It seemed too simple from the outside. Target a bike race with a gifted general classification rider — Chris Froome or Richie Porte, in the case of this spring — go to that bike race, and win. Bang, bang.
There was the Giro d’Italia mishap, the pink dream that crashed back to earth with Bradley Wiggins’ topples and illness, but other than that, the stage racing for Sky this spring has been crisp and, per the Sky philosophy, just to plan.
Chris Froome’s 2013 has been impeccable: He won the Tour of Oman, Critérium International, Tour de Romandie, and the Critérium du Dauphiné. He won five stages in the process, although one came at Tirreno-Adriatico, a race he lost to Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
To boot, Froome’s super domestique Richie Porte won Paris-Nice, and finished second at Critérium International, Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), and the Dauphiné.
It’s reading a bit like last season, in which Sky’s Bradley Wiggins — Sir Wiggins, now — swept through the spring and won the yellow jersey without any real threat, other than Froome’s brief accelerations in the mountains.
But don’t bet on the gaps between Sky and everyone else this spring to hold true come Tour time.
“Remember what Sky has done all year is to schedule … their sort of top GC riders to coincide with one another after lengthy altitude training camps. And be able to just sort of knock off Paris-Nice, Romandie, and Dauphiné. A little bit like they did last year,” Garmin-Sharp CEO Jonathan Vaughters said.
“The other teams out there, ourselves included, because we have a sort of very deep team, and I like to develop riders and allow them their own ambitions … we’ve scheduled it more diversely. Meaning, for instance, Sky won the Dauphiné, and they were crap at Tour de Suisse. Because they scheduled all their best riders for Dauphiné, whereas we scheduled our riders on a more even basis,” Vaughters added.
Garmin-Sharp, for example, sent GC man Andrew Talansky to Paris-Nice to have a crack, and the rest of its roster there was mostly training for the classics. Sky has taken a more methodical approach to early season tune-ups, treating them like mini Tour de France’s in themselves, keeping consistent lineups and tactics. Nearly every rider who rode the Dauphine alongside Froome will be with him in France, for example.
“I don’t think that they’ll be as dominant, because a lot of the teams that have spread themselves a little bit thinner — for instance, we put a big focus on Liège-Bastogne- Liège, Sky did not,” Vaughters said. “So, we’re able to sort of coalesce our best guys and they coalesce their best guys and I think that the gap closes considerably.
“Listen, I still think Sky is the strongest team in the Tour, absolutely. But I think the difference that people will see in our team and Sky, and even a team like Movistar, or Saxo Bank, and Sky, I think those differences will be considerably smaller than they have been at the other races.”
That’s good for the sport’s fans, if it holds true. What last year’s Tour had in impressive control by one team it lacked in intrigue. A mountainous parcours for the 100th edition of the Tour, combined with the return of Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) to July should see a contested race until Paris.
“They could still end up being the best team. I think we’ll give them a run for their money,” Vaughters said. “I think Movistar will give them a run for their money. I think Saxo Bank will be stronger than people are anticipating.”
There is that one thing that every rider, and ever team will need come Saturday. And it’s not coached, nor is it paid for.
“If we want to be in the game at all, we need absolutely impeccable luck. We don’t have the firepower to have things go wrong. We need impeccable, perfect luck,” Vaughters said. “Like the Giro last year. We won, but we had everything go perfect. In order for our team to win with the riders we have, that’s what we need to do.”