Sky team principal David Brailsford’s principles are under scrutiny. Criticism of the team’s tactics has been building since last year’s Paris-Nice, when Bradley Wiggins started his winning run that culminated in victory at the Tour de France.
The squad’s collective performance is too robotic. Too unfeeling, they say. Not in the spirit of real racing. None of this mattered a couple of years ago when the team weren’t winning, but now they are – and it does.
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Cycling is undergoing a sea change, and Sky are central to that change. Cycling is swapping sciences from chemistry to physics, and Sky are the class nerds that got in there first and made it work.
The root cause of criticism of Sky’s technological tactics comes partly from the team itself. Brailsford’s early catchphrases of ‘marginal gains’ and ‘the numbers look good’ are more rooted in management and planning than the rose-tinted nostalgia of ‘riding on feel’. Once the source of ridicule, Sky’s repeatable results have made other teams treat such phrases with more reverence.
It’s not an infallible system by any means, as Vincenzo Nibali showed in Tirreno-Adriatico this week where the Astana rider overhauled Sky’s Chris Froome’s lead with a breath-taking downhill attack in appalling weather conditions at the end of an extremely tough day. It was an inspiring ride, and a spectacle to watch, there’s no argument against that.
Swelled by the result, Nibali used his post-win press conference to accuse Sky of ‘racing by numbers’, of putting the read-out of their wattage and instructions from the team car before in-the-saddle tactical nous and pure strength. The Italian even suggested banning SRM power data from racing. Although we note that such rallying cries against science didn’t stop him from donning a carefully created aerodynamic helmet, skinsuit and sleek Specialized time trial bike complete with SRM power cranks in the final time trial…
His Tirreno win was a fair one, but you can’t help thinking that Nibali was perhaps thinking back more to last year’s Tour, where he placed third behind Sky duo Wiggins and Froome. The duo’s measured, grinding pace up the climbs was too much for Nibali, and he lost time there and in the two key time trials. That must still be stinging.
Are Nibali’s calls to remove SRM power data and other technological tricks during races justified? Well, he’s been at the rough end of that particular technology’s success, but why stop at SRMs. We’ve already had experiments on banning team radio technology, and that didn’t really work. The UCI is already pretty strict on certain aspects of bike design too, almost laughably so with those ‘UCI Approved‘ frame stickers and blazered commissaires measuring the ratio of frame geometry on riders’ bikes on the start line.
Part of the argument against technology is that cycling becomes a battle of budgets rather than a sport. Biggest wind tunnel and bag of cash wins. But central to cycling is the cycle itself, an unnatural product of technology that has been developed over many decades by engineers and designers. Why shouldn’t people continue to advance its efficiency?
If we really got rid of every scrap of technology from cycling you’d be left with naked men running up a hill barefoot. And that’s a different sport all together.