I missed much of the Tour de France this year because I was on a long camping trip. My pals tell me it was a boring Tour anyway because Team Sky was too dominant. I’m not sure this is fair, but even before the Tour I had some misgivings of my own about Sky. Yet, as an Anglophile, I’m torn. So, in the interest of stirring up some lively debate, I’ll examine the question: is Team Sky good for cycling?
I won’t just focus on the Tour de France, and I won’t just focus on the quality of racing this team serves up. Of great importance to a sport are a team’s overall aesthetic, its sporting panache, and its place in the international cycling scene. Other considerations—is the team run well, does it pay its riders on time, is it a leader in the anti-doping effort (which is basically impossible to really evaluate)—are arguably less important to the spectator. (If you disagree, great: post a comment below. As I said, debate is the whole point here.)
What is sport? It’s entertainment. For most of its audience, it’s video entertainment. And since cycling isn’t exactly “My Dinner with Andre” or “Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” the sport is as much a visual spectacle as an intellectual flight of fancy. This means it has to look good. With the look of the sport already seriously compromised by the awful time trial helmets (look at this one, it looks like a damn golf ball), every team has a responsibility to help the sport aesthetically as much as possible. This is especially important for a high-profile team like Sky with its Tour de France winner, Bradley Wiggins.
How does Team Sky do aesthetically? Not well, in my opinion. For one thing, I have a big problem with their jerseys. The sleeves come down way too far—farther than any cycling jerseys ever made, practically to the elbow. Look at this. The long vertical stripes on the sleeves just accentuate the effect. No other team has sleeves like this, which strongly suggests Team Sky is making a statement. And that statement is: we want to look like idiots.
Also, their jerseys, and the sleeves in particular, are too tight. I was chatting with a friend about this and he complained, “Their jerseys look like they’re trying to be like skinsuits, which fit like condoms. Since I never liked wearing either of them, I don’t care for the look.” I agree.
On top of this, Team Sky alone has decided to put riders’ names on their jerseys. I find this a bit twee. Plus, it seems like a pretty expensive gesture to make, like the team is showing off how loaded it is. (I guess putting names on jerseys might be a way to help certain ageing British commentators who sometimes struggle with riders’ names, in which case maybe it’s okay.)
One more aesthetic issue: it has become popular for the Tour de France leader to wear yellow shorts and/or ride a yellow bike. Again, this is conspicuous consumption and completely overboard aesthetically, like a college football team having gold-plated equipment in its weight room. Cycling is supposed to be gritty, not posh! (When I raced the Red Zinger Mini Classic in the ‘80s, there was literally a leader’s jersey. As in, one jersey. If the leader lost the jersey, he literally gave it up—he took it off and handed it over, and the new race leader wore it the next day, presumably after washing it. Maybe that was a bit extreme, but I think the sport has gone too far in the other direction.)
Now, the yellow shorts/yellow bike trend isn’t all Team Sky’s fault, but the BMC team did a nice reversal last year, with race winner Cadel Evans in regular shorts on a regular bike on the Champs Élysées. Sky had a chance to give this return-to-basics move some momentum, but instead went back to the full yellow silliness (look here and here).
A final note on aesthetics: if you really don’t think they’re important, consider the case of my wife. Despite having been married to a cyclist for eighteen years, or perhaps because of it, she has little interesting in bike racing, and the only pro racer she has ever shown the remotest interest in is Edvald Boasson Hagen, because she met him at the 2008 Tour of California and thought he was cute. (Note to Team Sky management: keep this guy away from my wife or there’ll be hell to pay.)
Verdict: fail, other than having the (apparently) good-looking Boasson Hagen among their ranks.
What do I mean by panache? The flair, the chutzpah, the willingness to take risks to make the race a greater spectacle. It’s more or less the opposite of racing conservatively. If enough riders show enough panache, the race is really exciting.
