When the news broke this week of Team Sky’s principal sponsor leaving the sport at the end of the 2019 season, well, I had to say I was surprised. After all, Team Sky has been a major force in professional cycling for the last decade and has dominated the Tour de France like no other team in recent memory. Famous for their enormous salaries and supporting their leaders with a team of domestiques who – on any other team – would be star riders in their own right, the team demonstrated what could be done when you spend big on talent, and what heights you can hit when money doesn’t seem to be an issue.
Except now money is an issue for the team.
Heading into a season not knowing whether the team will be there the next year is something that doesn’t happen all that much in other sports, but it is part and parcel of racing bikes professionally. BMC, for example, spent a year not knowing whether they would survive (spoiler: they folded) and Tinkoff went from winning Grand Tours in 2014 and 2015 to folding completely at the end of the 2016 season. Such is life in a sport where three-year contracts are long term, and a sponsor who signs on for five years is rolled gold.
So where to now for Sky, and for the Sky riders?
The team, it seems, is already on the look out for a new sponsor. Finding one willing to drop the sort of coin that Team Sky has been accustomed to from the eponymous media group, though, is going to be tough. Listening to Jonathan Vaughters on the CyclingTips Podcast this morning, there seems to be a lot of doubt that this sort of money is going to be available for a cycling team moving forward. Vaughters noted that there are only a handful of $50 million sponsorship deals in all of professional sport, let alone in a second-tier sport like cycling. The majority of money in other sports, he explained, comes from sharing in media and broadcasting rights deals, and these deals just don’t exist in the world of professional cycling.
Hence, while there’s a chance that a deep-pocketed billionaire will step up and pick up Team Sky as we know it, that’s probably the least likely outcome. More likely would be a lower budget for the existing team (with all of the changes that would come from this new reality) or the folding of the team entirely.
It’s the latter possibility that has me most interested, and here’s why: think of the talent that would flood the market!
A selection from the 29 riders on the roster:
- Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, with 7 Grand Tour victories between them
- Michał Kwiatkowski, ex-World Champion, Monument winner, and Super Domestique
- Sebastián Henao, Egan Bernal, and Iván Ramiro Sosa – solid Colombian climbers, and Bernal a likely future GT champion
- Wout Poels, another Monument winner and all-round incredible bike rider
- Vasil Kiryienka, time trial specialist and a former World Champion against the clock
- Ian Stannard, classics hardman, two wins in the Oomloop and a podium in Roubaix
Just imagine what you could do with these guys!
By 2020 Froome might have another Tour de France victory in his back pocket (as much as I won’t enjoy watching that…) and be looking for a record sixth yellow jersey. He’d be 35 by then and perhaps past his prime, but you’d be unwise to count him out if that sixth golden fleece is on offer and he has a team to support him chasing it.
You could also build a Grand Tour team around Thomas, and Kwiatkowski could be a leader, too, whether in the one-week stage races or stepping up to the big time in Italy or France. You could build a nice classics case for Poels or Standard, though the latter might be a little old to pull something magical out of the bag in 2020, and investing in Egan Bernal would be a smart move, especially if you could convince him to stay on board for a few years as Greenedge has done with the Yates brothers.
It might not be good news for the riders, or at least the riders bank accounts. It’s unlikely that anyone will have the cash on hand to meet the current salary demands of the Sky riders as well as funding the rest of the team that has been hired already.
Yet there may also be some additional money flowing into the sport that could make things interesting. Perhaps CCC will find the additional cash to bring Kwiatkowski ‘home’ to Poland? Or maybe someone will find a way to build a Colombian version of Team Sky around Bernal, Henao, Sosa, and a few others to be lured from other squads – Chaves, perhaps, could be one? I remember the Cafe de Colombia team of the 1980s and Luis Herrera taking top spot in the Vuelta so it’s not entirely out of the range of possibilities.
In the end the era of Team Sky will draw to a close and we’ll be able to look back on ten years that changed modern cycling. We’ll say goodbye to a team that utterly dominated the Tour de France, a team that raised a classics squad that would be consistently competitive, won two world championships against the clock, and a team with just under 150 world Tour level victories.
And we’ll say hello to what might be a just-as-interesting era of professional cycling ahead.