The Sky is Not the Limit – the other British riders in the pro peloton

Team Sky (or Sky Procycling as they were until the start of this season) have undoubtedly changed the way that cycling is perceived in this country. Although they were set up from the start as an internationally rostered team – albeit with a very clear aim of initially achieving success in the Tour de France for a British rider – they were often described as a de facto British national road team. The overlapping managerial & coaching staff from the national track squad adds fuel to this conflation, especially for the legions of new cycling fans that the team’s success has turned onto the sport. It was also inevitable that many of the existing and upcoming British riders would find a home at Sky where the people, program and language were most familiar. But what of those British riders who choose not to ‘Take to the Sky’ with Brailsford and Co? Are they getting a fair share of cycle fan’s support when faced with the media-attention black hole that the Tour-winning team creates wherever it goes?

When the actual British national road racing team helped Mark Cavendish win his rainbow jersey in Valkenberg in 2011 he was part of an eight man team. Only two of those (Cavendish and road captain David Millar) were not Sky riders at the time but Cav would be part of the set-up within weeks of his victory and Millar would surely have been a Sky-guy from the start had his own personal history not prevented it. It looked then, in the off season between 2011 and 2012, that the British contingent at Sky would grow and grow as they branched out from their long term planning for a British rider to win the Tour and started planning total British domination across all aspects of the road calendar.

Too Sky, Sky? Hush Hush, not Eye to Eye

There are currently eight British riders on Team Sky’s roster (excluding the suspended Jonathan Tiernan-Locke); the same number as in the year of the team’s formation in 2010.  The 2012 season following Valkenberg was the high-water mark with ten Brits ‘riding the blue line’. Remaining steady at around a third of the thirty rider limit, the British rider contingent has therefore always functioned as a core group rather than a majority. Other nominally national teams such as Orica GreenEdge and Katusha have a good deal more than half of their riders drawn from their home nations and they are also much more overt in talking about themselves as ‘national cycling projects’. The French will be the next ones to create a national set-up, even though Europcar and are almost entirely made up of Frenchmen already. The Italians, Belgians, Dutch and Spanish also have a much richer historical affinity with road racing than the Brits and, with far greater numbers of talented riders to draw upon, all have at least one team with around 80% home riders. This may not be be too surprising but the lack of an overall majority of British riders in Team Sky would certainly surprise many casual fans.

In fact there are almost an equal number of British riders on other World Tour teams this year. Seven men ride for five other world tour teams. Some have never ridden for Sky whilst others have moved on from the comfort of its hallowed black bus to find their niche elsewhere. We start our look at them in order of least well known first.

Andy Fenn –  Omega Pharma Quick Step.

Andrew-Fenn-2014I have to admit that this was a completely new name to me and I made the instant assumption that he was a neo-pro whom I had somehow missed in his final junior year. This turns out to be partially true – I did miss him in the juniors but I also missed his last two World Tour seasons with OPQS.  The 23 year old, who lives in Kent near where I do most of my cycling, was a product of the GB Cycling Academy but to date has been almost anonymous in the peloton. This maybe the clearest case of the Sky phenomenon dominating the headlines – particularly so in Fenn’s debut year in 2012, when he enjoyed back to back victories in the Trofeo Palma de Mallorca and the Trofeo Migjorn in the early season. Third places in Junior Paris Roubaix 2008 and the U23 2011 World Championships point to a potential talent that has not yet been repeated at the highest level. He missed the time cut on Stage 10 of the Vuelta last year, which was his first Grand Tour. Apologies Andy, we will be following you a lot more closely from now on.

Adam Yates – Orica GreenEdge

Adam-Yates-2014.pngAdam (and his twin brother Simon – see below) had a solidly impressive 2013 season, particularly in the Tour de L’Avenir where he finished second on GC, which brought about various offers from the World Tour teams. It was widely assumed that both brothers would join Team Sky, following the path of the previous years ToB winner Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, and equally widely seen as a surprise when they elected to join the Australian Orica GreenEdge team instead. The brothers had said they were keen to be on the same team if possible and this did not appear to be workable as only Simon was offered a contract with Sky. Adam also made his feelings about what he thought would happen if he did join Sky apparent saying, “If I went to Sky I’d end up working on the front like a slave and I’m not a big fan of that.”

Simon Yates – Orica GreenEdge

Simon-Yates-2014.pngSimon enjoyed the higher profile of the two brothers in 2013, winning the summit finish on Haytor in the Tour Britain and standing alongside overall winner Sir Bradley Wiggins on the final podium in 3rd place. Allied with 2 stage wins in the Tour De L’Avenir a couple of weeks earlier and a high level of consistency throughout, this had cemented his position as the most promising British rider joining the pro ranks in 2014 and Wiggins spoke highly of him after his ToB showing whilst lamenting the fact that that it would not be with Sky.

Whilst the preference to be on a team with his brother was a factor, there was also some discussion about the twins possibly wanting to develop away from the media spotlight that Sky engender. As we will see with some of the other riders, Sky’s particular way of doing things has not always been the right fit for some riders and one gets the feeling that this choice was made for human as well as professional reasons.

