The Sky Paradox: Why can’t Team Sky win a TTT?

Team Sky have what, if we are to judge from the Olympics, two of the three best time triallists in the world in Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. British Cycling, the over arching structure behind Team Sky and its British contingent, is famous for its much over used ‘marginal gains’ mantra that has introduced the world to such concepts as limiting team pursuit changes as they lose 0.1 seconds, beaded seams to help airflow and helmets shaped specifically to individual riders head and with the tails chopped off to help aerodynamics. But for all these technological marvels and success on the track in the Olympics and Worlds, when it comes to a team time trial, Team Sky have yet to triumph in the discipline that should suit them best in their three year history (except that it is the Tour of Qatar 2010, but  hey, for artistic purposes, they haven’t won one). How, given the event is essentially an extension of the Team Pursuit, something Britain are fantastically successful in, is this so?

British Cycling and Team Sky are linked, no matter how much they would probably like to make people think they were separate to an extent. A study was even conducted to prove there was no conflict of interest, but the reality is that in a situation where the riders are effectively shared by two teams whom are operated by the same man and trained by the same coaches (assuming they are the British contingent of course) is that the two teams are connected. It makes sense that they share techniques and equipment, and it is oft noted that Team Sky’s handlebar’s appear to be very similar in design to those used by Great Britain on the track. Thus, the losses cannot be blamed on the fact that Team Sky and British Cycling aren’t homogenous to some extent. So what then?

It is interesting to note that Team Sky’s first Grand Tour time trial, stage 4 of the 2010 Giro d’Italia, is also their best result in a team time trial to date (and just to confirm, they haven’t won a TTT outside the Grand Tours, eg Qatar or Brixia either). the 32.5km test from Savigliano to Cuneo was run off in mixed conditions, with the skies opening on Sky (…) and various other teams, giving a mixture of dry and sopping conditions. Sky set the fastest time with help from Bradley Wiggins before Liquigas beat their time by 13 seconds, after having held the fastest intermediate split. Sky could perhaps argue, if their Tour 2012 argument is upheld, that this was their first year, and they needed three years to build the team they wanted. Their line up was not particularly Time Trial heavy either – aside from Wiggins, the rest of the team didn’t look much of a TT super team – Michael Barry, Dario Cioni, Greg Henderson and Steve Cummings were the four who finished with Wiggins as the first five, with Chris Sutton, Matthew Hayman and Morris Possoni being dropped off, but most surprisingly given his future efforts,  Chris Froome losing two minutes to his team mates. Yet this is Sky’s best result!

2010 Giro, Savigliano-Cuneo (32.5km) – 2nd at 13th seconds.

By the Vuelta of the same year, the team, depressed at their rather underwhelming Tour after their own hype, finished 14th, 28 seconds down on a course on 13km long through Sevilla. Whilst their was British success with Mark Cavendish taking the red Jersey as HTC-Columbia taking the win, losing over a second over a kilometre was very un-Sky like, and it wasn’t exactly like their team was weak – future Olympic team pursuit winner Peter Kennaugh, team pursuit team member Ben Swift, Juan-Antonio Flecha, Simon Gerrans, Ian Stannard, John-Lee Augustyn, Kjell Carstrom and Thomas Lokvist made a team that would still have been expected to compete for the top placings. Instead, Sky’s Vuelta started poorly and later got worse – they pulled out when Txema Gonzalez, team carer, died of an infection after being taken ill suddenly. And so the team time trial debacle rolled on for Sky.

2010 Vuelta, Sevilla (13km), 14th at 28 seconds.

They returned to Italy in 2011, with Turin the battle ground, and with a near identical team (Russell Downing and Davide Apollonio in place of Hayman and Sutton). Again, whilst the 19.3km route around Turnin saw British success, it was again for Mark Cavendish, who this time finished with the winning HTC team that put Marco Pinotti, the Italian Time Trial Champion, into the pink jersey, a fitting statement given the route was celebrating 150 years of Italian Unification. Sky lost even more then they had in the previous Vuelta – 37 seconds, good enough only for ninth. The only saving grace was that Euskatel hadn’t beaten them, as they had at the Vuelta. Surely though, at the big event, the one Sky said they would win within 5 years, the team would finally be able to deliver?

2011 Giro, Turin (19.3km), 9th at 37 seconds.

The 2011 Tour brought back the Team Time Trial that had been missing for a couple of years, in Les Essarts, but in contrast to previous tests, the race would be just 23 kilometres. This was to prevent the time hemorrhages over the past that teams had managed to give away in the good ol’ days when such events where 50-60km in length. It’s maybe worth looking at this as a reason for the failure of Sky to win a TTT. Are the courses too short for them to succeed? After all, the longer the race, the more time those ‘marginal gains’ have to make themselves known. Certainly Sky did best in the longest time trial they’ve done, that first test in Italy, but if we’re grouping Sky with British Cycling, then surely the shorter sprint-endurance events are their forte? Prologue’s and team pursuits have all been won by messrs Wiggins, Thomas and Cavendish, but not when extended into the team event. In other words, there seems to be little excuse in blaming the length of the course, although the new craze for short opening Team Time Trials does produce much closer racing.

