Sky’s announcement on Wednesday that they would cease their investment in cycling initially came as something of a shock.
Earlier in the year, the team had signed several riders, including Geraint Thomas and the prodigious Colombians Iván Sosa and Egan Bernal, to long-term contracts, a move which seemed to indicate the broadcaster was committed to the team for the foreseeable future.
Bernal’s five-year deal, in particular, was striking – such is the financial instability in the professional peloton that contracts rarely run longer than two or three years, even for the big names.
Now, Sky are washing their hands of a team that has been weighed down almost incessantly by controversy. Inhalers, jiffy bags, “marginal gains”, horrendously dull in-race strategies, Bradley Wiggins just generally being a bit of a gobshite – all contributed to making Team Sky the villains of the piece.
But that’s a role that will be noticeable by its absence when they depart the scene. For all their perceived faults, Team Sky have been the perfect lightning-rods for the hatred of most non-British (and many British) cycling fans and media. That just adds something fun to the whole thing. Team Sky are a spectacle wherever they go, even if it’s only because of the litres of piss constantly being showered over their riders.
Particularly during the Tour de France, the abuse and hostility is omnipresent. The question now is: who will everyone hate when they’re gone? Dave Brailsford says he’s open to keeping the team alive under different sponsorship, which is a common occurrence in cycling, so maybe therein lies the answer.
Much of the ire directed at Sky was due to the unpopularity of Brailsford himself. The title sponsors certainly didn’t set out with the aim of becoming the most despised team in the peloton, but rightly or wrongly that’s what they are, and whatever Brailsford’s accomplishments it’s hard to avoid feeling – again, rightly or wrongly – that a lot of the blame for that can be laid at his door.
In sport, you don’t have to have actually done anything wrong to be hated. But it doesn’t help your case when a UK government select committee undertakes an inquiry that drew “the damning conclusion that Team Sky cynically abused the anti-doping system to allow the administration of performance-enhancing drugs.”
All of which goes to suggest the cycling team in its current guise is a pretty toxic product for Sky, one with which their brand people may no longer wish to be associated. The negative stories and coverage, even in the UK media, have long since outweighed the positive ones.
And so, as out-of-the-blue as Tuesday’s announcement may have been, it probably shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Sky are no mugs: they can’t have helped but noticed the widespread disdain towards the team whose jerseys bear their name. Martha Kelner wrote all the way back in March that the select committee’s report could be a “death-knell” for Team Sky.
Perhaps, then, it’s more of a surprise that Brailsford et al managed to keep their sponsor on board for so long in the first place.