Blue Sky Thinking

Following yesterday’s blog I was engaged in a few discussions on Twitter about yesterday’s incidents in the Tour de France and most particularly Bradley Wiggins abandon.  Having posted the piece I can see how it may have been perceived by some as being cold and disingenuous to those caught up in misfortune. This is far from what I intended. Like many in the UK my best wishes go out to Brad on what is so often seen as a straightforward cycling injury but is obviously a major blow to him.  Let’s hope he has a speedy recovery.  At the same time there has been some interesting reporting of the spate of head injuries that riders have sustained this year which is well worth a read.

However, the main focus of this piece is what emerges from yesterday’s events: Team Sky’s focus on a GC leader and Mark Cavendish’s reliance on wholly committed team to provide a train for his sprint finish. The two are very poignantly linked at this time. (I’m also thankful to William Fotheringham’s Guardian report for prompting the thinking.)

When Wiggins crashed 5 riders of Team Sky who were near of behind him stopped as would probably be expected in order to pace him back into the bunch, the assumption always that the fallen will remount imminently. The TV images showed the riders waiting. And waiting. And waiting. For those of us watching it seemed futile, but road decisions have to be made in the heat of the moment. Once it was obvious that Wiggins would not continue the 5 had to chase back.  What happens next is therefore interesting. Team Sky (be that Sean Yates, Rod Ellingworth, David Brailsford or Shane Sutton, who is unclear) made the decision to pull back their remaining 3 riders from the front group to help the pursuit.  These 3 riders included Edvald Boasson Hagen and Geraint Thomas both of whom were in top 10 positions in the General Classification.  If Wiggins had been making this pursuit too this would be more obvious a decision.  But without him, what were Team Sky doing? A lot of Twitter discussion last night was focussed on the “what if” that Wiggins might have chased back. He might have, but this is wishful thinking perhaps tempered by the fact that he is British and racing for a British team.  Looking at it objectively it seems to show that Team Sky have invested everything in one leader and, as Fotheringham suggests, look somewhat rudderless without him.  If you want to win the Tour de France this is one option, but as is now seen it is risky if Plan B hasn’t been considered. With the time splits caused by the chase Team Sky are now firmly on the back foot. I hope I’m proved wrong.

Yet it was also a good day for British cycling with Mark Cavendish’s 17th stage win in just 3.5 Tours de France. 16 of these victories have been aided by the strength and precision of HTC’s lead out train and this is critical in this discussion.  HTC’s sponsorship of Cavendish’s team ends this season, they have been running without a co-sponsor all season and the current barometer is pointing to decidedly changeable times for the team, probably its end.  Of course this has been the subject of a lot of discussion already this season and in particular it is the destination of Cavendish which has featured significantly in this.  And if HTC ceases to exist many commentators are pointing to Team Sky as his likely destination.  This is not without problem – Sky is heavily staffed by coaches who it is suggested have never understood Cavendish when they have been in charge of his development. This is dictated by a number of variables so can always change and is countered by Cavendish’s continued close working relationship with Sky road coach Rod Ellingworth. It is yesterday’s event that perhaps point to a problem in Cavendish joining Sky.  In his post race interview he thanked his entire team for their hard work on the front of the bunch throughout the stage, as the TV pictures verify.  Now, think about a scenario where 5 of those riders are left behind to look after a GC contender, leaving 2 to help Cavendish in a sprint.  Would Cavendish have won the stage? Maybe, maybe not, though he always looks more comfortable and reflects more positively on stages when he has that strong train.  It is clear that Sky in its present form are focussed almost entirely on winning the Tour overall, their resources focussed and mobilised towards this leaving stage wins to chance and circumstance.  Is that an attractive offer to the World’s best sprinter?  It would seem unlikely. Unless he was given concrete guarantees that he would have suficient support it seems this seems to be the real reason why he won’t go to Sky.

How one incident and contrasting fortunes can show the real dynamics of the transfer market in cycling.  Whilst for many people bolstering Sky to become a truly British contender is attractive, the competing interests of different specialisms and types of “win” make it very unlikely. And if we needed any indication of how a “national” focus can go wrong, just look at Katusha’s aimless Tour thus far.  Where Sky go in this Tour will be interesting to follow, as will Cavendish’s destination at the end of the season though we will all have to wait and see.


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