This year’s Tour de France was indeed boring if your main interest, like mine, is the general classification. I was already bored after two Sky riders, Wiggins and Christopher Froome, went one-two in the first time trial. But was it Sky’s fault the Tour was boring? Not necessarily. Cadel Evans knew he couldn’t count on the time trials to secure victory, like he did last year over Andy Schleck, so he knew he had to attack Wiggins in the mountains. This could have been really exciting—except Evans just wasn’t riding well, and nobody else could challenge Wiggins and Froome, either. It’s not the Sky team’s job to make sure their competition is up to snuff.
A case could be made that BMC is partly responsible for the lack of a proper GC battle. If they’d recognized sooner that Tejay Van Garderen was their best rider this year, they could have reversed roles and had Evans work for him to put Wiggins and Sky under pressure. Granted, this would have been really risky, since this was only Van Garderen’s second Tour de France and he didn’t do so well last year—but then isn’t risky, unorthodox strategy the essence of panache?
However, the GC isn’t everything. There’s the matter of stage wins, and here Team Sky delivered. Mark Cavendish had three victories, including the final stage on the Champs Élysées; Wiggins won both time trials; Froome took out a mountain stage. Not bad: six stages, three stage winners. (Compare that to US Postal’s first Tour, when they had only four stage wins and just one stage winner.)
At the end of 2011, Team Sky brought Mark Cavendish into the fold. His being British makes him seem like an obvious fit, but considering the team’s main goal—to win this year’s Tour de France—it wasn’t such an easy call. Cavendish is accustomed to having (and certainly deserves) a full lead-out train for the sprint finishes, and surely wasn’t exactly aching to surrender his stage win goals to the support of Wiggins. The effect? Greater excitement! Let’s face it, over the past several years Cavendish was having a bit too much success. (“Who won?” / “Cav again.” / “Yawn.”) Now, with no lead-out train, Cavendish had to fend for himself a couple of times, and his victories were glorious.
Adding to the panache of Cavendish’s stage wins was the fact that, twice, Wiggins himself—while wearing the yellow jersey—helped Cavendish win a stage. This was most dramatic on the all-important final stage on the Champs- Élysées. When I saw Wiggins leading it out—right there on the front, working his ass off instead of coasting along sipping champagne like so many GC winners before him—I couldn’t believe it. In fact, for a second a wrote it off as a silly publicity stunt, kind of a precious little token move, before remembering that all the sprinters—and their teams—of course wanted this win very badly and have a strict “no gifts” policy. Wiggins was there because he was really fast enough to do it, having been a champion on the track in his past life.
Really cool stuff, especially given how shameful it would be if Cavendish managed to lose after such an audacious display from his famous teammate. Instead, it was Cavendish’s best sprint of the Tour—he took off from way out and held everybody off. Balls like King Kong!
That’s the good news. On a less positive note we have stage 17, where it looked like Wiggins and Froome were going to overhaul Alejandro Valverde just before the line, just like they stunned Evans on stage 7. The two were bearing down on Valverde with about a kilometer to go, the rest of the peloton scattered behind them, but Wiggins couldn’t handle Froome’s pace, so Froome held back. In fact, some say Froome made kind of a show of hanging back. I reviewed the video. Froome looked over one shoulder, then the other, one hand off the bars. Then a third look back.
I was on the fence over whether Froome’s looks back were legit or drama-queen stuff, until this past weekend when I rode Mount Diablo with a few pals. One of them paced me for the last four miles, keeping me right at my redline the whole way. He didn’t need to look back. He knew exactly how hard I was going and how much more I could take. If my humble friend can do that, why should a top pro racer need to keep craning his neck?
I bring this up because Wiggins totally should have let Froome take off, pass Valverde, and get the stage win. But of course in modern cycling it isn’t really the race leader’s choice. I’m sure Wiggins and Froome took direction from Sky team management in the car. Wiggins was already almost three minutes ahead of Vincenzo Nibali in the GC; had dropped him on the climb; had taken over two minutes out of him in the previous time trial; and had one more time trial left through which to cement his lead. There was very little risk in letting Froome go on ahead—I mean, how much could go wrong in the last kilometer, when Wiggins was already outclimbing Nibali? But any risk was evidently too much for Team Sky, and they did the conservative, boring thing. This sucked all the flair out of what could have been a brilliant stage.
