• Team Sky: A force now, and likely, in the future. (Tim de Waele/Getty Images)Source: Tim de Waele/Getty Images
To think that the man behind Team Sky's success was going to leave quietly would be a gross underestimation of his character and what the team means to him, writes Anthony Tan.
Cycling Central
16 Jan 2019 - 3:24 PM 

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then in the short history of the WorldTour, no other team has been flattered quite like Team Sky.

They may not be the most popular team, but then again they never set out to be. From the outset, their objective was to win the Tour de France with a British rider within five years. No other WorldTour outfit before them had been so bold or blatant, and right from the get-go, it rubbed certain members of the cycling fraternity in a way reminiscent of the good old bad old days when Lance et al. was making a nuisance of themselves.

The team's successes in Grand Tours and particularly that race around France have arisen due to the performance-oriented culture Brailsford instills, cultivates - and demands - from all involved.

Many laughed off their braggadocio. Yes, they were going to be moneyed beyond belief, but their principal came from a track cycling pedigree - what would he know about managing a team at a race like the Tour, let alone a winning one?

Plenty, it turns out.

To win the Tour twice in that five year period with two different British riders, then as of last year four times more, as well as the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a España, it can't all be down to money and luck that comes with it. He got lucky with Chris Froome, you say... Well, no-one other than British Cycling coach Rod Ellingworth (as of January 2013, Team Sky's performance manager) was much interested in him when he was at Barloworld in 2008-09, and it was Brailsford and his men who turned Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas from Tour hopefuls to Tour champions.

Yes, the team's not been controversy-free. The hiring of former Rabobank doctor Geert Leinders; despite having a zero-tolerance anti-doping policy, the appointment of Bobby Julich, Steven de Jongh and Sean Yates. All bar the latter left as a result of a chequered past; Yates, a former team-mate and close friend of Armstrong in his days at Motorola, cited personal reasons for his departure.

There was also previous, and seemingly liberal, use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs), ostensibly for pre-existing medical conditions, highlighted by the hacking of the World Anti-Doping Agency's ADAMS database by a group known as 'Fancy Bears'. A month later, in October 2016, UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) opened an investigation into Team Sky and British Cycling in what is now known as the 'jiffy bag scandal', where a package - the contents of which will never be confirmed - was hand-delivered to then team doctor Richard Freeman during the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné, bound for Wiggins. In November 2017, the UKAD announced they had closed their investigation and no charges would be laid, saying it was impossible to determine the contents of the package. However the damage was done: the obfuscation by Freeman and Brailsford was cringeworthy and their misstatements exposed.

In March 2018, the British House of Commons' Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee said in its report, Combatting doping in sport, that Team Sky had "crossed an ethical line" by using medical drugs to "enhance the performance of riders" and that Brailsford must "take responsibility for these failures" and the subsequent "damaging scepticism about the legitimacy of his team's performance and accomplishments."

Before we judge them, it is important to reiterate that no charges have been laid against any Team Sky rider involved, nor Brailsford for that matter, and the assertion that "an ethical line" had been crossed is a subjective one. Freeman, meanwhile, is due to face a UK medical tribunal in February after being charged with ordering 30 sachets of banned substance Testogel for an (as yet unnamed) athlete in 2011.

Overwhelmingly, the team's successes in Grand Tours and particularly that race around France have arisen due to the performance-oriented culture Brailsford instills, cultivates - and demands - from all involved. By all accounts it is a highly regimented, militaristic structure that is the antithesis of, say, EF Education First, where good times involve riding up and down an active volcano at a predetermined power output for days on end when you're not racing, to eke out every last watt when you are. Their dedication to being the best Grand Tour team in the world is not dissimilar to the Deceuninck-Quickstep team's single-minded approach to the Spring Classics: the unrelenting pursuit of success in their chosen milieux have made them the behemoths they are.

"I see it as one of the most professional cycling teams in the world," Wout Poels, one of Froome's right hand men and someone the Kenyan-born Brit has become particularly close to since joining the team in 2015, said in a recent interview with CyclingTips, "where they try and make everything the best for the riders. They create an environment where you only have to train and think about riding your bike. The rest they take care of. I only have to think about how I train, how I race, and I how I deliver a job."

Case in point: Poels, who rode for Quick Step prior to joining the team, says when he goes to a race from his home in Monaco (where else?), the team arranges a taxi to pick him up then bring him home again. "Sky makes the small details work well," he said. "Sky is also what makes the rest of cycling more professional."

In professional team sports, there is always a dominant team or teams. Be it Manchester United in the English Premier League or the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA or Major League Baseball's New York Yankees - or, like Team Sky and Deceuninck-Quickstep - they share a common vision and a mentality where second will not suffice. Among die-hard aficionados, perhaps that's what grates most about Brailsford & co., because in a sport buried in tales of history and romanticism, they care little to nothing for it.

Just when you thought you'd see the back of them, with their principal sponsor deciding this year would be their last and scribes prematurely writing their obituary, along comes news that, if proven correct, will see Team Sky progress beyond season 2019, albeit under a different guise. If there's one thing people should know about Brailsford, it's that he doesn't give up, or in, easily.

If the core group of Froome, Thomas, Poels, Michal Kwiatkowski, Luke Rowe and Colombian Egan Bernal, arguably the most exciting Grand Tour prospect of his generation, is safeguarded, as is their reported £36 million budget - that's $64M in our money - there's no reason why their spate of success should not continue, at least as far as the Tour de France is concerned.

It's unromantic. It's unorthodox. As far as Froome's pedalling goes, it's ungainly. And for certain fans, it's uncomfortable, undesirable, and unwelcome.

But it works.