Encouraging signs as Team Sky dominate
Bradley Wiggins’ recent victory in the Paris - Nice stage race was thrilling for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the race itself was wrought with tension; for the majority of the week-long race he hung grimly onto a mere 6 second lead, with even his serene victory in the final day time-trial only extending his winning margin to 8 seconds. Secondly, he was making history, in becoming the first British rider since Tom Simpson in 1967 to win “The Race to the Sun”. Most excitingly of all, by winning the race in such a composed, assured fashion, Wiggins proved that the magnificent form that he displayed throughout last season was no fluke, and announced himself as a genuine contender for this year’s Tour de France.
Whilst Wiggins was holding off his rivals’ challenges in France, in Italy world champion, fellow Brit and Team Sky teammate Mark Cavendish continued his own excellent early season form by winning a stage at the Tirreno Adriatico. Usually labelled a slow starter, Cavendish’s four victories so far this year ensure that he will be considered a clear favourite for this Saturday’s Milan - San Remo. Cav won the prestigious one-day race in 2009 whilst at HTC Columbia; significantly, the majority of his teammates from that day will be racing alongside him for Sky this weekend, including Norwegian superstar Edvald Boasson Hagen, who has the ability to challenge for the race himself.
The success of Wiggins and Cavendish reflects the incredible rise to prominence of British road cycling, with British riders arguably enjoying more success over the past year than any other nation. As well as the phenomenal successes of Cavendish and Wiggins, Geraint Thomas has blossomed, whilst Chris Froome’s 2nd place at last season’s Vuelta a Espana represented the highest ever grand tour placing by a British rider (admittedly Froome was born in Kenya and raised in South Africa, he has raced under a British license since 2008, which will do for me.) Significantly, after Cavendish’s move all of these riders now race under the banner of the British Cycling organisation at Team Sky, who currently sit deservedly in first place of the UCI team rankings.
The most exciting aspect of the start to Sky’s season has been the evidence of their sheer squad depth; they have a rider to contend for any style of race, a point proved clearly at the recent Tour of Algarve. Remarkably, in the week long stage race, Sky had three different stage winners in Wiggins, Boasson Hagen and Australian Richie Porte, with Porte evntually topping the general classification and Boasson Hagen securing the points jersey. Despite not the most prestigious of races, it is difficult to name another squad with the versatility to dominate in such a fashion. Such depth ensures that on paper Sky should be competitive in all of the season’s major events; they have grand tour contenders in Wiggins and Froome, cobbled classics specialists in Juan Flecha, Bernie Eisel and Geraint Thomas, and outstanding sprinters in Cavendish and Boasson Hagen.
Dominating such races as the Tour of Algarve shows that Sky’s chief aim for this season could be possible; for Wiggins to win the Tour de France, and Cavendish to repeat his 2011 green points jersey victory. Casual fans of the sport struggle to appreciate the difficulties involved in a team targeting two such distinct aims in this way; every tour winner of the past fifteen years has claimed victory with an entire nine man team channelled towards overall success. However, it should be pointed out that since Team Telekom became the most recent to win both the yellow and green jersey in 1997, no team has had the riders, as Sky now undoubtedly do, to attempt a serious challenge on both fronts.
Hopefully, both Wiggins and Cavendish have the experience and maturity to ensure that their egos survive the unfamiliar scenario of sharing team leadership. In this week’s Tirreno Adriatico, Slovakian prodigy Peter Sagan won a stage from his team leader Vicenzo Nibali, denying Nibali important bonus seconds. In the aftermath of Sagan’s win, Nibali (who went on to win the race overall) was scathing, remarking: “let’s hope that those seconds don’t cost me the race”. Come July, Team Sky will have to avoid such infighting to have any chance of achieving their bold ambitions.