Having successfully rewritten the paradigm for winning the Tour de France, the only way Sky Procycling can be beat is to beat them at their own game – but it won’t be pretty, writes Anthony Tan.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:38 PM

Even before the syllabus of TdF #101 (that being the 101st edition of La Grande Boucle, not next semester at Cyclisme Université) was announced yesterday at the Palais des Congrès de Paris, the words of a recent winner who almost certainly won't be there next July have been hovering in the ether that constitutes my mostly unused grey matter.

"The Tour's changing every year. It's getting a bit different," Cadel Evans, before the start of the twentieth and penultimate stage of this year's Tour de France, told Cycling Central in Annecy.

"Obviously overall, the big picture, Sky have set a protocol – I don't think there's anything new about it. But the thing that they've really changed is that they're doing that with not one rider or two riders but with ten riders preparing for the Tour, and preparing specifically for this race from January or whatever. Which is nothing new, but doing it with the whole team, they can change the way the Tour's raced, and for the last two years it's obviously been successful. Whether that trickles down into other teams and changes the direction of the Tour in the next few years, I don't know."

Now, just for a minute or two, let's go back three years to the 2010 Tour – Team Sky's maiden voyage en France.

Most pundits are of the belief that Sky tried to reinvent the wheel and thus failed miserably as a result. However, like Garmin-Sharp team manager Jonathan Vaughters told me that year, I don't believe that to be the case; in Bradley Wiggins, I think they went in with a guy completely unsuited to the parcours offered – unlike 2009 or in 2012, which suited him to a tee.

"Brad is a very unique person. And last year was a very unique Tour," Vaughters told me in Pau on the second rest day of the 2010 race, when Alberto Contador was (apparently) munching on a contaminated entrecôte de boeuf. "Last year, the GC was formed a lot on the team time trial, your Pyrenean climbs up to Arcalis, Verbier, and the time trial in Annecy. And the only really hard mountain day that had multiple climbs was the stage Frank Schleck won (to the Col de Romme).

"This Tour's different; we've already had four stages that are just as hard as the Col de Romme day. So for me, Brad can perform great in a Tour on a parcours like last year. And if you sort of go to the more old-fashioned Tour, where there's two 60km time trials and a team time trial too, then I think you would see Brad performing really well."

I asked Vaughters: 'Do you feel that (team principal) Dave Brailsford is struggling a little? I mean, everything in track cycling is so much more controllable, and he's trying to bring some of those elements into the Tour de France…'

"Yeah, but a lot of those ideas are really great. The X-factor in track cycling is two per cent; the X-factor in road cycling or at least this stuff is at 25 per cent. And I think this is just something he (Brailsford) already knows at this point in time. There just has to be greater flexibility because there is a greater X-factor, and… I think a lot of stuff they're doing is actually really good. I don't see any outstanding mistake they've made with Brad… It's just a tough course and he has had a lot of pressure and I don't know it necessarily came from them – it's expectation that he put on himself, it's expectation that the media place on him."

'But is Brad Wiggins the right guy to keep pounding away at this?'

"Like I said," Vaughters replied, "there will be a Tour course in the next two or three years that will suit Brad Wiggins and he'll do a great Tour again. I don't have any doubt about that."

Sure enough, two years later, along came a parcours tailor made for Wiggins: 101.4 kilometres of individual time trials, four medium mountain stages, and only one really tough high mountain stage, to Peyragudes. And along came a team that, as Evans said, mostly rode with him from the first pre-season training camp through to Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie, Crit̩rium du Dauphin̩ Рand, victoriously, all the way to Paris.

Not only that, but Brailsford, armed with MBA-honed business nous and bucketloads of cash, bought the best riders and support staff in the biz, and in doing so, reduced the 'X-factor' to single digits – something Vaughters previously thought impossible.

And now, in 28-year-old Christopher Froome, they boast a rider who, as Wiggins admitted this year, is a far more Grand Tour natural than he, and could conceivably win cycling's blue-riband prize for another five years.

There is zero romanticism associated with Sky's modus operandi – not that they care about romanticism or panache. Breakaways are for fools; waste of time, waste of energy. Attacks should be limited to the final kilometres of medium or major mountain stages. Own the time trials. Control the race. Control, control, control. It's all about control, and calculated risk-taking. Nothing more. Nothing less.

In this day, in this age, this is how you win the Tour de France. Budget-wise, Astana, BMC and Katusha are probably the only other teams on par and could replicate its model – but as Evans suggested, do these teams have ten men prepared to sacrifice everything from day one, like Sky's men do?

Come next July, I suspect they will plan to take yellow a little later than this year, to avoid situations like the ninth stage to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, and be more watchful in the winds, to mitigate against offensives like Saxo-Tinkoff's en route to Saint-Amand-Montrond, where Froome conceded a minute. Still, none of the aforementioned ambushes seriously cost Froome, nor were they able to be successfully replicated.

For Nairo Quintana, Vincenzo Nibali, Tejay van Garderen, Joaquim Rodríguez, Alberto Contador et al, outside of misfortune, I'm convinced that the only way to beat Sky is to be like Sky.

That is, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. But, like Froome's ungainly pedalling stroke that Garmin DS Charly Wegelius this year described as "a crime against cycling", it won't be pretty.