Saturday, 23 December 2017

An ode for troubled Team Sky

THEY came from outer space, in their armada of expensive jaguars and huge posh shiny black buses

It was Team Sky, a British species racing clean, new kids on the block

They raised hackles by daring to lay bare their victory aims for Le Tour

At Agincourt, Henry’s long bow archers routed the French

At Le Tour, Team Sky boss Brailsford fired his dreaded marginal gains to achieve same

Armed with their science, their riders with alacrity overcame allergy,

To undo valour and

Control the peloton by stifling the romance of the escape until the last

Then with precisely timed attacks, carried off the prize

Championed first by Wiggins and four times by Froome

Who for good measure, repeated his feat in the Vuelta

And their crime?

To be smarter than the rest

          That was back then.  Now what?
      With the news this month that Disney is buying up chunks of Murdoch's empire, including Sky TV channels, there comes speculation about the future of Team Sky.   Are their days numbered? For no other reason than the new owners might have other uses for the £31m annual budget of a team whose success is now tainted by controversy.

As 2018 approaches and the team prepares for new and exciting challenges, the current  crisis surrounding their champion, five times grand tour winner Chris Froome look to rumble on.
This concerns Froome’s adverse analytical finding (AAF) from the 18th stage of the Tour of Spain three months ago which has added to Team Sky’s woes.
What now?  Will his first victory in the Tour of Spain be taken away from him? It came only a few weeks after his fourth Tour de France victory, a rare double setting him among the greats.
The test showed that Froome had twice the permitted level of the asthma medication Salbutamol.
He insists he only took the permitted dose.
According to David Walsh in The Sunday Times (December 17) anti-doping and pharmacology experts he has spoken to had “struggled to come up with any legitimate explanation for Froome’s elevated Salbutamol level.”
It is now up to Froome to explain how this occurred. Could the test have exaggerated the result, due to him not being fully hydrated? Are there other mitigating factors?  His team think so.
Whatever, this is more negative stuff heaped upon the Team Sky.
Personally, I don’t think the Murdoch family will be too concerned, unless it starts to affect the value of shares. They are well used to courting bother, seem to thrive on it.
They probably subscribe to the saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity. “There is only one thing worse than being talked about that is not being talked about.”
Disney may have a different ethical stance.  
I reckon - and I won't be alone in thinking this - Team Sky has unwittingly brought all this bother on themselves.
Murdoch has always courted controversy in his business dealings.  I mean his Fox News outfit is said to be purely a political front for the Republican Party in the US.
He seems to want to tinker with global affairs – he gets a kick out of it - and he makes big money while about it.
So he’s smart and so is Sky and it winds up his media rivals.  Just look at their sports coverage. It knocks the BBC and ITV's coverage into a cocked hat.
And Brailsford is smart. They are made for each other, Brailsford and Sky.
They both say they are going to do big things and they do them.  
This ethos seems to run through all levels of the company. 
I’ve found Sky's marketing people very quick on the uptake.
I’d once took a call from a travel consultant telling me that South West Trains had heard of a Sky family cycle ride bringing tens of thousands of people to west London.   SW Trains wanted a slice of the action - they would provide trains in and out of London. He asked who at Sky they should speak to.
I rang the Sky people organising the ride and informed them of SW Trains interest. They were immediately interested. So I gave them the contact. Within 10 minutes they had set the whole deal up, trains would be provided!
My telephone line at home, together with my broadband and of course the television satellite channels are all provided by Sky. I’d had Eurosport for years because I wanted the cycling coverage. I switched the rest after getting pissed off by BT when we lost our telephone and broadband. Not just us, all the houses in the road. They didn’t answer calls and when they did it took them eight days before the problem was fixed.
Sky has always been quick to respond to any problem and to fix it.  
I remember a TV aerial contractor telling me that health and safety rules meant ladders were last century and now we need to put up scaffolding so he could get to the chimney to affix a satellite dish.
The scaffolding would cost £1000!
Well, I didn’t have a thousand quid.  
I called Sky. Perhaps they had their own scaffolding!
Scaffolding? No need, they said.
Sky sent one man. He was smartly kitted out in dark blue and black overalls and looked like a climber about to tackle the North Face of the Eiger.  He only had the west face of our two storey cottage to scale.
