SAINT-GERVAIS LES BAINS, France (AFP) — They are the “Sky Armada,” the multi-national support team pushing Britain’s Chris Froome towards a third Tour de France title.
Spaniards Mikel Nieve and Mikel Landa and Dutchman Wout Poels, not to mention Sergio Henao of Colombia and Geraint Thomas of Wales, were dubbed the “Sky Armada” during this Tour by Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale).
Their role during the Grand Boucle has been to protect, support, and propel Froome through the mountains towards his goal of a third Tour victory, after wins in 2013 and 2015. All the while, British duo Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe have marshaled Froome to safety on the flats, with help from Belarusian reigning world time trial champion Vasil Kiryienka as well.
For many, Sky’s powerful team, with Froome’s lieutenants setting a punishing pace on the climbs, has killed the race, turning it into a Froome-Sky procession.
Fans have marveled at the strength of the Sky team, able to surround Froome with up to five teammates until late on the mountain stages, while Froome’s rivals have been lucky to still have a single domestique alongside them.
According to Sky’s sports director Nicolas Portal, it has all been thanks to a relay tactic to try to keep the riders as fresh as possible.
Asked why Poels has been so strong in the Alps, Portal said: “If he’s in form in the third week it’s also because during the first 10 days, along with Mikel Nieve, we asked them to sit up.
“They did their work earlier on, at the start of the stage.”
This rotational policy, where some riders have been supporting Froome while the others relax at the back of the peloton, has been possible because of the single-mindedness of the team.
“We put egos to one side, we relax, we avoid crashes at the end and like that we’re sure to have two good climbers in top form in the final week,” added Portal.
That belligerent tunnel-vision in chasing only the biggest prize of all is what Froome believes has given him a significant edge over his rivals.
“I think one of the big differences with our team, when I compare it to other teams, is that all eight teammates of mine are focused on one goal,” said the 31-year-old, who was born in Kenya.
“If you look at other teams, they’ve got a sprinter, they’ve got two GC riders, they’re trying to put guys in the break for stages.
“There’s a lot of different things happening but I’ve got eight guys, nine including me, dedicated to one goal and that makes a big difference.”
One of the most impressive team-mates has been Poels, who showed in April when he won the prestigious monument classic Liege Bastogne-Liege that he is a great rider in his own right.
“When we signed him [in 2015], few teams or media thought he was a great rider,” added Portal.
“We had identified it, we knew he was a great climber.”
Poels has been attracting a lot of positive press recently, increasing the possibility that other teams might try to recruit him to be their leader, something Portal admits is a poisoned chalice.
“It’s a personal choice, do they want to stay 100% and have their chance [to lead] from time to time, or try to be their own leader but without the same support?”
One such case in point is Landa who was third at last year’s Giro d’Italia before joining Sky this year.
He has a different role and led the team at this year’s Giro, but he had to pull out due to illness after 10 stages.
He then asked to be part of the Tour team, although the 26-year old Basque has been far from impressive in France.
“He’s not at 100% but at the same time, he’s so strong. A Landa at 70% does a huge amount of work, he gives a lot of other guys the chance to rest,” added Portal.
“He’s a class above the rest.”