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As the clouds scudded across the French Mediterranean over the weekend, there were few at Paris-Nice willing to publicly offer their perspective on the ongoing controversy over Team Sky, Bradley Wiggins, and the continuing calls for team principal, Dave Brailsford, to resign.
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Walking between the team buses in the Paris-Nice convoy, canvassing opinion, there were plenty of strong opinions offered. Few were willing to go on the record. As in the now-infamous DCMS British Parliamentary report that fueled the latest skepticism toward the team, most preferred to remain anonymous.
“I really don’t want to talk about it,” said one longstanding WorldTour sport director. “I’m bored with all the questions. It’s Brailsford’s problem, nobody else’s.”
At another team, one facing an uncertain future, the reaction was similar. “It becomes a problem if you’re looking for sponsors,” an experienced director said, “because when you talk to them, we get all the questions aimed at us too.”
But there was one notable exception. Brian Holm, Quick-Step’s outspoken sport director, was happy to weigh in on the subject.
“I wouldn’t blame Wiggins or Froome,” the Dane said. “They followed the boss. Brailsford is the guy to blame because he’s at the top. He makes the decisions. Wiggins got permission for the TUEs from his team, so blame the team.
“That also goes back to whether Froome should be riding or not. It’s the team’s decision. Now if they put in Rod Ellingworth instead, I think everything would calm down because they have a lot of good talent. Go after the management, not the riders.”
For all the sound and fury surrounding Sky, it doesn’t seem to have impacted the riders’ performances.
In fact, the Dutchman was disarmingly easygoing when asked about the controversy and Brailsford’s position. “I am just focused on my training and racing. Of course, I support Dave,” he smiled.
Even after Poels abandoned, Sky had Sergio Henao to fall back on and then, when the Colombian faltered in Saturday’s summit finish at La Colmiane, David de la Cruz proved ready to race in Sunday’s rain-soaked stage in the hills behind Nice.
De la Cruz, winner in Nice a year ago when riding for Quick-Step, has become an expert at timing his attacks in this short climactic stage, which is fast establishing a reputation for explosive racing.
Given how strong he proved to be in Sunday’s punchy climbs and tight descents, he may also be a dark horse for the finale over the Cipressa and Poggio in Saturday’s Milano-Sanremo. He will be a probable foil to 2017 winner and teammate Michal Kwiatkowski.
Across the Franco-Italian border at Tirreno-Adriatico, Sky’s Kwiatkowski emerged from the weekend’s racing in the overall lead, with final victory looking very possible. Despite that, the team’s top dog, Chris Froome, was struggling.
While his deputies shone, mystery surrounded Froome’s form, after the four-time Tour de France champion had what, by his terms, was a crisis just five kilometers from the finish to Sunday’s stage 5 climbing into Fillotrano.
Already far behind the front of the race, Froome pulled over to the side of the road for a wheel change, on the climb of the ‘mur,’ or wall, into the finish. He eventually crossed the line in 73rd place, more than eight minutes behind the stage winner, Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott).
The incident puzzled the European sports media. “Had he punctured? Or was he faking a mechanical incident to hide how exposed he was?” Philippe Brunel, L’Equipe’s veteran cycling writer wrote. “Nobody knows.”
Whatever the reason, Froome is already nine minutes down on his teammate and overall race leader Kwiatkowski, with the ‘Race Between Two Seas’ reaching a climax.
Maybe Froome is feeling the pressure of his Salbutamol case, the DCMS report and the incessant questioning, more than he shows. Time, however, is now increasingly against him as he prepares for his bid for a Giro-Tour double, which begins in just seven weeks with May’s Giro d’Italia.