Cycling: Team Sky is three today... and there's no limit to where they can go
Brailsford's team have made changes 'post-Armstrong' but still enter their fourth year confident of building on the glories of an amazing 2012
Tomorrow could and should have been an exceptionally happy anniversary for Team Sky. It is exactly three years since they took part in, and won, their first ever race, the Cancer Council Helpline Classic in Adelaide. Since then Sky have roared to the top of their profession, claiming Britain's first ever Tour de France victory with Bradley Wiggins, taking an equally record-breaking second place overall for Chris Froome and six stages for GB riders in the Tour. On the face of it 2012 was by far theirs, and Britain's, most successful year ever in road-racing. But a dark cloud still looms large over the sport.
Sucking out much of the good feeling surrounding Sky's success was Lance Armstrong's spectacular fall from grace last year, which tonight culminates with a confession to doping in a much-publicised interview with Oprah Winfrey. The Armstrong affair continues to wreak havoc with the sport's already tarnished reputation.
As the spotlight on cycling's doping past intensified last autumn, Sky – who have never accepted riders with past positives in their track record – took the decision to show they were part of the solution and not the problem and remove anybody from the team with a present or past association with banned drugs, and said categorically "we are a clean team and have shown it is possible to win clean".
Coach Bobby Julich and sports director Steve de Jongh, both of whom admitted doping when riders a decade or more before, quit. Canadian Michael Barry, Sky's one rider implicated in the Armstrong scandal from his time with US Postal, had already retired and another former team-mate of Armstrong's, Sky's sports director Sean Yates, decided to call it a day for health reasons. The only replacement so far for what is a depleted-looking management side has been Dan Hunt, a highly successful GB team coach with the Olympic men's team pursuit, who already did some directing for Sky. But more may be to come.
"There's a lot of angry people about," Wiggins – himself an uncompromising anti-doping fighter, although he says he will not watch the Armstrong interview – said recently. "They need that closure in their life because they've been battling for so long for this." As for the upcoming Oprah interview,he described it as "a great day for a lot of people and quite a sad day for the sport in some ways".
He added: "But I think it has been a sad couple of months [for cycling]. The 90s are pretty much a write-off now. We want a team in which riders are free of the risks of doping and in which fans – new and old – can believe without any doubt or hesitation."
Whilst the sport now sits under a huge Armstrong-shaped cloud, Sky are now focusing on a new season, with their first race this Sunday in Australia. But as far back as the final day of last year's Tour, in the rather unglamorous setting of a chain hotel on an industrial estate outside Chartres, team principal Dave Brailsford was already explaining how Sky plan to keep raising the bar.
Brailsford mentioned possible targets as broad and ambitious as "being the best team ever", winning all three Grand Tours in one year, or doing far better in cycling's other top series of events – the spring one-day Classics like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, where Brailsford memorably summed up Sky's 2012 performance as "sh*t".
In the short term, Sky will up the stakes at the Giro, which will be Wiggins' first big target for 2013. But Brailsford's belief that Sky should broaden their victory base to beyond three-week racing is a view echoed by his riders and management – such as Classics contender, 2012 Olympic road-race rider and reigning British national champion Ian Stannard.
"The team is focused a lot more towards performing well there," Stannard said. "We've been looking at the training done in the Tour team, and applied that to the Classics. Last year [the Tour] was so phenomenal for the team, we've learned a heck of a lot, so now we're applying it across the board.
"I'm further ahead in the game than this time 12 months ago. I've improved a lot, ridden two Grand Tours in 2012, which has made a massive difference."
Sky's Classics squad will also be boosted by the return to a full road program for Geraint Thomas, whose first brush with success at Paris-Roubaix, the so-called "Queen of the Classics", came as a junior way back in 2004, while Stannard, who took a wrong turning close to the finish, ended up second behind his future team-mate.
"They had that ambition then for winning and they've still got it now," said Sky's performance director Rod Ellingworth. "There's no reason why they still shouldn't go in there, again thinking they can win it. If you just focus on the Tour and that was it, when you won it then you'd be stuffed, wouldn't you?
"[Winning the Tour] was such a big goal, it created a little bit more belief for everything, rather than before maybe a few people being unsure about us. Now the momentum is just full on, everybody is pushing and pushing all the way."
Stannard spelt it out more starkly: "Every other race [apart from the Tour] has to matter now as well."
Ellingworth feels that as a squad, when the team looks back on its track record further down the line, they need to show success in a variety of races. "We need to have won the Giro, the Tour, the Vuelta," he said. "We've already made a good start, but there are so many races we haven't won yet – Tirreno-Adriatico, the Volta a Catalunya, all the Classics... and we'll just have a damn good crack at that.
"In the Olympics it's the same medals on offer every four years. But all these different races is what's going to challenge us now."
"Even the Giro d'Italia podium would be great, but can you imagine if Bradley won the Giro and then Froomey won the Tour?" said Stannard. "Two British riders in two Grand Tours – that would be quite something." Meanwhile, cycling itself faces a far steeper uphill task to try and regain its credibility – and scandal-free success for a team like Sky will form a key element of that.
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