First off, I’ll admit this was originally going to be a piece called ‘How to beat Team Sky’, where I would have belittled the opposition of the British superteam for being unable to defeat Richie Porte at Paris-Nice and at Tirreno-Adriatico given Chris Froome’s seemingly inevitable victory. Luckily, Nibali, Sagan, Rodriguez and co turned up and blitzed Sky, isolated Froome, and basically wrote the article for me, although I did have some more to say on how Sky had perfected what US Postal were always mythologized as doing, and one particular weakness that can be exploited, so it can wait for now.
But Sky’s dominance shows another interesting feature of the ‘Sky age’ of cycling they have brought about with their seeming complete disregard for cycling tradition. When Porte won France’s third biggest stage race, they were quickly boasting of ‘Team Sky’s second successive Paris-Nice’. Thus, the emphasis was that the team, not an individual rider, was predominant. Now, this was arguably disrespectful to Porte in a way – they didn’t say Bradley Wiggins’ win was ‘Team Sky’s first Paris-Nice’ – it was very much Wiggins’. But of course the fact Wiggins wasn’t there to defend his title meant that Sky were back to take the title with a different rider. But this brings up an interesting conundrum – is it better to repeat a victory, ie defend a title, or to go and tick off another race for your palmares?
Sky and Wiggins seem to currently be in the second stream of thought regarding this. Wiggins has won Paris-Nice, so he apparently reckoned he needn’t go back. Similarly, he claims he has ‘won the Tour’ and so is now targeting the Giro, with a seeming argument that it is the diversity rather than the quantity of what you win that makes you great. This is certainly what then coach Sean Yates claimed when he said that winning the Giro and eventually the Vuelta would make Wiggins one of the ‘all time greats’. But is this really the case?
History suggests not. The men who are remembered as the legends of the sport are the ones who have won big races multiple times – the Merckx’s, Anquetils, Coppis, Hinaults, Armstrongs. It is of course hard enough to win one Grand Tour, but to come back and defend it, with all the added pressure and expectation the first title brings? That has traditionally been the mark of a great winner. This extends to the Classics – Tom Boonen is Mr Paris-Roubaix because he has won it 4 times. Of course, there is a problem here though – the men who win big races multiple times tend to win a diverse variety as well. Merckx won all 5 monuments as well for instance, and Bernard Hinault got so pissed off with people telling him his career wasn’t complete without Paris-Roubaix, a race he called ‘bullshit’, that he turned up once, won it, and vowed never to return (he did, having been persuaded he had to as defending champion the following year).
So would Wiggins really fit into a Pantheon of legends if he won, say, one edition of each Grand Tour by the the end of his career? This seems reasonable, given at 32, he’s at a plateau if not on the beginning of the traditional descent of a cyclist’s career path. Felice Gimondi is the least well known of the Treble club, with 1 Tour, 3 Giri and 1 Vuelta to his credit, so Wiggins achievement would not be as impressive as this. Perhaps if Wiggins could do what he’s suggested this year, as in a Grand Tour Double, then he would be better placed to be seen as a legend – Only 7 men have done the Giro/Tour double, and none since 1998, which has led to it being recently perceived as impossible. Only Basso and Contador have seriously attempted it since Pantani, so Wiggins would gain more by trying this then simply collecting different wins.
After all, if you ask whose classic palmares you’d prefer between Tom Boonen, on 4 Paris-Roubaixs and 3 Flanders compared to Fabian Cancellara, with 2 Roubaix, 1 Flanders and Milan-San Remo, you’d want Boonen – even though he hasn’t and knows he wont win all 5 Monuments as Cancellara keeps alluding is his plan, the quantity is the impressive figure as it shows a) that it wasn’t a fluke the first time and b) a degree of domination, making the race your own. Most would only want Cancellara’s plamares if it included all 5, and this is the problem for Wiggins – he has to get the complete set, even if, as he too has alluded, he goes for Paris-Roubaix in the futures, it won’t be seen in the same light as say Stephen Roche winning the Giro, Tour and World’s in one year.
This is perhaps the reason behind Team Sky’s new ‘franchise’ approach, where by the team is the winner, rather than the individual. It seems the plan is to create a Team Dynasty, rather than an individual one, of being dominant in Stage Racing. Sky want the record books not to read, say, Armstrong 1999-2005, but Team Sky 2012-2020 – who the individual is is arguably irrelevant, as long as the team wins. Cycling has always been a team sport of course, but the individual has always taken precedent, and it will be interesting to see if Sky continue with riders taking individual wins of a race before moving on whilst the team gleans the ‘quantity’. If so, it will be another stab in the back for tradtion, and worse, another excuse to blame Sky for taking the human face and emotion out of cycling, and replacing it with a dull, branded logo.