Steve Cummings – BMC Racing Team

Stephen-Cummings-2014Cummings, a thirty year old alumni of both the GB Academy and Olympic track squad, was the first Briton to leave Sky Procycling, just a few days after the heroics of Valkenberg in 2011. Whilst the contemporary headlines quite understandably focussed on whether world champ Cavendish would be joining the men in black, Cummings quietly slipped away to join what was, at the time, the biggest team on the planet. BMC had just won the Tour with Cadel Evans, they had the three previous world champions on their books and looked well set to carry most of the fight to Sky in 2012. Cummings  himself cited being able to work with his old Academy mentor Max Sciandri at BMC as a motivation for the move, along with the promise from owner Jim Ochowicz that he would be able to target personal goals as well as providing support to the big names. One feels that this notion of sharing the wins was not at the forefront at Brailsford & Ellingworth’s still single-minded thinking at that moment and the slightly older Cummings perhaps saw time running out for himself.

He got his rewards too. winning stages in the Vuelta and the Tour of Beijing in 2012 (beating a Sky rider into third place on both occasions) whilst providing solid support to Evans in the Tour de France. He has started 2014 in good form, coming second overall behind his BMC teamate Taylor Phinney, in the Tour of Dubai.

Alex Dowsett – Movistar Team

Alex-Dowsett-2014.pngLike Cummings, 3-time National Time Trial champion Dowsett, had two seasons with Sky before moving onto another top tier team. He enjoys a much higher media profile than the riders discussed so far thanks to his results but also in part to his good looks and outgoing, media-friendly personality. News of his departure after the festival of cycling success that was 2012 made most of the mainstream press as well as the cycling specific outlets. Movistar seemed like an odd choice at the time as the team were coming under significant fire for not outwardly appearing to condone doping by hiring riders who had served bans but who remained unrepentant. The cloud of Operacion Puerto trial still loomed large on the Iberian Peninsula and some viewed his move to a Spanish team as crossing an invisible line of acceptance. It must be said that Dowsett did not help himself by making a comment supporting Lance Armstrong in the days before his move though he quickly clarified his comments to separate his support for Armstrong’s charity work with a  condemnation of his doping.

In his book, ‘Project Rainbow’, former Academy coach Rod Ellingworth, who became a key Sky Pro-cycling performance coach when the team was formed, alludes to Dowsett not enjoying the Academy regime, saying he ‘suffered later on’ with the immersive nature of the program. He did not appear to leave the team with any bad-blood (not a perfect phrase when discussing a haemophiliac on a pro-cycling site I know) but simply stated that he wanted the opportunity to ride Grand Tours, which he was not getting at Sky. He enjoyed success in doing so by claiming the ITT win at the Giro in 2013 before his season seemed to stall with illness affecting his racing in the Tour of Britain and the World Championships. We will have to wait to see if 2014 can be a return to form.

David Millar – Garmin Sharp

David-Millar-2014.pngThe David Millar story is one of the most intriguing in modern cycling. The second most ‘famous’ of the non-Sky riders he is one of the last of cycling’s ‘old guard’. Originally signed by the legendary Cyrille Guimard, Millar has walked both sides of the doping line and is one of the very few to have been both tainted and redeemed. Assisted by his eloquence and his refusal to hide from his wrongdoing, the disgraced former World Time Trial champion has, more than any other rider that comes to mind, done his growing up very much in the public eye and, despite still appearing very boy-like, has become the English-speaking part of the peloton’s father figure. Now riding in his final season he has scaled the heights of being leader in all three Grand Tours, won a rainbow jersey and an Olympic medal but all his achievements are measured against his admission in 2004 of using EPO in 2001 and 2003, for which he was banned for two years.

Team Sky’s Dave Brailsford was dining with Millar in a restaurant in Biarritz when French police arrested him and they have been very close throughout the rider’s long career. Millar’s sister, Fran, is Head of Business Operations at Team Sky – though her LinkedIn page now describes her as ‘Head of Winning Behaviours’ (!) – and it is pretty clear that, despite his part-ownership of his current Garmin-Sharp team – Millar would have almost certainly been a Team Sky rider had their Zero-Tolerance policy on ex-dopers not explicitly prevented it. Brailsford & Ellingworth showed their faith in Millar as road captain for the national squad in Valkenberg following his return from suspension.

It’s worth considering that Millar’s maverick status would have been diluted by his acceptance into Team Sky and that his unique position as a ‘man apart’, which has characterised him throughout the years, would have been sgnificantly lessened within the confines of the Sky media machine. Recently a cycling consultant on the upcoming Lance Armstrong feature film, and with a documentary movie of his own in the pipeline, Millar seems set to continue to speak loudly and intelligently about the issues facing cycling long after he hangs up his cleats. UCI President one day? Lets’ just enjoy his final season for now but don’t bet against it.

