Whither Team Sky?
The first stage of the Tour of Romandy was a 5.6km prologue. Michal Kwiatkowski’s continued omnipresence meant that he won, with Chris Froome nine seconds back in 13th place. Stage one was then shortened to 88km due to snow and Swiss rider Michael Albasini won, Chris Froome finishing safely in the main front group.
So far, so predictable
Except that such a cursory description of events rather overlooks a more meaningful story: Team Sky are struggling.
Yes, Froome finished in the front group, but he was alone. The next Sky riders to cross the line were David Lopez and Richie Porte a minute back. After that, Mikel Nieve, eight minutes back.
In a sense it doesn’t matter because Froome didn’t lose any time, but it’s a sharp contrast to recent years where a whole stack of blue-striped black jerseys have been lining up at the front of the race, handing out pain and misery like they got a job lot of them from some corrugated iron building on a remote industrial park.
It’s also a continuation of a trend of general underperformance in 2014.
Yeah, it is. It’s low key, but noticeable. The cobbled classics – traditionally Sky’s weakest area – actually went okay for once, but the Ardennes classics were a disaster with no-one making any kind of a mark in any of the races. Stage racing has also seen poor results with leaders repeatedly pulling out injured or ill.
Where once Sky appeared to have a whole slew of riders lining up to win Grand Tours, they’re now scrabbling around for anyone at all to lead their teams. Richie Porte is out of the Giro because his training was knocked back by illness and there’s no first reserve. Instead, they’ll send a ‘hedging our bets’ kind of team of whom Peter Kennaugh is most likely to contend the overall. This is actually very exciting in that I’m very keen to see more of Kennaugh – but more of that later. The important thing for now is that this approach is very far from being Plan A.
As ever with these things, it’s no one single thing. Rigoberto Uran left – ironically because Sky had too many team leaders; Bradley Wiggins lost his taste for beetroot soup and the monastic life of denial demanded of a Grand Tour contender; Richie Porte got sick; and Sergio Henao is being kept out of races while they investigate some possible blood irregularities (could be doping, could just be something to do with living at altitude).
What does this mean?
It means focus is narrowing to the Tour. Always the most important race of the year, more and more eggs are being piled into that basket. Froome’s individual build-up is still basically fine, Wiggins is keen to ride in support and Porte has had his season reshaped to be Froome’s main helper and first-reserve should Kenya’s finest plough into a dry stone wall coming out of Holmfirth on the second day.
But does such a narrow focus magnify the pressure for everyone involved with the team and how will that latent tension manifest itself should there be setbacks during the race? A strong performance in the rest of the Tour of Romandy would help a hell of a lot.