International Cycling Union (UCI) President David Lappartient mused earlier this year that some television viewers might have been put off by the dominance of Team Sky at the Tour de France.
The image of the Team Sky train chugging up a mountain, burning away rivals, to deliver their leader to a summit finish and yellow jersey has been a common one over the past decade.
Chris Froome has been the biggest beneficiary of the approach, while fellow Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas are other Britons to have profited. As effective as the strategy has proved, it has perhaps lacked the panache that traditionalists of the Tour de France have wanted.
Hence there have been musing from riders and officials at how Team Sky’s dominance could potentially be curbed.
The squad could rightly point out they are not the only dominant team in sport. In fact, they are not the only dominant team in men’s road cycling. As Team Sky have conquered the Grand Tours, Quick-Step Floors have largely wiped the floor with their rivals in the classics.
There have been similar calls at find a way at tackling the Belgian team’s success in the one-day events.
Success in team sports tends to go where the money is, as much as it would be interesting to see them operate on an even level. It is no surprise therefore to see Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain riding high in their domestic football leagues as a result.
There have been numerous suggestions as how to level the playing field in cycling’s Grand Tours, particularly given a Team Sky rider has triumphed in six of the last seven Tour de Frances.
While team sizes were reduced from nine to eight for the 2018 season, UCI chief Lappartient had at one stage mooted six-rider teams, as well as floating ideas such as budget caps.
As it turns out, measures to curb Team Sky’s dominance might not be required after all.
Earlier this week broadcast giant Sky announced the 2019 season would be their last backing the cycling outfit.
Having recently been taken over by American company Comcast in a £30 billion ($38 billion/€33 billion) deal in September, it has been suggested the change had contributed to the decision. Graham McWilliam, the chairman of Team Sky, denied this was the case in the week’s announcement.
"The start of a new chapter for Sky corporate is a natural moment," he said. "Twelve months gives Team Sky time to plan for the next phase. The decision was taken by Sky in the last few weeks. Comcast are aware and supportive of what we have decided to do, but this is our decision not theirs. We are now looking forward to a great final season."
Recent controversies surrounding the team have also been cited as a possible reason for Sky’s withdrawal. The "jiffy bag" incident at the 2012 Tour de France and a report from the United Kingdom Parliament accusing them have crossing an "ethical line" over therapeutic use exemptions having damaged the image of a team that vowed to have total transparency and zero tolerance on their arrival to the peloton in 2010.
Again, this could have had an impact, but it also seems fair to say that a nine-year life cycle for a sponsor in cycling is a strong run. While Sky were able to contribute to and also ride the wave of multiple British successes, one wonders whether the somewhat giddy public support has dimmed a little across the country over the past couple of years.
The legacy of Team Sky is sure to be forensically examined over the coming year, both good and bad.
It remains possibility that a replacement for Sky could be found in the next six months, with clarity promised over their future before this year’s Tour de France. The early suggestions are that this could prove hard to find, with their annual budget having been estimated at around £35 million ($44 million/€38 million) and rising.
Should the team prove unable to secure the required investment and re-badge itself, Sky’s departure could potentially be as game changing as is arrival.
The assets that could help their pursuit of investment, namely their Grand Tour winners Froome and Thomas, could represent an opportunity for other teams if they are able to poach them should they become available.
During several of their Tour de France victories, the relationship between Sky’s team leader and his super domestique has provided the biggest source of tension, rather than their closest rivals. It has been wondered whether Wiggins would have won his Tour de France title if Froome was allowed off the leash in 2012. Could Thomas have enjoyed greater Grand Tour success had he not spent so long working for his higher profile team-mates?
It is possible that a potential break-up of Team Sky could spread the wealth of talent more evenly across the peloton, with the likes of Froome, Thomas and their rising Colombian star Egan Bernal potentially going head-to-head on a mountain, rather than operating in single file in the same kit.
There is certainly a feeling amongst some viewers that it would be good for cycling if this occurs.
The departure of Sky does also highlight one of the issues with the sport, with teams and riders dependent on backing from sponsors.
While the stars of Sky would undoubtedly be snapped up by rival teams, there is no guarantee some of the less stellar names would secure contracts. Also, could there potentially be a knock-on effect of teams seeking to find the money to secure a star name to attract to their team.
I suppose I should be badmouthing Brailsford today, like he did regards me when our team was in jeopardy. But hey, guess what? I’m not going to! Because this isn’t a failing of Dave Brailsford. This is a wake up call to start reinventing the way professional cycling is structured— Jonathan Vaughters (@Vaughters) December 12, 2018
There is this uncertainty with professional cycling teams, which sees both teams emerge from nowhere but equally disappear.
It was only last year that I wrote a blog following the issues experienced by the Cannondale-Drapac team, after a new partner suddenly pulled the plug on investment. They eventually avoided the fate of the Tinkoff and IAM Cycling teams, which folded, with investment ultimately seeing them continue as Team EF Education First–Drapac.
Their general manager Jonathan Vaughters tweeted this week that the Team Sky situation was "a wake up call to start reinventing the way professional cycling is structured".
These discussions appeared central to the recent talks between the UCI, event organisers and teams over reforms at the UCI Congress in September, with the "economic model for the sport" continually being a topic of discussions.
Whether Team Sky remains under a different name post 2019 or disappears entirely, their situation appears to show no team is immune from potential difficulties under the current model.