What makes a cycling superteam? Here’s a go-to checklist: Big budgets, bigger stars, winning palmares, cutting-edge technology, driven managers, flamboyant owners, and the ever-present hint of controversy in and out of the bus.
Only two teams hit all those marks during the past four decades: France’s La Vie Claire in the 1980s, and the British outfit Team Sky-Ineos formation of the past decade Both organizations compare in just about every one of those categories.
La Vie Claire, created in 1984 by flashy French millionaire Bernard Tapie, heralded a new era in cycling in its day, with superstar Bernard Hinault as its founding member. Flash-forward to 2010, Team Sky, initially backed by the Murdoch family, and since 2018, the UK’s richest man with Jim Ratcliffe, boasts the biggest budget in the WorldTour.
With La Vie Claire, Greg LeMond became cycling’s first millionaire racer, and Hinault, after winning his fifth Tour in 1985, battled a legendary duel between the two stars in the 1986 Tour. That drama’s been repeated over the past decade, first with Bradley Wiggins becoming a superstar after winning the UK’s first maillot jaune, only to be usurped by Chris Froome. After his four yellow jerseys, Froome is being challenged by teammates Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal, the past two defending champions.
La Vie Claire’s sport director Paul Köechli was among a new wave of trainers and coaches who started to introduce science and heart-rate monitors into Europe’s old-school training programs. In 2010, former swimming coach Tim Kerrison brought data-driven training programs underpinned by power meters and Formula One-styled precision.
Each team had their share of superstars beyond their marquee names. Behind LeMond and Hinault, La Vie Claire packed the likes of Andy Hampsten, Steve Bauer, and Jean-François Bernard, then considered by many to be a future Tour winner. Sky, of course, has seen its fair share of big names: Mark Cavendish, Michal Kwiatkowski, Richard Carapaz, among others. Other wanna-be super teams, such as ONCE or Peugeot, were packed with stars, but fell short of hitting true greatness in the biggest races. There have been other teams that specialize in one facet of cycling: think Patrick Lefevere’s Mapei and Quick-Step teams in the classics, or U.S. Postal/Discovery at the Tour.
La Vie Claire lost some of its luster after its dramatic opening years. Hinault retired in 1986 just as he said he would, and LeMond left the team in the wake of a near-fatal hunting accident. Toshiba came on as title sponsor in 1987, and riders such as Bjarne Riis, Laurent Jalabert, Marc Madiot, and Tony Rominger filtered through before the team shuttered in 1991.
In contrast, the arrival of Ineos keeps the Sky DNA going into its 11th season. It’s won seven of the past editions of the Tour, along with two wins at the Vuelta a España and one Giro d’Italia, and after signing a fleet of young talent, shows no signs of slowing down. Thanks to its stable of GC riders, it’s won just about every significant stage race. Its lone blot is the monuments, but the franchise counts one Liège-Bastogne-Liège and one Milano-Sanremo among its bountiful palmares.
Just like any dominant team, each brought their fair share of detractors. Rumors of doping and unfair budget-advantage haunted both teams. Love them or hate them, there’s no denying that both teams are among the best in cycling history.