Just when you thought stage-racing was set for a period of dynastic dominance from Team Sky, full of tempo riding and high-wattage dullness, we were handed the Criterium du Dauphine.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:38 PM

In one week, cycling has been injected with the élan vital it needed to excite and entertain the way we know it can, less than a month from its grandest spectacle, the Tour de France.

Metronomic riding be damned! The racing this has week has been full of panache, crisis, and unpredictability, turned upside down as soon as it was righted, once, twice, three times; in a way we've not seen for some years.

And while I take no specific delight in the downfall of a Team Sky - a team which has undeniably raised the bar for the sport in its methodical, no-nonsense approach - the tactical upheaval that's occurred recently augurs well for the sport's future.

This meta-shift has been stewing for some time. As far back as the 2012 Criterium du Dauphine, teams have been trying their best to unravel Team Sky's formulaic approach to the mountains - without success. The decimation handed out by Sky on Col du Joux Plane (2012) at the Dauphine was followed shortly after by a carbon-copy performance from the blue and black drones at Planche des Belles Filles, and even as the Tour contenders began to panic that the road was running out, the best laid plans, and the best riders could do seemingly nothing to upend the Sky machine.

Last year, the approach was subtly different. Tinkoff-Saxo, and Movistar worked in concert to break Team Sky through a series of speculative, if novel tactical plays, and were rewarded with partial, although ultimately limited, success. The key days; Stage 9 to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, and Stage 14 to Saint-Amand-Montrond, both exposed cracks in Team Sky's stranglehold on the racing in a way we'd not seen before, but through remarkable resilience, and a Chris Froome head and shoulders above his rivals, their blushes were saved. Froome won the Tour, and Team Sky remained the best stage race team in the world.

As of June, that hegemony appears to be entering its twilight.

Team Sky, certainly at the Criterium du Dauphine, did not have the firepower to parry the attacks that they have had in the past, and it showed.

While two days into the Dauphine the team was able to line things out and deliver Froome to an emphatic win, on-script, it unravelled over the following five stages, steadily, to appear beleaguered, perhaps impotent by race end.

What's changed?

Critically, its rivals are stronger. Contador's new lease of life is creating more and more headaches for Sky, but the Spaniard is just one of several who are matching Froome's usually earth-moving accelerations in the mountains. Andrew Talansky, the overall winner was inconsistent, but has certainly matured, while Vincenzo Nibali was only improving the deeper the race went - he'll be even better come July.

Additionally, none are playing to Team Sky's songbook. Contador speculated on Stage 5 in a way that Team Sky struggled to grapple with, and on the weekend's stages, the team was threadbare as it tried to defend Froome's lead. Mikel Nieve, as good as he was, could not bring every attack back, nor could Richie Porte, or Geraint Thomas.

The break that won the race, a bloated escape group of superstar quality, including Talansky, Tejay van Garderen, Romaine Bardet, Adam Yates, Jurgen van den Broeck and many others was never going to be brought back, not by weary Sky soldiers.

After days of chasing everything, of riding a disciplined tempo up the climb, the day that Froome needed to jump, he could not, and nor could Sky.

Sky was further exposed in its mono-dimensionality. When the race became chaotic, when it needed to be versatile, it had no recourse. Placing Nieve and Porte in the day's break had no value because both riders had lost too much time to still feature. All Sky could do was chase, and hope the riders at the front faltered.

They did not.

Team Sky has two weeks now to pull itself together once more, and galvanise for the Tour de France. But gone this time is the ominous feeling of fear it once inspired in its rivals. Its aura of invincibility shed, its top-dog status in doubt.

When the formula changes, the best adapt. The question now, how will Sky react?