LIÈGE, Belgium (VN) — Only five riders clipped in at the start wearing Sky’s black and blue kits at the 100th edition of cycling’s oldest classic, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, three shy of the number allowed.
Only six riders rather than eight pedaled for the team at the Giro del Trentino. Results-wise, the team was nonexistent in the Ardennes races this season, its best finish a 39th at Amstel Gold Race on the legs of Edvald Boasson Hagen. All told, five riders finished the three Ardennes races for the team, out of a total number of 19 possible finishes (Sky rode two of the three races without the allowed eight riders).
On a crisp Sunday morning, a morning when most UCI WorldTour teams found themselves excited at the chance to win a monument, Sky’s five bikes outside its team bus at Liège appeared to be a white flag in this grand race, even if one of those bikes belonged to danger man Richie Porte, who didn’t finish.
The absence of Chris Froome was the most acute; the reigning Tour de France champion pulled out on the eve of the race with what team doctors described as a chest infection.
Sky’s Peter Kennaugh didn’t start Liège either because of an illness, and stalwart Vasil Kiriyenka is missing the Tour de Romandie, which began Tuesday. Sky started eight riders at Romandie and Froome finished 10 seconds back of prologue winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) to place 13th.
On the whole, Sky has struggled in spite of Froome’s Tour of Oman win in February. Liège marked the second time this season Froome hasn’t started a race at which he was slated to appear, his withdrawal from Tirreno-Adriatico with back issues being the other. Porte, originally tapped for Giro d’Italia leadership, won’t start that race, instead focusing on the Tour de France. Ian Stannard crashed hard at Gent-Wevelgem and fractured a vertebrae.
Coupled with crashes and some anti-doping issues, Sky finds itself in a hole. The team benched Jonathan Tiernan-Locke in 2013 after he came under scrutiny from the sport’s governing body when a biological passport sample found discrepancies. Sky has said the data in question came from his time with former team Endura. The 28-year-old joined Sky in January of last year after winning the 2012 Tour of Britain.
Colombian climber Sergio Henao has been removed from Sky’s racing schedule over questions about out-of-competition controls.
La Gazzetta dello Sport reported that Henao, who has not raced since the Tour of Oman, had “anomalous values” as part of internal team controls. Sky quickly released a statement in response.
“In our latest monthly review, our experts had questions about Sergio’s out-of-competition control tests at altitude — tests introduced this winter by the anti-doping authorities. We need to understand these readings better,” team principal Dave Brailsford said at the time in a team release.
Sky confirmed Henao underwent WADA-accredited controls during a winter trip to Colombia, but did not specify if it was linked to those tests. A biological passport violation could lead to a two-year ban for a first-time offender.
On Sunday, Brailsford said crashes and illness troubles seem to have come in droves, whereas Sky had previously been lucky.
“You look at all the illness and crashes we’ve had this year, we’ve had proportionally more than is to be expected while the last couple of years we’ve had proportionately less than you’d expect to have. So we saved them all up and had them all at once,” he said at the start of Liège–Bastogne–Liège. “We’ve also got Tiernan-Locke who’s not racing, Sergio and his cousin [Sebastian] who’ve gone back to Colombia, CJ [Sutton] had a nasty crash and had a hole in his knee. Chris is ill, Pete is ill …”
For some members of the team, there’s a silver lining. Sky, known for its steadfast commitment to winning longer races and taking zero chances in that pursuit, will loosen up a bit at the Giro. Kennaugh is slated to have some chances for himself, as an example.
“Ultimately I think there’s opportunity for people to ride GC but really I think there’s other opportunities for some of the younger guys to look at stages probably more than we normally would,” Brailsford said. “Of late we’ve been winning races, not stages. Focusing on trying to win the race, not stages. For the Giro, [we will] give people more opportunities, with the likes of Swifty [Ben Swift] and Edvald to get some success for themselves.”
Correction: This story initially claimed that Jonathan Tiernan-Locke joined Sky in 2014 and won the 2013 Tour of Britain. He joined Sky in 2013 and won the 2012 Tour of Britain.