2011 Tour, Les Esscarts (23km), 3rd at 4 seconds.

Les Essarts though, was to be Sky’s revenge for the dismal 2010 showing – Dave Brailsford himself had even promised that the team would be assembled just for this stage. Over the winter, the team signed some impressive additions to their time trialling arsenal – Michael Rodgers, triple World Champion, being the key component. Unfortunately, Rodgers was ill practically the entire year. This left Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas and Edvald Boassen Hagen to provide the engine room, with Ben Swift, Flecha and Gerrans returning with the addition of Wiggins’ mountain support, Christian Knees, Rigoberto Uran and Xavier Zandio. Here, Sky’s strategy must be looked at. Team Time Trials are no longer about getting to the line with all your riders in the fastest time – teams took note that the time would be taken on the 5th man, and saw new tactics emerged. Sky have consistently burnt off four men to end with the minimum required five men, and it has never worked for them, although it seems to for other teams. However, when you watch, Sky’s burn off men are always being dropped off the back, rather then from the front, as other teams do. In other words, Sky drop riders whom they never use, whilst other teams use the men effectively. At the Tour, Sky got rid of Knees and Zanido quickly, and so finished 3rd, 4 seconds back on the winners, Garmin. A good result, but still not great for the team who are always favourites.

That Tour became infamous for Sky once Wiggins crashed out, and so he returned to lead a Vuelta squad of  Kurt-Asle Arverson, Dario Cioni, Morris Possoni, Xavier Zandio, Thomas Lokvist, Ian Stannard and of course the then little known Chris Froome. It was here in the short 13.5km around Benidorm that Sky lost the Vuelta and confirmed that they had found a sticking point in the team time trial – somehow, the team contrived to drop its 5th man, Zanido, and had to wait for him following a crash, before starting going again. Aside from highlighting the problem of the ‘drop down to 5 men’ strategy, it mean Sky came 20th out of 22, 42 second behind winners Leopard Trek, who had, in clearly happier times between the two parties, put Jacob Fugslang into Red. Whilst many claim that Sky lost the Vuelta because of the time lost to Geox on the stage, they actually gained i t- albeit 1 second- over the Geox team who finished one place behind them in the rankings. Instead, Sky lost because they didn’t communicate properly – and if only they hadn’t had tosit up, Chris Froome would currently be racing as defending champion, and  the team would have gone off last late last night, knowing everyone else’s times…it’s the little things that make big differences.

2011 Vuelta, Benidorm (13.5km), 20th at 42 seconds

2012 didn’t get much better. Armed with Mark Cavendish at the Giro, who was notoriously driven to win TTT’s at HTC as he could give something back to the team, the squad again could only manage 9th on the 33.2km Verona circuit, losing 30 seconds and showing that length wasn’t the key factor. At least it was better then Benidorm though.

2012 Giro, Verona (33.2km), 9th at 30 seconds

In Pamplona last night though, Sky were surely favourites. Not only would they want to make up for the Benidorm disaster, but they had Olympic time trial Bronze winner Chris Froome leading the team, and he had brought Richie Porte, Danny Pate, Ben Swift and Juan-Antonio Flecha to fire the team’s engine. Coupled up with Olympic silver Medalist Uran, Henao, Zanido and Ian Stannard, the team certainly had the fire power. And yet again, they could finish only 5th, losing 12 seconds in 16.5km. So what’s the matter?

2012 Vuelta, Pamplona, 16.5km, 5th at 12 seconds.

Sky’s management certainly have to take a share of the blame. Looking back, Sky and GB have a history of time trial disasters, which is novel given the countries long history of the discipline. Take the Rotterdam prologue nightmare, where the team tried to second guess the weather and ended up sending Bradley Wiggins out in a storm, only for his rivals to get the dry weather, or his habitual chain dropping that has cost World Championship medals. The tactics are certainly worth inspecting as well – 5 men at the finish may be all you need, but have they really been used effectively? However, are we simply expecting too much of Sky? Their dominance has created an aura that they should be winning, but frankly, they have never fielded the strongest time trial squad available to them, although you can be certain when they will…

For this year, their is a World Team Time Trial championship. OPQS have bought specifically for it, but Sky will still be favourites. After all, after so many favourites, they seem destined to get it all right this year, especially with how this year has been going. They have the equipment, the know how, and the ammunition. Wiggins, Thomas, Froome, Rodgers, Porte, Boassen Hagen, Dowsett, Kennaugh, Siustou, Cavendish – expect to see them in Rainbows late September!

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