SKY: doing people’s heads in since 2009

What is it about Team Sky that rankles so? Why do the come across as mirthless, joyless automatons? Can it be because they actually are? Or is there more to it than that?

Unlike football teams, cycling teams generally lack a definable character and so generally it’s hard to truly love or dislike a team. With that in mind, Sky have really outdone themselves to draw such opprobrium from cycling fans.

Let’s consider football squads. Chelsea FC are just plain annoying and at times excruciatingly smug to anyone who isn’t a supporter, and Real Madrid represent footballing royalty and can be fittingly described as sanctimonious to the nth degree, whereas Bayern Munich are cold, calculating and lacking in any mercy whatsoever.

But Belkin? They stir almost absolutely nothing in me. I can take them or leave them. Lampre-Merida? Their kit makes me feel rather nauseous but other than that, meh. BMC Racing? Gee, kinda cool bikes, dodgy owner, Cadel is a blast, but again, kind of the cycling equivalent of beige.

BMC Racing Team
BMC Racing Team

Unlike football fans, most of us don’t really have ‘our’ team.

You may like the kit of this team or the bikes of that, or be a fan of a particular rider on another but for all intents and purposes not many teams stir a passion, whether it be positive or negative. When a favourite rider leaves one team for another, you follow the rider, not the team per se.

Of course, there are exceptions. Any team that had Lance Armstrong on it is a perfect example. The Americans and many an Anglo loved US Postal and Discovery (well, for a time, until we discovered what was really being delivered by Lance’s postie). The vast majority of the French, however, loathed those teams.

Teams that are put together to incubate home-grown talent are another exception, with the Basque squads such as Euskaltel-Euskadi and the Aussie crew of Orica-GreenEDGE drawing warm support in their respective homelands.

But no single team seems to get folk irked in the manner that Sky do.

They’d probably say they don’t need the support of the fans in any case, knowing them, but their riders could certainly do with a cheer and a hug or two after what has been a pretty dismal early season campaign.

Chris Froome took the scalp at the Tour of Oman, which was a nice start, then Ian Stannard cracked the peloton to win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, then cracked his vertebrae at Gent-Wevelgem, depriving them of their leader for most of the Classics.

Wiggins and Geraint Thomas performed admirably at Paris-Roubaix but, as ever in this sport, or any sport, winning is king.

On the weekend they had a terrible Liege-Bastogne-Liege, with just one single rider finishing the race that he and five of his teammates started. Nathan Earle put up a good show to finish and come in in 70th, but for a high profile team like Sky, the past few weeks have been just not good enough.

“When you actually analyse and look at all of the illnesses and crashes we’ve had this year,” said Dave Brailsford in Liege, “we’ve had proportionally more than you’d expect to have and when you look at the last couple of years, we’ve had proportionally less than you’d expect to have. It’s like we’ve saved them all up and had them at once.”

Interestingly, the team changed the training schedules of some riders ahead of the Classics campaign, meaning several skipped altitude training.

“We feel we didn’t get the training that wrong last year, but we refined a few things,” Tim Kerrison, Sky’s head coach, said this winter.

“Training at 2000 metres is not required for the classics. Some of the guys for the classics team didn’t thrive in that environment. For some of the bigger classics guys, that mountainous environment just doesn’t suit them. We also wanted to get them more race days before the classics.”

Maybe those blueprints need looking at again. It’s not quite been stellar for Sky so far. Of course, a win in the Tour de France for Froome would in many senses turn the season completely around, though Alberto Contador might be standing in his way this year.

Still, whatever Sky do on the road they have sweet little chance of altering many a cycling fan’s perception of them. Dour, joyless, irritable, narky, and I’m only talking about Sir Bradley here, never mind the rest of the team.

Strolling around the team area at the start of the Tour of Flanders recently, I was taken aback by the sheer volume of supporters hanging around outside the buses of Boonen, Peter Sagan and Cancellara, all putting up huge cheers when their heroes emerged.

The Sky bus, in contrast, looked like the gathering point for a very small Paul Weller fanclub. Pehaps 20 to 25 Rapha-clad English guys stood around, almost all sporting a Mod-inspired barnet. Deafening cheers definitely did not ring in the ears of the Sky lads when they finally emerged.

Wiggo and his mechanic
Wiggo and his mechanic

You do reap what you sow. Never a truer word uttered. And this is what Sky have been asking for, in a sense. Many just cannot love or admire them, thought they may (some, anyway), respect what they have achieved.

