As Sky calls time on professional cycling, Jeremy Whittle reflects on the state of a sport suddenly left without its dominant force – and the long descent that looms after Britain’s climb to the top of WorldTour.

Rapha Mondial: Sky’s the limit

As Sky calls time on professional cycling, Jeremy Whittle reflects on the state of a sport suddenly left without its dominant force – and the long descent that looms after Britain’s climb to the top of WorldTour.

14 December 2018

If you watch enough racing, you soon learn that bike riders are like dominoes. One falls and then the others go down too. Right now, it seems as if the same is true of British team sponsors.

It has been a chilly autumn for British teams, culminating earlier this week in the surprise departure of Sky and their multi-million pound investment in cycling. “I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve achieved with Team Sky and our long-standing partners at British Cycling,” said Sky CEO Jeremy Darroch. “But the end of 2019 is the right time for us to move on as we open a new chapter in Sky’s story and turn our focus to different initiatives.”

Earlier this autumn, the highly-regarded JLT Condor team also folded after over a decade at the heart of the British scene. Then there was the demise of One Pro Cycling and, back in the summer, the closure of successful women’s team Wiggle High5 was confirmed in a David Brent-style valedictory video by team boss, Rochelle Gilmore. All in all, that’s a lot of bike riders, mechanics, soigneurs and sports directors looking for a job. At WorldTour and Pro Continental level, the market is flooded with talent and the bitter truth is that there won’t be a living to be made by all those who rode the wave of Britain’s cycling boom.

One Pro Cycling’s manager Matt Prior was keen to emphasise how hard he had worked to keep his dream of a women’s team alive. “We’ve spoken to 250 businesses over the last year, so there were a huge amount of conversations going on,” the former Test match cricketer said when the news broke. “Unfortunately a number of people who showed a huge amount of interest previously have pulled out. There are things going on in the world right now that are much bigger than cycling, Brexit being one of them.” It wasn’t Brexit that brought down Team Sky, but given the unrelenting white noise around the team and some of its former staff, combined with a series of major changes at board level, maybe it wasn’t such a surprise after all.

None of that has dimmed Dave Brailsford’s spirits, at least not yet. As ever, Brailsford is keen to accentuate the positives surrounding change, even if he knows that all of his star riders will have been straight on the phone to their agents once the news broke. “I can't give any guarantees, but I'd like to think there are opportunities out there,” Brailsford said. “I am sure we will have a future going forward. I don't see the negatives, I just see the positives."

He will be hoping that the riders who make Sky, effectively the only World Tour team able to guarantee at least one Grand Tour win each year, so attractive, stay on board the ship. In that sense, the clock is already ticking.

Already the salad days of this summer, when the Tour of Britain became as much a victory lap of the country for the stars of Team Sky as a bike race, seem a distant memory. “In terms of profile, quality of racing and audience, this was the most fulfilling Tour of Britain,” race director Mick Bennett said after the race’s climactic London stage. “That’s down to the growth of the athletes and their palmares. That has helped support cycling and its expansion as a sport and mode of transport and, in turn, that has fed into the investment of local authorities. That’s helped and assisted us, plus the fact that we have gone to live TV, rather than just a highlights programme.”

The presence of Sky’s A team (including four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome and first-time champion Geraint Thomas) on this year’s race was proof of how far the Tour of Britain, like the Tour of Yorkshire, had come. Yorkshire’s love-in with Tour de France promoters ASO was founded on Team Sky’s first Grand Tour win in July 2012, when Gary Verity and Christian Prudhomme’s bromance really took flight.

But what now for all those relationships, all those castles in the sky, as the dominant force in the sport enters its farewell season? Will the enthusiasm for investing millions into cycling as a spectator sport and as the smartest way to get from A to B in big cities begin to wane? Does the demise of Team Sky mean that the bubble has burst? Will the Yorkshire World Championships in 11 months time bookend a halcyon period that began with Bradley Wiggins’ Tour victory? What now for a sport suddenly left without its most reliable, some say robotic, expression of performance?

Roger Hammond, recently returned to the British scene as director to the Madison Genesis team, thinks that despite the Grand Tour wins and growth of the sport, cycling still remains at the fringes of British culture.

“We are always going to have challenges just because of the density of the population and the number of cars that each person has,” Hammond said. “There is a cultural difference between here and Belgium. We are slowly changing, but in Belgium if there’s a race coming through they don’t have to go and ask people to move their cars.

“Cycling’s a way of life there,” Hammond said. “Parking your car in a cycle path in Belgium is about as taboo as drink driving in this country. Sky and British Cycling tried to change a culture, not of cycle racing but of a nation, which takes time, so we will have challenges.”

In the current climate, such challenges don’t come much bigger than Brailsford’s, to retain his all-star collective and find north of £30 million in a few months. “Sponsorship is always a hard sell,” says Bennett, who also runs one of Europe’s biggest annual bike shows. “It takes a long time from opening discussions with a marketing director of a corporate to the ‘yes, let’s do it’ conversation.”

With 2019 imminent, Brailsford will be hoping he can shortcut that timescale and keep cycling’s most successful franchise on the road. Given all that has happened in British cycling this year, he may be fighting for more than a name on a jersey.

*Jeremy Whittle currently covers the Tour de France for The Guardian. His most recent book, 'Ventoux: sacrifice and suffering on the Giant of Provence' is published by Simon and Schuster.

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