Chris Froome and Team Sky are destroying pro cycling

Ian O’Riordan: Aside from the grey area of marginal gains their smothering tactics are boring fans

 

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. 

Final shake-up

Now Saturday’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. 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 Sunday’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 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. 

On the mountain stages, when the Sky Train is at full pelt, they make a counter-attack either impossible or reckless. Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images
On the mountain stages, when the Sky Train is at full pelt, they make a counter-attack either impossible or reckless. Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

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. 

Forgettable viewing

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 Premier League. Sky’s annual budget is around €35 million, over twice the average €16m budget 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. 

Grand Tour contenders

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. 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.

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