So what happens if David Brailsford cannot secure new backers by mid-summer and tells everyone at Team Sky to find a new job?
It would be a gold rush like cycling has never seen before.
“That would totally change the market for 2020,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “We’ve never had a team like this in the history of the sport. We’re talking three guys who’ve won the Tour de France or who can. To have all that talent on the market at once would change everything.”
The future of Team Sky hangs in the balance following Wednesday’s confirmation that Sky, the British broadcaster that’s funded the team since its inception, is stepping away at the end of 2019.
Brailsford has already told riders he needs to find something before the start of the Tour de France. By then, riders will start jumping ship to secure their futures.
If Brailsford cannot secure a new sponsor to keep the band together, the level of riders suddenly looking for jobs would be unprecedented.
“There would be a big fight among the teams to sign those Sky riders,” White said. “There’s never been a team with so many good riders to close like this. Ninety-nine percent of those guys would get picked up. It would just be a question of who would have the money.”
Teams have come and gone for decades, but most teams only have one or two marquee names. No team before Sky had so many established pros and promising talents assembled under one banner. The final days of High Road have a similar ring, with Mark Cavendish, André Greipel and the team’s series of winners released, but none of those riders were grand tour winners.
To see all that talent hit the market at the same time would result in a glut. Cycling’s game of musical chairs is always a game of supply and demand. If there are suddenly a lot of riders looking for a job, the prices come down.
“Having this many big names on the market at once brings down the value for everyone,” White said. “It all would depend on a team’s budget.”
There would be another interesting twist to market dynamics. One agent said it wouldn’t be the top Sky riders who should be worried about finding a job, instead it would be riders in a contract year in 2019 on rival teams. An established rider might see their value drop dramatically with a flood of marquee Sky names swarming the market.
If a team has a chance to sign a proven Tour de France winner like Geraint Thomas or Chris Froome but only has enough money to sign one GC captain, who do you go with? The guy who’s won a Tour, or your guy, who has tried to win the Tour for the past few years?
If Sky does fold, the big question is how many teams would have the money to sign a rider with the salary expectations of Froome? As one of the highest paid riders in the peloton, Froome would command several million dollars. You could count the number of teams who could afford him on one hand.
White pointed out another scenario: just cherry-pick the best of Brailsford’s team. Why try to buy the entire shop when you can buy the best parts?
“You could buy Froome and a few of his top helpers, and boom, you got a Tour de France team,” he said.
There’s already been some speculation that Brailsford might already have some sort of new sponsor waiting in the wings in anticipation of Sky’s inevitable exit. After all, no sponsorship lasts forever.
Sources, however, tell VeloNews that team management was telling riders and agents this fall that the team was expecting full Sky corporate backing for at least through 2021 and even up to at least 2024. Something obviously went off the rails when Sky management informed Brailsford that it was pulling stakes at the end of 2019.
Right now, Brailsford is in an enviable position. He has a world-class team with all of its stars and supporting cast under contract. It’s a one-stop shopping for Tour de France success. Just pony up $40 million, and the yellow jersey can be yours.
Many observers believe, however, that Brailsford will have a hard time finding a new sponsor as committed and generous as Sky. The ongoing political drama involving Brexit would only complicate the search for another UK-based sponsor. It’s hard to know if Brailsford would accept financial backing at anything less than he’s accustomed to.
Publicly, Brailsford was putting up a brave face in a series of interviews with British media Wednesday afternoon. He hinted to the BBC that he has already received calls “expressing interest,” adding the future “looks very good.”
Could this finally present an opportunity for a Chinese sponsor to step up? Gentleman, start your speculation engines.
“We know in life things change. When things do change you stay calm, bring the group together, stay strong and look for opportunities. Go out there with energy and excitement and build something new,” Brailsford told BBC Sport. “I like to build things, I’m an optimist.”
A peloton without Team Sky would open up the yellow jersey to riders who have tried and failed to beat back Sky, with the likes of Tom Dumoulin or Nairo Quintana at the top of the list.
And if Sky dispersed among a half-dozen teams or so, Froome wouldn’t be racing with Thomas, he’d be racing against him.
“If the team folds, it would totally change the playing field. You could have the talent spread across several teams,” White said. “But if I were a betting man, I would expect to see Brailsford with a team in 2020.”