lawless, they have four of the best neo-pros available this year. That’s why I’ve left the always contentious SkyBots until last. I think there’s a strategy here, and I’m going to lay out my theory on their thinking.

1. If you build a good enough Tour team with depth, it’ll fill every other race. Rowe (except for 2018, thanks to his broken leg), Stannard, Kwiatkowski and Moscon make a decent cobbles squad, with Knees as captain. Poels and Henao can go well in the Ardennes with Kwiat. Froome joins Doom as the presumptive Tour favourite. Meanwhile, Thomas, Rosa, Elissonde, de la Cruz and Castroviejo can join with those riders to give Froome support in his GT(s) of choice, and squads with chances in the other GTs - probably led by Thomas and Poels, but we’ll see. Meanwhile, we’ve only named 12 riders.

2. Contador has retired, Nibali is fading, Valverde is 152 and one-legged. Froome is our guy and is 32. Take those riders out and you lose an enormous number of GT wins and podiums. Come down to the next generation and who do you have? Dumoulin looks very solid, but you can pick holes in Quintana, Aru, Chaves, Kelderman et al. Sometimes that happens; a “golden generation” is followed by a few years where you don’t get multiple GT-winners.

3. So, you look to the next generation down. The white jersey competitions haven’t inspired for the last couple of years, with the Yateses, Meintjes, Jungels and the like all looking a notch below the level of serious winners. Lopez looks like a good bet and needs watching but he’s solidly placed with a big-money team of his own. There are lots of younger riders around with serious promise, however, and if we throw enough mud at the wall, some it will stick.

Conclusion: we can race for now with 12 core riders (Froome, Kwiat, Poels, Henao, Castroviejo, de la Cruz, Elissonde, Rosa, Thomas, Knees, Rowe, Stannard and Moscon). We can flesh that out by rehiring the likes of Wisniowski, Deignan and Intxausti or finding similar replacements but we will have spaces left on our squad. We can only see two bullet-proof riders younger than Froome for the races we care about (Dumoulin and Lopez). So, we go after youth to fill our roster, gain experience and develop, in the hope that we find a serious long-term replacement for Froome.

Outcome: Last year Sky hired Tao Geoghan Hart, Jon Dibben and Owain Doull, all of whom are hugely promising and keep the “Brit-quotient” nice and high. This year, they added Avenir winner Bernal, U-23 World Champ Halvorsen, l’Isard winner Sivakov and the next Brit hope (and Avenir stage winner) Lawless. We have ourselves a Magnificent Seven.

I have my doubts about this theory. First, I don’t believe that Sky are effective as developers of talent. It’d be very good for cycling if they could disprove that theory in the next couple of years, because we need at least some of the Magnificent Seven to succeed. Second, even if Sky could develop riders, they have to make supporting Froome their major priority at the moment, and there’s a reason why most squads carve off their development outfits. Walking and chewing gum at the same time is hard.

Third, seven is a lot. All of these guys deserve the chance to lead, and have the right to expect it. Take away the races targeted by the core riders above, and it is hard to find space on the calendar for this development to happen. I think it is this barrier that has tripped Sky up before - as Dombrowski, Boasson-Hagen, Boswell, Kennaugh and many others would attest.

So I don’t know if they’ll pull it off, but I’m interested. For all we look at Sky as mechanistic and boring, I think there’s a meaningful and logical strategy here. It ties into how I read the future. I think there’ll be a GT winning vacuum developing in the next 3-5 years, and I’d back the M7 to be among the young riders emerging to fill it.

Most intriguing rider

Take your pick of the magnificent seven, or throw Froome in here (more on him later) and I wouldn’t argue. However, I’m going with Dylan van Baarle. He’s as well-positioned as anyone else to step forward as a potential winner of cobbled monuments. He’s just 25, but has finished 37th, 6th and 4th in the last three Tours of Flanders, and has a couple of top-20s in Paris-Roubaix to boast, too. Coming to a squad with plenty of complementary riders, and wealth to throw at development and support can only help. Surely he’ll take a step forward?

S’long, Mr Vaughters
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Well… probably. Equally, he might just be a prodigious talent who reached his ceiling early, or a freelancer who won’t enjoy the spotlight of a bigger team. There’s also the looming danger that Sky decide he’s best used as a mid-mountain member of their chain gang and we don’t see him on cobbles again except in July. We shall see, but pairing an emerging talent with a big team lacking a star in his chosen races sounds intriguing to me.

So, what happens next?

Again, it is a struggle to keep this purely about bikes, but let’s try.

Beginning with the Grand Tours and Froome, we hear, will go for the Giro. Assuming he can avoid a ban – and I am cynical enough to assume he will – it is an enormous ask to win the Giro and Tour, even as his generation’s most dominant grand tour rider. The support Sky will offer is good enough, and most importantly there is enough depth to support him effectively in both races. If he can maintain his fitness, it will be the ultimate test of the theory that it is no longer possible to win both races in the same season. I don’t think he’ll manage it but I’m looking forward to watching him try. I think he’ll win the Giro and pick up a tired podium in France - if he survives the cobbles and the rest of a rough first week.

There’s no shortage of super-domestique/wildcard/leaders for non-Froome races, with Poels, Kwiatkowski and Thomas, in some order, likely to be given their own chances in races like Paris-Nice and Romandie, whilst helping Froome. The youngsters will be blooded, too. I can’t begin to guess who’ll lead the Vuelta team, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Sky have a non-Wiggo, non-Froomey winner for the first time. Poels, maybe. Maybe.

As I’ve said, the cobbles team looks strong, van Baarle will be joined by Moscon, Stannard, the experienced Knees and hopefully a fit-again Rowe. Kwiatkowski could win wherever he goes, and will enjoy the Ardennes as well as defending his title in Milan San-Remo. With Viviani departed, the team lacks a big-name sprinter, and they won’t work too hard to support their fast men, but Halvorsen could get some chances.

The sheer depth of talent in this team is a source of wonder to most cycling fans and frustration to many. There are many great riders I haven’t mentioned so far (Rosa, Henao, Ellisonde, etc) and if you put them all together, you have a team who will continue to do what Sky do – close down the front of the peloton, ride tempo, and put their leaders in a position to win. They’ve reloaded with young talent, committed to Froome’s attempt at the Giro-Tour double and are positioned to take a run at Quick-Steps number one ranking.

Keep an eye, too, on the off-road nonsense, because it is going to make headlines and it might just have some impact on the results on the road, to say nothing of the team’s prospects in 2019 and beyond.

I think they’ll finish the year as number one, paced by big years for Froome, Kwiatkowski, Poels and van Baarle. In doing so, I think they’ll lose fans as a team and turn plenty of people off cycling.

Going to be a big year for Wout and Sky, methinks
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