“Our mission for 2020 is very simple – for Team Sky to be indisputably and consistently the best cycling team in the world… We will do that by winning more races in the next five years than we did in the past five years. And do that consistently in Grand Tours as well as classics and Monuments.” – Sir Dave Brailsford
Overall wins at the Vuelta Andalucia, Volta ao Algarve, Paris-Nice and now the Volta a Catalunya mean it is very much business as usual for Team Sky in 2015’s early season stage races. However, in line with Sir Dave Brailsford’s ‘2020 vision’, Sky have reinforced their stage success with notable one-day triumphs at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3-Harelbeke.
Over the last five years, Sky have endured a frustrating relationship with one-day races, possessing the potential for success, but never being able to deliver when it mattered. At times they have lacked the type of coherent plan that has previously allowed smaller teams to triumph (MTN-Qhubeka’s Gerald Ciolek at Milan-Sanremo, for example; Garmin’s Dan Martin at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia).
Too often Sky seems to have spread its bets over two or more form riders and hoped for the best, a tactic in stark contrast to their almost robotic strategic dominance of stage races. However, Geraint Thomas’ victory at E3-Harelbeke on Friday is Team Sky’s biggest one-day win to date and comes soon after Ian Stannard’s successful title defence at Het Nieuwsblad, suggesting Sky are learning from their mistakes and developing the tactical nous to compete in the Classics.
Having previously struggled to match the influence and style of the other so-called superteams in one-day races, both recent one-day wins have come at the expense of the Belgian giant Etixx-Quick Step. At Het Nieuwsblad, Ian Stannard produced a near faultless ride to outsmart the best Classics talent EQS had to offer in Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh, while at E3, Geraint Thomas was able to break Zdenek Stybar in a ruthless acceleration 5km from the finish. With Boonen breaking his collarbone in a crash at Paris-Nice, the omens have become ever more positive for Sky as EQS’s Classics expectation shifts to Niki Terpstra. He is a talented rider but not quite as tactically astute as Boonen, evidenced in his misplaced focus on Geraint Thomas at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday, which allowed Paolini to take the win.
At least as satisfying for Brailsford, and more so perhaps even than Sky’s one-day success over EQS, is their supremacy over Tinkoff-Saxo so far in 2015. Both one-day races and stage events this year have been ceded to Team Sky by Oleg’s men, currently a team in crisis following their official parting of ways with general manager Bjarne Riis and the misfiring of both its superstars: Alberto Contador, and the newly acquired Peter Sagan.
Both riders have been bettered by their Team Sky counterparts in recent days: Richie Porte beat Contador by seven seconds to wrap up the Volta a Catalunya, and Geraint Thomas was able to ride away from Sagan with ease at E3 Harelbeke. In almost every race he enters, Sagan is considered the main threat to a rider eyeing the title, so with his miserable form continuing despite his change of environment, Sky will go into the next month of Classics racing with high hopes.
The remaining Monuments are fast approaching, and to this extent, it might be said that Team Sky’s Classics season has reached a crossroads: perform like they have in previous years and this spring, after a bright start, will be written off by their management as ‘a learning curve’ or similar cliché that puts a positive spin on failure. After all, reverting to type, and splitting their efforts between, say, Stannard and Thomas, would be an easy trap to fall into.
Stannard and Thomas, both have long-established designs on the Classics, and a certain knight in white skinsuit has made his intentions known for Paris-Roubaix. However, if Sky ride with the same nous and aggression shown in recent races, with a solid plan and a bit of luck, in a few weeks they could soon look back on their most successful Classics campaign to date. A Monument Classic would provide a significant psychological platform for their Grand Tour campaign.