The Tour de France has marked a familiar end in Paris with nothing and no one able to usurp Team Sky from its pedestal and a fifth race title in six years.
Chris Froome won his career fourth maillot jaune in Paris on Sunday which, save for Fabio Aru’s two-day dalliance with yellow, rested only on the shoulders of the Kenyan-born Brit and teammate Geraint Thomas.
The course of the 104th edition was described as “non-traditional”, with fewer summit finishes than previous years. It was thought more varied terrain would serve as a disruptor to recent chapters in which Sky has won largely through the employment of defensive tactics.
The team also recognised a more open field, naming Richie Porte (BMC Racing) as title favourite in the lead-up - itself considered a strategic move - and all nine men piling pressure on him during the race before Porte's crash on Stage 9.
The pretence did nothing to disguise that boss David Brailsford had assembled the strongest team at the Tour. That, if nothing else, would make the difference in the end.
Sure, Sky was challenged by Romain Bardet and his AG2R La Mondiale squad, Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) and BMC prior to Porte’s departure. Froome showed he was fallible in the Pyrenees, although Brailsford hinted a broken spoke during Stage 15, where the leader virtually had to attack to get back on the main group, was a larger threat to Sky’s title defence than the slow show on Peyragudes.
“If he hadn’t made that group by the top of that climb it was mincemeat, basically,” Brailsford said.
The squad was more offensive when it needed to be, having a “good card to play” with Mikel Landa, so strong that suggestions he might mutiny and ride for the yellow jersey himself were entertained. By the third week, Sky had reverted to its proven playbook, an imposing force at the front of the bunch, controlling affairs before the penultimate time trial.
It reignited debate that the team, with its sizeable budget, is in a position effectively to buy its competition: or, at least, the loyalty of riders like Michal Kwiatkowski and Landa who could have vied for their own stage and title success but didn’t.
Brailsford countered that Froome’s winning margin was also in part to the two individual time trials in the Tour, and dismissed buying rivals, saying his team has developed a lot of its roster and then paid market value accordingly.
“I don’t think it’s a question of money, I’ll refute that a lot really,” said Brailsford.
“Factually it’s probably the same as when I was at British Cycling. We were a well-funded programme at British Cycling but it wasn’t the funding alone that made a difference. There is no doubt being in our situation certainly is an advantage, if you use it wisely, but it’s not the single thing.
“This has been the toughest Tour to win and its required a lot more planning, thinking and the team has played a big role in it," he added. "But that’s very much what we came here to try and do. We recognised that was going to be the case and worked very hard for the team as well as the individual performance.
“We’ve got a way of working that we always start with the end, with the demands of the event, and work backwards,” Brailsford continued.
“Once you understand really what you’re trying to do, to aim for and how you might do it, then you can start putting a group of people together with very clear roles and abilities, and you can think about the architecture of the team you require and how you might use that.
“Winning the Tour de France takes a team.”
The question still remains: how do you make riders, who would be winners on any other squad, exclusively commit to one man and bury themselves. Kwiatkowski was the embodiment of that on the Col d'Izoard where he finished his turn and came to a standstill, taking some 13-odd minutes to cover the remaining four kilometres of the stage.
“You can win without winning I think. The way they have all ridden and contributed towards trying to win the race overall, they’ve all played a key role in that and they can take a lot of satisfaction out of that,” Brailsford said.
Sky’s common denominator is its unwavering focus on yellow with one leader at the race, which everyone has been called on to observe. Mark Cavendish claimed three stages at the 2012 Tour, but upon leaving the outfit was critical of the leash it apparently put on him. The Manxman figured he and Froome that year easily could have won more stages without sacrificing Bradley Wiggins’ successful title bid, but were not allowed.
“That single-minded ambition or clarity around a goal is important,” Brailsford said.
“We’ve had a lot of teams over the years and they haven’t always been happy places. There’s been a lot of conflict over the years. I think the key thing is, people talk about team harmony being important and it’s nice but I don’t think it’s necessary.”