Another year’s national championships are over across Europe with a host of familiar names donning their national colours for the next 12 months. For fans in Britain the result saw Bradley Wiggins don the familiar white jersey with the red, white and blue bands. On one level congratulations to Brad. As noted in the first reports from a number of media outlets it should mean the national champs jersey becomes a familiar sight in the Tour de France if Brad fulfils his and other’s expectations with a high finish. But the other story unfolds when you look down the results sheet. Wiggins led a Team Sky 1-2-3-4 at the end. In fact, the decisive break of the day saw six Team Sky riders get away with a myriad of lone representatives from UK-based pro teams. Is this good for the sport?
For those who have established the Team Sky project its is yet another sound endorsement of the hard work. On the basis of this result Britain’s best riders are nearly all riding for Sky (with a couple of notable exceptions who may or may not arrive in the closed season). For David Brailsford, Rod Ellingworth, Sean Yates and co, this might be seen as confirmation that they got their signings right and that the team’s attention to detail continues to develop this talent. Furthermore it is visibly places British cycling amongst the other European nations on the world’s top stage. The times that the national champion has been seen at the Tour de France in recent years have been few. Yet here we are in the second year of Team Sky’s existence and they will feature the British champion at the Tour de France for the second year running. Just as Geraint Thomas showed off the jersey with panache over the cobbles of Stage 3 in last year’s Tour, I can’t imagine that Wiggins won’t want to make sure the jersey is shown off to its full this year.
But taking a step back from the world of Team Sky and the picture for British cycling becomes a little more complex. The domination of one team in the national championships suggests that there is a widening gap between Britain’s sole ProTeam and the host of UK-based UCI Continental teams. If you look at the race diet of those 4 riders from Sky who made up the podium-plus-one (Wiggins, Kennaugh, Thomas, Stannard) it has involved a host of World Tour events including the Spring Classics, several 2.HC stages races and one Grand Tour. Compare this with the racing of UK-based teams and there is a vast difference in experience and preparation. At the upper ends there are teams such as Rapha-Condor-Sharp and Endura Racing who have a varied and international range of races under their belt already. For example, Rapha-Condor-Sharp and Team Endura have had very positive excursions to France this Spring racing against Pro-Continental opposition. However, their successes, without completely ignoring the hard work of their British team-mates, have largely come through their overseas riders. Only Kristian House’s overall win in the Tour of South Africa stands out as different. The presence of overseas riders is one issue which can be debated in this context as potentially undermining British riders but this places them in the same boat as Team Sky. Just as Brailsford wants an international squad to develop a range of talents through experience, the same is true for John Herety at Rapha-Condor-Sharp and Brian Smith at Endura. What this might better suggest is the resource gap that is growing and the need for a new team (or teams) to develop to bridge that gap.
To this end there are two issues which need to be addressed. They are not mutually inclusive yet arguably they are reliant to some extent on each other. First, there is the need to develop a British based squad at Pro-continental level. At the moment we have a situation where there is nothing between the Premiership and League One of British cycling. Whilst Barloworld might be pointed to by some as notionally performing this role it never fulfilled a function as a bridge for enough British riders and its ultimate demise showed a lack of sustainability for such an international project (British-Italian-South African). The step up would provide access to bigger and better races giving riders the opportunity to develop. Of course this takes resources. Whilst a British UCI Continental team might exist on a budget below £1m, the jump to Pro-continental would require a budget of between £2m and £2.5m. The question is where do these come from. Finding a lucrative backer such as Sky even in good economic times is a hard sell.
The second element relates to the racing calendar. For a long time British pros have relied on a mixed diet of criteriums and weekend Premier Calendar races. Looking back at the history of British pros this gave Britain a distinct advantage in an otherwise under-developed area of world cycling, the Criterium. But when the British Pros played against their continental counterparts in longer road races the results were disappointing. Today’s national championships are perhaps this scenario playing out again. For all that we have Rapha-Condor-Sharp and Team Endura racing abroad, much of the remainder is made up of weekend warriors for whom a diet of Premier Calendar, Tour Series and Elite Circuit Series races does not expose them to the next level of racing. Without the budgets to go abroad the next best thing is the attraction of harder opposition to these shores and that requires improved events. Yet again this is not an easy ask. British Cycling has already highlighted the difficulties of red tape in putting on cycling events on public roads and even the Tour of Britain has to negotiate access, closure and improvement of routes on an authority-by-authority basis (see this month’s Procycling for a good piece by Graham Jones). Expanding racing in this way will take guts, patience and hard work as well as money but perhaps now is the best time to start. What we have should be a springboard not the final stage and forthcoming opportunities – the Olympics, possible Tour de France Grand Departs – should be used as foundations not one offs.
So in one way David has become Goliath through Team Sky, a transition which is still in progress. Congratulations to all at Team Sky. On another level David is in danger of forgetting his roots. If the Team Sky project is truly to be a success it needs the continued development of the domestic sport and an emergence of a “Championship” team if the gap is not to widen further. Putting all your eggs in one basket might make sense at the time but we know what can happen when you trip up.