Mark Cavendish – Omega Pharma QuickStep

Mark-Cavendish-2014Ask any random member of the British public to name two professional cyclists and the chances are you will hear the names Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish. 2013 Tour de France winner Chris Froome comes in a distant third in the minds of the nation, with The Manx Missile having more than double the amount of Twitter followers (777,000 to 294,000) for example. Cav’s dominance of the sprint in the years leading up to when the yellow jersey became a realistic British target and his World Championship win in 2011 set the foundations for the re-acceptance of road cycling in the hearts and minds of the nation. His leftfield win at Sports Personality of the Year the same year re-set the agenda in terms of the profile that road cycling was to enjoy in 2012 and beyond, and although Cav’s achievements had been made in the jerseys of HTC High Road and British Cycling, by the time he collected the award he was a Sky rider, rainbow jersey and all. The future looked a rosy hue of black and blue.

So what went wrong? Well, rather like the story of George Best, who, when lounging on a hotel room bed surrounded by countless banknotes and a Miss World, was reputedly asked where it had all gone wrong, the truth is it didn’t ‘Go Wrong’ at all. He won three stages at the Giro and three at the Tour de France, including his fourth straight victory on the Champs Elysees and took 15 wins overall. He also won his first stage race overall. He missed out on the points jersey at the Giro by a single point and was thwarted in the Olympic Road Race by a lack of international co-operation. But the defining image of his season, indeed the defining image of Cav in a Sky jersey, was not the Champs Elysees photo finish but the one of him laden down with bottles, acting as water carrier to Wiggins and the mountain goats. His status was in danger of being relegated to that of a support act in the minds of the public and  he decided that he needed to move on to somewhere where he had more team support in terms of lead-out trains. Five wins and the points jersey in the 2013 Giro at new home OPQS seemed to justify the move but his Tour de France was derailed by the emergence of Marcel Kittel. It is likely that, when faced with the German Giant, he would have fared even less well had he remained with Sky and , whilst painful for fans of British cycling, it was undoubtedly the right move for both camps. Sky had quite enough leadership issues to deal with in the run-up to 2013 and Cav will certainly feel that he made the right decision.

Had he been an out and out Classics rider it might have worked, but the overlapping interests of Yellow Jersey, Stage Wins and Green Jersey at the Tour was always going to be a step too far – even for a super team like Sky. It was something that looked great on paper (and read even better in print) but which didn’t work out in the real world. Like Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca though, ‘We will always have Paris’. Paris 2012 anyway.

My way or the Sky-way?

So there we have it. The eight riders making it at the top level outside of Team Sky. Each has a story to tell – some are yet to be told – and each deserves the acknowledgement and support of their home nation. Team Sky and their UK pay-TV sponsor British Sky Broadcasting appear to be very happy being supported in a manner much more like a football or rugby team than a traditional collection of cyclists. The change of name shows this very clearly. “We are Team Sky” is the very audible, very marketable, mantra. “The team’s goals are bigger than any one of our riders’ goals” is the silent sub-text, which was pragmatically evidenced at the end of Cav’s short stint with them. Cycling however, is a sport for individuals (albeit with the need for team support) and we should feel free to celebrate the achievements of any of them whether they ride for British, American, Australian or Belgian teams without the fear of personal conflict. The Team Sky roadshow is large, successful and enormously diverting but let’s not forget the other guys who choose a different ‘sheltering sky’.

The Jersey Pocket will look at the Continental Teams who have significant numbers of British riders in a separate future feature.

This article was written with the valuable assistance of the database. A great resource, they are around 99 people off hitting 10,000 followers on Twitter. Help them over the line @procyclingstats

9 thoughts on “The Sky is Not the Limit – the other British riders in the pro peloton

  1. Really good post that, nice one.

    I thought it was great when Dowsett won a stage (time-trial) at the Giro last year – quite a bold move to go and ride for Movistar so it was nice to see him pull that off.

    • Thanks Pete. I felt it was time to celebrate the other riders and thought that Cummings and Dowsett were the key in that. It’s great that the Yates brothers have found World Tour spots this year and I was genuinely shocked to find Andy Fenn. I’m a big supporter of Team Sky but I do want our cycling scene to be a broad church that isn’t wholly reliant on one team for its success.

  2. Fenn’s had two decent results on the WT already this season and there was a smattering of top-10s last season, he’s allegedly a sprinter but has the potential to be a very good Classics rider as he’s not in the Cav/Kittel sprinter mould.

    Dowsett’s definitely the one to have most vindicated the move away from Sky so far. He moved to get into the Grand Tours and then won his specialist stage beating Wiggins in the Giro. Can’t do much better than that!

    • I think we will become less surprised by British riders being in other teams and hopefully revert to a less ‘all eggs in Sky’s basket’ way of looking at things. Enjoyed your Roubaix write-up.

      • It’s what we were used to before Sky appeared (Wegelius at Liquigas, Cav at T-Mobile, Wiggins at Cofidis, Millar Saunier-Duval) but Sky seemed to make a beeline for all the out of contract Brit riders and this is what we’re used to now!

        Haha thanks, it was a bit of an omnishambles but in a way that’s what has made it unforgettable.

  3. Great article! I remember the days when I only had Sean Yates at Seven Eleven and Robert Millar at Z to follow. British cycling has certainly moved on!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s