Sky squeez­ing the life out of cy­cling’s Grand Tours

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Ian O’Rior­dan

Wow. Any­one who has ever thrown a leg over a bi­cy­cle would look at the Alto de l’Angliru and think the same. “In­hu­mane”, “a bru­tal­ity” and “im­pos­si­ble’ are just some of the invit­ing de­scrip­tions and it’s been touted – and ac­cepted – as the tough­est climb in pro cy­cling.

Eight years ago, when or­gan­is­ers of the Vuelta a Es­paña went look­ing for a moun­tain stage to ri­val Alpe d’Huez in the Tour de France and the Mor­tirolo Pass in the Giro d’Italia, they set­tled on the Angliru, north­west of the coun­try in the hazy As­turian moun­tains.

Bet­ter known lo­cally as “El In­fierno”, it in­volves a mere 12.5km of climb­ing, only with pitches of over 20 per cent up­hill gra­di­ent – ap­proach­ing one-in-four. A bit like rid­ing up a wall.

“What do they want? Blood?” cried Vi­cente Belda, man­ager of the now de­funct Kelme team, after the Vuelta vis­ited the Angliru in 2002. “They ask us to stay clean and avoid dop­ing and then they make the rid­ers tackle this kind of bar­bar­ity.” Kelme broke up four years later, after al­le­ga­tions of sys­tem­atic team drug use.

Also in 2002, Bri­tish rider David Miller climbed off his bike a me­tre short of the fin­ish at Angliru, lay­ing down his race num­ber in protest. Two years later Miller was banned from cy­cling after ad­mit­ting he was us­ing EPO.

Now to­day’s penul­ti­mate stage of the Vuelta vis­its the Angliru for the sev­enth time, the hors-cat­e­gorie climb in­tended to pro­vide one fi­nal shake-up to the GC stand­ings and the race for the mail­lot rojo.

Win­ning mar­gin

In­stead, it should seal Team Sky its sixth Grand Tour vic­tory in six years, and see Chris Froome, now aged 32, be­come the first rider in his­tory to win the Tour and Vuelta in suc­ces­sion.

Be­cause un­less he rides the wrong way (and not for­get­ting to­mor­row’s fi­nal flat stage into Madrid), Froome has had this year’s Vuelta pretty well wrapped up from the be­gin­ning. His 1 minute 37 sec­ond lead over sec­ond-placed Vin­cenzo Nibali may not sound like much, but like his fourth Tour win in July – his 54-sec­ond win­ning mar­gin the sev­enth clos­est in that race’s his­tory – it’s been a none­the­less com­plete thrash­ing of his ri­vals.

After three sec­ond-place fin­ishes in his five pre­vi­ous starts, Froome came to this year’s Vuelta on a mis­sion, with a team to prove it: what will ul­ti­mately de­fine his now al­most cer­tain vic­tory is the sheer pre­dictabil­ity of it, and in what is tra­di­tion­ally con­sid­ered the most un­pre­dictable of Grand Tours.

It’s been the theme of Team Sky ever since they took charge of the pelo­ton in 2012, and not only are they squeez­ing the life out of the Grand Tours but also it seems pro cy­cling it­self.

This is mostly sep­a­rate (or per­haps not) to their back­ground in mar­ginal gains and jiffy bags and emer­gency TUEs and what­ever shade of grey they are op­er­at­ing within – team prin­ci­pal David Brails­ford still hasn’t fully ex­plained those 55 doses of the per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing cor­ti­cos­teroid tri­am­ci­nolone ac­quired be­tween 2010 and 2013, nor been heard much since his tirade against a re­porter from Cy­clingnews.com dur­ing the Tour, the so-called trans­parency around their For­mula 1-styled pad­dock-area be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ob­scured.

Style

What is pos­si­bly more ail­ing to pro cy­cling is Team Sky’s style and ex­e­cu­tion, their bor­ing and smoth­er­ing tac­tics, which over the last three weeks of the Vuelta has made for mostly for­get­table view­ing.

On the moun­tain stages, when the Sky train is at full pelt, they make a counter-at­tack ei­ther im­pos­si­ble or reck­less. Long-range at­tacks are also dead (only five break­aways in the Tour made it all the way to the fin­ish), and while Sky can’t be blamed for that, in­stead of win­ning more fans, their pres­ence in the Grand Tours is turn­ing more away.

Froome him­self re­mains strangely de­tached – ei­ther through po­lite­ness or aloof­ness (take your pick). In­vin­ci­ble and yet at the same time mostly dull. (Ex­cept for the time he went run­ning up Mont Ven­toux in last year’s Tour.)

What is also ail­ing ri­val teams is the sense Sky’s fi­nan­cial clout is un­set­tling the sport, a bit like Manch­ester City did to the English Premier League.

Sky’s an­nual bud­get is around ¤35 mil­lion, over twice the average ¤16 mil­lion spend of the 18 WorldTour teams, and up 10 times as much as the 22 smaller UCI Con­ti­nen­tal teams.

US team Can­non­dale-Dra­pac have just been brought back from the brink and they’re one of the lucky ones.

The UCI is look­ing at ways of ad­dress­ing this: from next year, Grand Tour teams will be re­duced from nine rid­ers to eight, a move pri­mar­ily de­signed to im­prove safety, and at re­duc­ing the strength of the stronger teams.

Com­mu­nists

If any­thing, it’s likely to strengthen them. Froome won the Tour with­out two of his most im­por­tant do­mes­tiques (Wout Poels wasn’t fit, Geraint Thomas crashed), and their ros­ter will con­tinue to in­clude sev­eral Grand Tour con­tenders serv­ing as do­mes­tiques.

There’s also talk of a rider salary cap, sim­i­lar to the NBA and other Amer­i­can sports – that sug­ges­tion was put to Froome dur­ing the Vuelta. “So ev­ery­one is go­ing to be the same?” he asked.

“We should all ride the same bikes. We should all have the same equipment spon­sors. We should eat the same rice and por­ridge each morn­ing. Where do you draw the line? To take that away, it’s al­most as if we are be­com­ing com­mu­nists.”

Com­ing into this arena – or rather out of it – was Wed­nes­day’s stage win for Aqua Blue Sport, thanks to Aus­trian rider Ste­fan Denifl, a first for Ire­land’s first Grand Tour team, and a vic­tory not just for Cork owner Rick De­laney and his brave new model of a self-suf­fi­cient team, but for all of pro­fes­sional cy­cling.

Or what’s left of it.

After three sec­ond-place fin­ishes in his five pre­vi­ous starts, Froome came to this year’s Vuelta on a mis­sion, with a team to prove it: what will ul­ti­mately de­fine his now al­most cer­tain vic­tory is the sheer pre­dictabil­ity of it

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