Best Men’s Team: Sky
Team Sky has set the bar so high that the French complaint of a “peloton at two speeds” from a decade ago could once again be dusted off. The big difference, of course, is that Team Sky promises its dominance comes through obsessive attention to detail, sophisticated training programs based on computer modeling, and a heavy dose of old-fashioned hard work — not the drug-fueled differences made in the early 2000s at the height of the EPO era.
There is a sense of exasperation and envy, however, among some of the top riders and teams when they look at Sky. The British squad has recalibrated what a professional cycling squad looks like, and how it races. It is cycling’s version of “Moneyball.”
With Sky, gone are the gut feelings and hail-Mary attacks. Everything is calculated, modeled using computers, and hard-wired into the minds and power meters of the athletes.
Detractors accuse Sky of boring tactics — of racing without panache. Nothing is left to chance. Under the tutelage of team boss Dave Brailsford, riders are screened both physically and psychologically before being asked to join the team. Training programs, under the guidance of head coach Tim Kerrison, are based on sophisticated computer modeling scenarios that plot power numbers a rider would need to hit to win up such iconic climbs as Mont Ventoux and l’Alpe d’Huez.
Of course, to Sky fans and staff, finishing off a stage with a huge effort like in this year’s Tour is anything but boring. To them, it’s a perfect expression of how to win, and win clean.
There is no doubt that other teams are desperately trying to catch up. Some squads are doing it by poaching some of their talent — case in point, the move of Rigoberto Urán to Omega Pharma-Quick Step — or by picking up some of their former coaches, such as ex-pro Bobby Julich, who moved to BMC Racing. Astana is matching Sky in the war of the pocketbook, and is banking that big riders such as Vincenzo Nibali can challenge Sky in future Tours de France.
Brailsford and Kerrison are loath to disclose power numbers of top riders such as Tour winner Chris Froome because, for them, it’s like giving away their trade secrets. That opens up the entire team to criticism — and skepticism. But, to them, it would be akin to revealing the Coca-Cola formula to Pepsi.
Still, they won’t be resting on their laurels. You can bet Brailsford and Kerrison will be crunching the numbers again this winter.
Support Rider of the Year: Richie Porte
Without Richie Porte, there’s a good chance Chris Froome cracks miserably the second time up l’Alpe d’Huez at the Tour de France, and bleeds time to Nairo Quintana. Without Porte, there’s really no telling what happens to Froome in July.
Froome’s talent is immense, no question, but so is Porte’s, and his support was essential to Froome’s successes this year.
Porte’s huge work is most easily summed up over those terrible kilometers of the Alpe. In the final six kilometers of the second ascent — after officials closed feeding from the team cars — Froome lifted his right hand for help. Sky’s team car had broken down, and he’d missed a late-race feed. Froome needed sugar, and he needed it immediately. A bonk would have been devastating.
Porte dropped back, took gels from the team car, and gave them to his suffering captain. They both received 20-second time penalties and 200 Swiss-franc fines for the late race feed. But if Froome had gone into a deficit, he would have lost minutes to Quintana (Movistar) instead of the 1:06 he parted with.
It was a small price to pay, really. Froome followed Porte’s wheel to the finish line, and they even managed to put time into second overall Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff).
“I was low on sugars and Richie saved me,” Froome said. “Richie’s a really great guy; he put all of his ambitions aside in this race to keep the jersey on my shoulders.”
Froome is correct. If Porte had his own team, it’s completely logical to think that he would have stood on the Tour podium. After all, he won Paris-Nice this season, and also placed second at Critérium International, the Tour of the Basque Country, and the Critérium du Dauphiné. Froome won both the Dauphiné and Critérium Internationale. There didn’t seem to be a more valuable rider to his captain all season.
Froome would agree. Porte’s strength was on display for all to see across France this July, as he shepherded Froome through the mountains and hauled back flurries of attacks from Contador and others in the Alps as teams began to, as Froome said, “get desperate.”
On the race’s first summit finish, at Ax-3-Domaines on stage 8, it was Porte, not Froome, who shredded every GC contender before springing Froome loose for the stage win and the maillot jaune; even after all the work he’d put in, Porte crossed the line second, 51 seconds back, ahead of the best climbers in the sport.
Of particular note was Porte’s performance on the Col de Manse, the infamous mountain that effectively ended Joseba Beloki’s career in a terrifying high-side crash, and vaulted Lance Armstrong even further into the stars, as he rode through a grass field. It was this mountain that also summed up Porte’s performance at the 100th Tour de France.
Porte was dropped more than once as riders sparked off the front, attacking Froome. But the Australian clawed back, after shutting down what Froome estimated to be 10 attacks. Porte was close to his leader on the descent when Contador crashed and sent Froome scurrying to the side of the road. Porte was there, and ushered Froome back to the lead GC pack, which included Quintana and others.
“You can’t credit Richie any more,” said Sky’s performance director, Rod Ellingworth. “His commitment to Chris is absolutely fantastic, considering that he, I’m sure, could podium here himself.”
Froome said much the same thing. “He’s the second-best GC rider in this race, it’s just that he had to set aside his ambitions and that cost him in the overall,” he said. “With his [overall] win in Paris-Nice and several other times this year, he showed that he’s one of the best riders. If he had a chance to ride [the Tour for himself], he would be on the podium.”
Perhaps Porte will be, soon. However in 2013, he was, without question, the sport’s most valuable teammate.