He surveyed the roof from the ground, then methodically went through a check list of all his gear, his safety harnesses and hooks.  He donned a helmet and then climbed the ladder – secured to the wall - up to the roof, hoisting a second, roof ladder, up with him. He laid that over the tiles to the ridge by the chimney. 
He came back for the dish, strapped a small rucksack full of tools to his back and went back up, with a line securing him to each ladder in turn, then finally to a harness around the chimney, where he set about attaching the dish. There was no cost to me.
Here endeth an  interesting aside into my experiences of the workings of Sky.   
Back to the Team Sky enigma.
The press response to Team Sky’s issues has almost been as heavy as it was for Armstrong, the sporting cheat of the century who was running a clever doping programme for all of his seven Tour victories through to 2005.
All we know about Sky is that they’ve slipped into the grey area by providing Wiggins with a TUE (Theraputic Use Exemption) to allow him to take, legally, an otherwise banned steroid to treat his allergies.  And then there is the unresolved jiffy bag saga. What was in the jiffy bag?
A harmless medication, it was eventually claimed. But no record of this has been provided.  Brailsford and Shane Sutton were less than convincing in trying to explain this away. The laptop containing medical records stolen?
Suspicion remains. But there is no evidence, the trail has gone cold.  There can be no case to answer.
The Wiggins business was different. His TUE was for steroids to treat his allergies. It was said this drug would be like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It was known to enhance performance. Wiggins really should have been rested while taking this drug, say critics.  
So that’s a stain that won’t easily wash out. Now Froome, who suffers from asthma, like many athletes apparently, is also in the dog house for his higher than legal dosage of asthma puffs after a bad day on the Vuelta. He could face being banned and stripped of his title.   
It’s right the team be pulled up over these issues, but do they really merit pages and pages of reporting and speculation such as that which followed the Armstrong story - a major fraud involving not just the Texan, but teammates, too?
You have to conclude there wouldn’t have been half the fuss had Brailsford not continually boasted Sky race clean. On the other hand, he felt he had to keep repeating himself because cycling’s doping history was always being brought up by the media whose insinuation was clear.
So at the first sign of slippage, those TUEs for Wiggins, reporters jump on Team Sky.
The press, still wounded from being taken in by Armstrong for years think they’ve been had and so they have gone for Brailsford like wild dogs.
Brailsford is a brilliant operator – but when this Tour novice brought his new team to the world’s biggest stage race declaring he could win it, that upset many of the Tour regulars. Who did he think he was?
Such confidence came across as being cocky.
The master of marginal gains said he had no idea if the drug permitted Wiggins, courtesy of the TUEs, enhanced his performance when he won that historic Tour de France in 2012.
And then along comes Shane Sutton to muddy the waters by admitting on TV they moved into the grey areas to seek any gain they could.  
Too smart for their own good.
Here’s another gripe. The Team’s method in control racing shows their great strength, but it is getting boring because they hold everything back until the last.  In stage races it’s all become too clever and clinical. It was great when Team Sky first took a grip with that great victory by Wiggins in 2012. 
But I’ve got fed up watching this steam roller.
Froome, he’s a real talent and he’s risen to become a grand tour master, a relentless presence always there while his team set about weakening the rest …until the moment he chooses is right to attack.  Then the entertainment begins, as he takes off in that spectacular if ungainly way of his to put his rivals on the rack and take a few more seconds. Impressive. More marginal gains.  
It’s just that all this action now only ever comes in the closing kilometres, the last 30 minutes maybe, of a five-six hour stage.
We seldom get GC racing until near the end, save for the usual breakaway of non-GC guys doing their best. When they sometimes stay clear to the end I cheer. Otherwise, I groan.  
Thank God for Contador in the Tour of Spain, where his many gallant, lone brave escapes forced Sky to react.  Froome won, but it was Contador’s exploits which made the race.
For the best-ever analogy of the Sky method – albeit a horrible one - I refer you to Richard Abraham’s excellent piece in Procycling’s Review of 2017.
In his story about the Froome effect, he describes how Sky, the richest ever team in pro cycling, buys up the best talent, paying them enough to set aside personal ambition…. “and take the job of riding grand tours by shoving a pillow on the face of any opposition and holding it down until the struggling stops”.