Tour de France: Will Manxman take Sky road to reach new heights?
Cavendish's hunting tripincreases speculation over a change of team after a Tour of British successes
If Mark Cavendish's three-year hunt for the green jersey came to a glorious conclusion yesterday and made him the first British rider on the Tour podium in 27 years, overall the Tour 2011 also represented a huge step forwards for UK cycling. And that was without knowing what Bradley Wiggins could have got up to, either.
Spearheading it all, though, is a 26-year-old former Lloyds Bank clerk from the Isle of Man: Cavendish's 20 stage wins unquestionably make him one of the Tour greats, regardless of nationality, if only because it is so rare for sprinters to dominate for so long, so consistently.
From 2008 through to 2011, without exception, "Cav" has been the fastman to beat, even if, with the exception of 2009, the other Tours have seen a tricky start for the Manxman. But once the stages started to roll in, they have not stopped – with, this year, one in Châteauroux, where Cavendish took his first ever Tour victory, completing a historical circle with identical gestures as he crossed the line.
If Cavendish's ongoing success will remain the pinnacle of cycling achievements for Great Britain in the Tour at an individual level, then Sky have without a doubt made huge inroads for the country collectively.
In no particular order, this year has produced a third place in the team time trial, two stage wins for Edvald Boasson Hagen, spells in the white jersey of Best Young Rider for Geraint Thomas and Rigoberto Uran, a superb mountain attack on Luz Ardiden for Thomas, top 10 sprint places for Thomas and Ben Swift, and numerous breakaways in general.
All this put Sky on the map. Most importantly of all, though, was how the team reacted to Bradley Wiggins' early abandon after he crashed out with a broken collarbone.
This decapitated the squad's overall ambitions at a stroke but left the squad open to explore their own individual chances. And the results could not have been more positive.
"There's a huge amount of potential [for Sky and Great Britain]. It's a term that's overused but it's genuinely there," Chris Boardman – three times a prologue winner of the Tour in the Nineties and for many years Britain's only representative in the race – told The Independent.
"Take Geraint [Thomas], for example, he really has discovered the full scale of what he can do in the Tour. On Thursday's Alpine stage, for example, the way he was climbing on the Galibier even though he was assisting another team-mate [Uran, defending his Best Young Rider lead] was brilliant.
"He's got a complete set of talents" – time trialling, sprinting and climbing – "and he's shown in this race that the potential is there for him to climb with the best."
Nor does Boardman think that we have seen the end to Cavendish's achievements with his clinching – finally – the green jersey this year.
"Cavendish, in any case, is just incredible, the best rider we've ever produced. To be that consistent is quite amazing.
"I say 'produced', though Cavendish is really a self-made man. We did a lot of work with him but he's done it mostly himself." Although Cavendish, if asked, would almost certainly give a huge amount of the credit for his success to his current team, HTC-Highroad.
But for all Boardman is deeply impressed with Britain's achievements, he in fact feels that it could have been more – with Wiggins.
"Sky, too, have been a proper Tour squad, they've been in every move and they had a genuine overall contender with Bradley. It's 'could've, would've' territory, but we'd have been looking at the podium at least.
"On the final climb to the Galibier, he would have been the strongest time trialist in the [chasing] group [behind winner, Andy Schleck]. Maybe that would have worked. But two stage wins, active for the entire race – it's amazing."
The next step for Sky, perhaps, would be the widely expected signing of Mark Cavendish for the team next year, but Boardman – who works in research and development with British Cycling – was cautious about it happening, saying: "It's not a done deal."
"I'm not in a position to know, so I'm guessing as much as anybody, but from conversations I've had, it's absolutely not been decided yet."
Boardman points to practical problems as one reason for the Cavendish deal not being certain, given that "if he wants to go to Sky, he would have to take at least one rider with him [from HTC-Highroad]", "at least [wingman Mark] Renshaw and maybe Bernie Eisel". Quite apart from both of them – Renshaw and Eisel – still being under contract with their current squad, according to Boardman "that could change the structure of the team" – and, more importantly, risk diluting its aims.
"I'm struggling to think of a squad that has successfully gone for the overall" – with Wiggins, and perhaps others – "and at the same time gone for sprints."
Boardman is perhaps right to be doubtful: the last team to do so successfully in fact was the German squad, Telekom, back in the mid-Nineties when they won green with Erik Zabel and yellow with Bjarne Riis, then again with Jan Ullrich and Zabel in 1997. There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then.
"It is possible to do. [But] HTC have been successful because they've limited their aims. And for Sky to take Cav on his own – I'm not so sure that's a good idea."
In any case, regardless of the future, while Cavendish has finally captured what could well have been his in 2009 and 2010, Sky have to be treated as a major player.
And as Boardman points out, this is the culmination of a process that goes back to when Sky was first conceived – by the team principal, Dave Brailsford, and his right-hand man, Shane Sutton, before the Olympic Games of 2008.
"The phrase that has really stuck with Sky is 'coming of age'," says Boardman, "and it's what it is; after months and years of looking around and studying and making mistakes, suddenly it looks like Sky have been there for a long time."
Andy Schleck. His long-distance attack to the Galibier provided a memorable throwback to cycling's golden age.
Most courageous rider
France's unfancied Thomas Voeckler and his Europcar squad for riding out of their skins to defend his lead then winning on Alpe D'Huez, to boot.
.. .two bad
Five hours to travel 60km (28 miles) off the Alpe D'Huez, four off Luz Ardiden and four to get up the Plateau de Beille all in the small hours of the morning, plus 5,000 kilometres of driving in just three weeks: reporting on golf has never seemed so appealing.
They wrecked too many contenders' chances (Wiggins, Vinokourov, Contador) and Flecha and Hoogerland's close encounter with a TV car was, above all, absolutely unnecessary.
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