Verdict: pass, but not perfect.
I guess I should say “flavour” in this case, since this is Team Sky we’re talking about. That cycling is such a truly international sport is one of my favorite things about it. I just can’t get that excited about sports like American football and baseball that are generally played within the confines of this country. (Eddie Izzard quips, to an American audience, “This is football I’m talking about here, which you call ‘bananas,’ but you’re reluctant to play it. But you play baseball, the World Series, and you’ve won every year—America’s won every year in that. Well done, America, that’s great!”)
In the case of England, this year’s Tour victory is of course a monumental achievement. Great Britain has never before put a rider on the Tour de France podium, much less won the race. For a British racer on a British team to win is icing on the cake. (Team Sky didn’t win the teams classification of this year’s Tour, but I’ll bet that’s how most people will remember it.)
So did Team Sky give this Tour a distinctly British flavour? Did they persevere against seemingly insurmountable odds, keeping calm and carrying on, always keeping a stiff upper lip? If Winston Churchill were alive today, what would he say was Britain’s finest hour during this year’s Tour?
For my money, that moment belonged not to Team Sky at all, but to David Millar of the Garmin-Sharp team when he won a thrilling two-up sprint to win stage twelve. It’s his first Tour stage victory since 2003, and he’s not getting any younger, and there was certainly nothing inevitable about him prevailing at the end. Interviewed afterward, he showcased the famous self-deprecating British humor that we never really saw from the Team Sky riders: prompted to comment on what a great Tour this was for the Brits, Millar replied, “I’m kind of like the, the crap one, really. So I’m glad I was able to win and be up there and be put in the same bracket as Cav, Wiggo, and Froome….”
Seeing the video of Millar lying on the ground after his sprint, his chest heaving so hard it looked like he might damage his rib cage, I reflected on how easy the Team Sky riders made their successes look. And there was something almost arrogant about Wiggins’ interview just before the Tour started. “We’ve looked at a couple of the Tour stages… Funnily enough, my son wanted a magazine on the flight over here and he decided to buy the official Tour Guide so I had a look at some of the stages in there. It was the first time that I’d seen them all back-to-back.”
Instead of “hanging on in quiet desperation,” Sky showed a dominance in the GC battle that seemed almost casual, even scripted. If somebody made a highlights video of the stage 17 finale (Froome waiting for Wiggins) and set it to music, he might choose Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” It’s as though Froome makes enough money supporting Wiggins, he doesn’t need a lot of glory. I’d much rather see the inner conflict Greg LeMond had in the ’85 Tour supporting Hinault. Maybe this is a benefit of a team having its stars hail from different countries, just to erode that solidarity a bit. If Team Sky wasn’t such a stolid, tightly run entity perhaps we’d have had more personal initiative, thus more real drama, and the stage 17 documentary music could be something appropriately British like Pink Floyd’s “Don’t Leave Me Now.”
On a positive note, I think there was solid British flair in Froome’s interview after he won stage 7: “I’m speechless. That was a dream come true. I never thought of winning a stage here. I’m chuffed to bits.”
A final comment. Team Sky did not send a team to the US Pro Challenge last year, aren’t sending one this year, and didn’t ride this year’s Tour of California either. Perhaps that’s a British thing. Maybe they’re still bitter over the solid drubbing the U.S. gave England in our Revolutionary War and again in the War of 1812. Seems like they should be over this by now; after all, we forgave them for all those years of taxation without representation. (If you think I’m just baiting my British audience here, you’re absolutely right. I got a kick out of a couple of the comments posted about my British Faucet Conundrum post.)
Verdict: pass, but I’m not exactly chuffed to bits.
Perhaps it’s too early to tell what effect, if any, Team Sky will have on cycling. It will probably depend somewhat on how they do next year, and how well the other teams counter Sky’s success. Let’s just hope Sky isn’t the next US Postal team. You can call me an “enemy of freedom” if you want, but I got good and sick of that team after awhile.