Early season 2010, several teams let it be known that they were less than enamored with Sky’s tactics in the Tour of Oman, where then-leader Boasson Hagen was attacked en masse after stopping for a pee with 55km to race on Stage 4. It was a sneaky move but many were pissed off after Sky had been lining out the peloton in the wind and through feed zones earlier in the day.

Internal squabbling hasn’t helped them either, with Froome and Wiggo famously fighting at the Tour of 2012. Then we had also the prickly Mark Cavendish, a love or hate figure if ever there was one. On top of that of course there was the Gert Leinders mess, the Tiernan-Locke business and now the Michael Barry mularky. Barry, in case you missed it, has just confessed to taking the legal drug Tramadol through to the end of his career.

M.Barry, illegal and legal doper! nice!
M.Barry, illegal and legal doper! Nice!

It’s not just that so few can like them, it’s really that so many truly dislike them, and almost as many distrust them. That can’t be a very nice feeling, no matter how focused you are.

Do they care? No, almost certainly not. They are businessmen, and they get the job done (sometimes). But would it kill them to crack a smile from time to time? Maybe ditch the sarcasm and the irony for a moment in post-race interviews? Even have a laugh at themselves? Be more transparent?

No, they’d definitely still be breathing, and it wouldn’t cost them a penny. Well, maybe the transparency would, but til they sort themselves out they’ll continue to be a dark force, in many a mind.


Author: Lee Rodgers

Cycling coach, race organiser, former professional cyclist and the original CrankPunk.

14 thoughts

  1. Weird, really, all of this. The same people who buy into the Rapha image are telling us all how much they dislike Sky. Almost as if they misunderstood the message put forward in the branding and advertising set out by Rapha, and when confronted with the reality of this, they decide it is all a bit too much for them… very much like the fat middle aged men who spend thousands on a shit hot road bike, but when they find out it is actually HARD to do a climb on it, they decide they don’t like it…

    1. I guess a lot of it comes their success – from being the new guy who waltzed into town and almost immediately hooked up with the best looking girl.
      it does surprise me how a bike team backed by a media giant has succeeded at everything except PR though. To be the unpopular team in a sport with teams run by dodgy characters with plainly dodgy pasts such as Och, Vino, Lefevre, White etc etc etc takes some doing.
      Actually I like Wiggins. He says what he thinks, he can be funny and he’s not boring like so many ‘on message’ sports stars today.

      1. thanks for the comment Noel, much appreciated. yes i liked him too for a while, but pithy and witty seems to have gone the way churlish and slightly bitter, i guess when things are going well it’s easier? ‘a very British champion’ seems apt! (and I’m english, btw…)

  2. crank…as always thought provoking stuff. particularly enjoyed reading this just after Rapha sent out an email advertising their new Pantani Foundation Jersey, framed of course with their marketing proviso,

    ‘In making the Pantani Jersey, we are not ignoring his trials and tribulations, nor diminishing his culpability for his actions. Instead, we are choosing to recognise that Pantani was simply human in a sport which, for a vulnerable personality in his era, tested human virtues and vices to their limits.’

    and as you say… this in the same week as the Michael Barry tramadol admission. who the hell runs the PR machine at the Rapha/Sky mega deathstar bus? are they naive, stupid or insanely arrogant and amoral?

    LA was wrong, but so where others…whether legally or illegally doping. Its cheating all the same and if we are going to glorify ‘Il Pirata’ in the name of supposedly good taste (Rapha) then how the hell will we ever make progress with riding clean?

  3. I have to agree with Tim; they’re racing with Murdoch’s millions. I met Wiggins at Herne Hill in his pre-road days and he was sound as a pound, which he just isn’t these days.
    Pantani is a very specific character. He is still seen by many as a hero-figure despite his doping/cheating (delete as appropriate!), unlike most whose reputation suffers with such revelations. Rightly or wrongly I’m a huge fan, despite my anti-doping stance. I’m much more concerned that Contador (amongst numerous others) is still racing despite having been caught and banned previously for doping offences. He even had his TdF victory stripped from him and yet will be challenging for victory this year!

  4. For me I dislike Sky because I feel they disrespect the sport quite a lot – the sponsors want wins in the Tour de France and that is all the team seem to care about. They couldn’t care less about Liege-Bastogne-Liege, just see the result! There tactics may have been almost revolutionary but they are also very boring and one dimensional – when they get worked out by another team they don’t change them either. Also, they are so defensive – they never go for a daring stage win, not even if they have no real GC ambitions.

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