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This story appeared in the November/December print issue of VeloNews Magazine.
It all started innocently enough. In 2010, new arrival Bradley Wiggins drew curious stares and even a few laughs when he was spotted warming down on rollers outside bus of Britain’s new cycling team, Team Sky.
Many laughed, a few took notice.
“When we started warming down on the trainers, people laughed at us,” Wiggins said this summer on his Eurosport podcast. “Within a year or two, everyone was doing it. Those are the kinds of things that Sky did that today is commonplace in the sport.”
That after-race warm-down was just the first incarnation of Sky’s revolutionary and sometimes derided “marginal gains.” And just like about any innovation in cycling, be it a new twist like handlebar extensions or even a highly effective doping product, it soon swept through the peloton like wildfire. Flash forward 10 years, and soigneurs are hauling trainers to the top of the most secluded mountain summits in Europe so its star riders can spin down after the hard effort.
A decade on, no one is laughing anymore.
Backed by the biggest budget in cycling, by the close of its first decade, Team Sky had won seven of the past eight yellow jerseys, with four different riders. The team’s methodology and success forced every team in the peloton to take a hard look at itself and how it was managing its squad.
“They’ve forced the rest of us to up our game,” said EF-Education First sport director Juanma Gárate. “We’ve all been forced to push ourselves. Everyone was playing catch up to Sky.”
Today, Team Sky has morphed into Team Ineos, and the team still boasts the largest budget in the WorldTour, estimated to be as high as $45 million annually, a tally that can be as much as four times more than the poorer neighbors in the WorldTour.
No one’s had a closer look at Sky-Ineos’s decade-long run than Nicolas Portal. Now 40, the cool Frenchman joined Sky in its inaugural year in 2010, and morphed into one of the team’s top sport directors.
“Those early days were not so easy for the team,” Portal said. “It might look easy from the outside, but everyone has worked so hard. It is sometimes difficult to believe what we achieved when you stop to think about it. It’s been amazing.”
Team Sky came into the peloton talking a big talk. After a few false starts, it surprisingly delivered on its promise sooner than anyone could have imagined. In fact, Team Sky far surpassed even the wildest dreams of its team boss, guiding light, spiritual leader and some say dictator, Dave Brailsford.
“The way that Dave structured the team, the way we work, the investment, you can call it boring sometimes, but that is the winning way,” Portal said. “There are no stage victories for us, it’s all about GC. The level is so high, so we said, let’s push higher than everyone else.”
Plenty of critics
It’s now been 10 years since Sky, Brailsford and Wiggins strutted onto the scene. The squad’s debut season was little short of a disaster. Wiggins cracked under pressure and limped through the 2010 Tour with a distant 21st on GC. The team picked up a few wins along the season, but nothing that would really reveal it was set to revolutionize the peloton.
Team Sky righted its ship. Brailsford and groundbreaking trainer Tim Kerrison transformed Wiggins into a GC-killing machine. The ever-obsessive Brailsford broke down the entire system of training, preparing, racing, aerodynamics, tech, equipment, diet, nutrition, rest and recovery, looking for advantages that he dubbed marginal gains.
Wiggins was their perfect guinea pig. Equally obsessed, the former trackie shed weight to stay close in the mountains but maintained his power in the time trials. By 2012, it proved a deadly combination, and Wiggins barnstormed to Britain’s first yellow jersey.
Sky soon defied expectations, tapping a then largely unknown Chris Froome as its chosen GC captain. Froome would go on to dominate grand tours, winning four Tours, two Vueltas and one Giro in dramatic fashion in his 80km solo attack over the Colle delle Finestre.
And not everyone liked it. That success didn’t come without its scandals. The blot of Jiffy-Bags, Tramadol and TUE’s and the financial advantage it boasts thanks to its budget are also as much a part of the Brailsford legacy as those eight yellow jerseys and feel-good PR statistics about a record number of British people riding their bicycles.
For some critics, Sky-Ineos is nothing more than an extension to the win-at-any-cost ethos that has long dominated professional cycling. Sky wasn’t shy about tiptoeing right up to the ethical line.
Things got so bad in the wake of the Fancy Bears leak—which revealed Wiggins used the powerful corticoid triamcinolone under the guise of a TUE ahead of his 2012 Tour win—and pushed the team to the brink. The British Parliament investigated and castigated the team on some of its practices, but Brailsford never admitted to having doped his riders.
“There is a fundamental difference between process failures and wrongdoing,” Brailsford said in 2018. “Our commitment to anti-doping has been a core principle of Team Sky since its inception.”
Then came another bombshell: Froome tested for high levels of Salbutamol en route to winning the 2017 Vuelta. After a long and expensive legal battle, Froome and Sky came out on top. Froome was cleared of any wrongdoing, and WADA and the UCI were forced to walk back its Salbutamol anti-doping protocols.
For the haters, it was all too much. Sky was just as bad as any other of cycling’s dirty players. For Brailsford, Froome’s clearance and Bernal’s victory, it was all sweet redemption.
When Sky announced it would be leaving the sport at the end of 2018, many thought it was the end of an era. Instead, Brailsford had the pick of several suitors, and settled on Ineos, a petro-chemical company owned by England’s richest man. Sports-washing claims aside, Brailsford and the team emerged even stronger and wealthier than before.
“Tough times don’t last, but tough people do,” Brailsford told Jeremy Whittle in July. “You can’t do this job without a thick skin. In sports management you need to be resilient and decide what’s important to you and what you are prepared to take on board.”
Big pockets, bigger wins
One long-held criticism of Sky and its success is its peloton-leading budget. At more than $45 million annually, Ineos certainly packs more financial punch than any team. Some even describe it as a form of “financial doping,” allowing Brailsford to do things other teams simply cannot afford.
“When Bradley won the Tour, Sky was not the richest team, but we were already looking at new ways of doing things,” Portal said. “The budget increases came because if we wanted to keep our winners, we had to pay them more.”
Indeed, riders who started out as helpers at Sky/Ineos have gone on to be leaders on other teams, including Richie Porte, Rigoberto Urán, and Mikel Landa and Wout Poels, who head to Bahrain-McLaren for 2020.
More than anything, it was the “Sky way” that set them apart. The team’s legacy will be Brailsford’s mania for detail, the team’s deep pockets, and its unrelenting drive for success.
“We have a way that works,” Portal said. “We do not want to sleep with this. Cycling moves quickly, and we cannot win on our palmares. We know that every team in the peloton wants to beat us.”
The team has helped transform the sport and reduced much of cycling’s mystery to mathematical formulas, and not everyone agrees it’s for the better. The “Ineos Way” works. It might lead to sometimes methodical, almost robotic racing, but it’s highly effective at winning grand tours.