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A return to parity? Sky’s loss could be the peloton’s gain

A dismantling of 'Fortress Froome' would level peloton, though possibility of wealthy team purchasing a block of Sky and becoming new dominant force remains.

For years, rivals and haters alike have bemoaned Team Sky’s dominance.

Its controlling, almost oppressive racing style not only stymied rivals, but demoralized them. Just to get to Chris Froome, rivals had to breach “Fortress Froome,” cycling’s most formidable wall of domestiques.

Now that Team Sky could disappear at the end of 2019, many are wondering what the peloton would look like without the domineering presence of the team that’s marked the Tour de France for nearly a decade.

“It would definitely mean a less controlled Tour de France,” said Mitchelton-Scott’s Matt White. “Regardless of what happens, it would level the playing field.”

Welcome to 2020, the year that that suspense is once again part of July.

If Sky boss Dave Brailsford cannot pull a $30-million-plus cat out of the hat by June, the Tour’s dominator will likely disappear.

A Tour de France without Sky controlling the pace and tempo would result in a very different kind of race.

“This will flatten out the competition from the top down, which is unusual,” said CCC Team’s Jim Ochowicz. “It’s a good thing. I think it will open up opportunities for other teams to compete head to head in the bigger grand tours.”

Of course, it’s too early to say if Brailsford won’t be able to save his team.

His riders are fiercely loyal to Brailsford, and marquee riders such as Froome and Geraint Thomas have already stated they hope he can find new backers to keep the party going. After all, riders under Brailsford’s watch reached unimaginable heights, made lots of money and were protected inside one of the most efficient and merciless winning machines modern cycling has ever seen.

If all that disappears at the end of 2019, the 2020 season will look very different.

“Sky has been putting the hammer down since we last won with Cadel [Evans in 2011],” said Ochowicz, who returns to the WorldTour with CCC Team this year. “If Sky doesn’t continue — and I hope they can find a sponsor because they deserve it — it would see a leveling out of the peloton.”

If Sky did dissolve at the end of 2019, the team’s DNA would spread around the larger mass of the peloton, it’s just that it won’t be bottled up inside one team. Instead of it being Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome and Egan Bernal versus the rest of the peloton, it could be Thomas vs. Froome vs. Bernal.

“They’ve set the mark and there’s been a lot of jealousy in the peloton because of the budget they have,” said White, whose Mitchelton-Scott team won its first grand tour in team history with Simon Yates at the Vuelta a España. “If Brailsford can’t keep the team together, there would be a big leveling off within the WorldTour.”

The dismantling of Sky’s block would open cracks for others to try to exploit.

A Sky-less peloton would dramatically raise the odds on South America’s first Tour winner with Nairo Quintana (Movistar) or France’s first winner since ‘the Badger’ Bernard Hinault with Roman Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale).

“Team Sky is expert when it comes to racing with power and speed,” said world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). “To even to try to attack Froome, you have to get past everyone else. It’s never been easy.”

Many cite money as a deciding factor in Sky’s unparalleled Tour success. The team’s seemingly unlimited budget — public filings reveal the team’s budget was 37 million pounds in 2017, about $43 million — dwarfed the rest of the WorldTour.

Flush with a budget that is two to three times larger than its rivals, Brailsford’s troops have won six of the past seven editions of the Tour with three different riders. Not only did Brailsford arguably have the best grand tour rider of his generation in Froome, but he surrounded him with a fleet of helpers who made Froome all but untouchable behind a fortress of legs and Lycra.

Teams were trying to compete against Sky with a budget at half or even a third of what Brailsford had at his disposal. With such largesse, he could pay domestiques salaries at a million euros per season and above, equal to what other teams could offer their top GC contenders.

If that money pipeline runs dry at the end of 2019, the talent would disperse and there would no longer be one top team with such riches setting the tune of the race.

Ochowicz said other teams will be quick to pick off the top jewels of the Sky crown, but said he doesn’t expect the Sky void to be filled immediately by another team.

“Sky just didn’t open the door in 2010 and do what they’re doing today,” Ochowicz said. “That just doesn’t happen overnight. I don’t see anybody else doing that right now.”

The way Mitchelton-Scott’s White sees it, depending on which teams might have deep enough pockets, a well-funded team could try to fill the Sky void by simply buying the best of Sky.

“There are some good teams already, so if you add Chris Froome and a few key guys, then you can become the best team,” White said. “That takes a lot of money. There are only one or two teams who could afford Froome’s asking price. But if you go and purchase a block of Sky, then you become the next Sky.”

Of course, Brailsford could very well secure new funding to keep the party going. He has little more than six months to find a new partner. With contracts already in place with Froome, Thomas and Bernal, a newly branded Team Sky might not even skip a beat.

In that case, nothing might change at all, except the name on the jersey.