The Team Sky story: Triumph and turbulence across era of dominance

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Chris Froome a passé le flambeau à Geraint Thomas.

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ByTom Adams
12/12/2018 at 09:44 | Updated 12/12/2018 at 12:39

The cycling world was hit with the monumental news on Wednesday that Sky will withdraw its support for the most successful team in the sport at the end of the 2019 season.

Dave Brailsford and his staff will hope to secure new funding for the 2020 campaign but given Sky were helping to bankroll the biggest budget in cycling, to the tune of around £35m in 2017, it may prove hard to replace.

[RELATED: Sky to end involvement with cycling at the end of 2019 season]

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When Sky do walk away from Brailsford’s set-up it will certainly be the end of an era – one which reshaped cycling, wrought unprecedented dominance for a British team, and generated no little controversy along the way.

Here is the story of Team Sky…

2008-09 – The first steps

Bradley Wiggins of Great Britain and Team Sky+HD in action during training for the UCI Cycling World Cup

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Sky was searching for a sport where it could invest in sponsorship and have a big impact and the initial steps of a partnership which would redesign cycling began in 2008 when they struck a £1m-a-year deal with British Cycling.

Following the success of the Beijing Olympics, where Team GB won eight golds, four silvers and two bronze on the track, Sky were convinced to commit an initial €15m on a professional team with the intention of delivering a British Grand Tour winner inside five years.

“The aim is to win the Tour de France with a clean British rider,” said Brailsford in February 2009.

2010 – The beginning

Stage 2 Bradley Wiggins (Gbr) Pink Jersey

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Team Sky made its racing debut in January 2010 at the Cancer Council Helpline Classic in Australia, with Greg Henderson claiming victory. Objectives were being ticked off the list: a first ProTour event at the Tour Down Under; a first one-day victory through Juan Antonio Flecha.

In May, Team Sky became a Grand Tour presence when Bradley Wiggins claimed the prologue of the Giro. But success in the Tour was more elusive as Wiggins came 24th. A young Geraint Thomas showed promise though as he wore the white jersey for four days.

2011 – Vuelta podiums

It was another difficult Tour as Wiggins broke his collarbone and had to withdraw, but Team Sky were back for a successful Vuelta where Chris Froome finished second in GC and Wiggins came third. At the end of 2011 it was confirmed that sprinter Mark Cavendish would be joining the team.

2012 – Wiggins claims Tour glory

Bradley Wiggins (Gbr) Yellow Jersey Celebration

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Sky’s target of claiming the Tour was realised in a glorious 2012 campaign. After winning Paris-Nice in March and the Tour de Romandie in April, Wiggins entered the Tour in excellent form and ended Britain’s wait for a Tour de France champion. Froome was second in GC while Cavendish claimed three stages in his second and final year in Team Sky colours.

However, there were rumblings off the road as Team Sky had to announce that doctor Geert Leinders would no longer work for the team following allegations of links to doping during his time at Rabobank. As part of Sky's zero tolerance policy on drugs they asked all members of staff to sign a declaration stating they had never had any involvement in doping. A number of employees subsequently departed.

2013 – A new king

Tour de France 2013 winner Britain's Christopher Froome poses on the podium

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The year began with a flurry of victories but Grand Tour ambitions were initially thwarted when Wiggins’ tilt at the Giro was ended by illness. However, Sky were top of the Tour podium once again as Froome secured his debut victory in the world’s most famous race.

2014 – A rainbow peers through the gloom

Froome was back to defend his yellow jersey but disaster struck on a chaotic stage four as a heavy crash forced him to abandon. Mikel Nieve was Sky’s highest finisher in 18th place. However, Froome bounced back with second place in the Vuelta behind Alberto Contador – and Wiggins ended the season on a high as he claimed the rainbow jersey when winning the time trial at the World Championships.

2015 – Froome in yellow again

Chris Froome on the podium at the 2015 Tour de France

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Wiggins retired from the team in April to leave the path clear for Froome to embark on one of cycling’s most dominant eras, starting with his second Tour de France victory. It was not without incident as a spectator threw urine on Froome – presumably in response to Sky’s unpopular dominance.

2016 – Froome’s hat-trick, and Fancy Bears

Wout Poels delivered a first monument victory in Liege-Bastogne-Liege before Froome continued his dominance in the Tour de France – memorably having to run up Mount Ventoux on stage 12 in search of a new bike following a crash. Froome was also in contention in the Vuelta but had to settle for second place.

Chris Froome RUNS up Mont Ventoux after late crash


Sky had to contend with some difficult headlines in September when the Fancy Bears hackers published confidential data from the World Anti-Doping Agency which showed the use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions by Froome and Wiggins, amongst others.

In October, UK Anti-Doping started investigating Team Sky and British Cycling over suggestions that Simon Cope had delivered a package containing a medical substance to Sky during the 2011 Criterium, a race won by Wiggins. This became known as the ‘jiffy bag’ controversy. In December, while giving evidence to MPs during an inquiry into doping in sport, Brailsford claimed that the package contained legal decongestant Fluimucil – although reports suggested that the substance in question was alleged to have been steroid triamcinolone. Sky’s Dr Richard Freeman did not appear in front of MPs on health grounds.

2017 – New horizons, the Sky almost falls in

Sir Dave Brailsford has said "mistakes were made" by Team Sky

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Discontent around Brailsford’s handling of the jiffy bag controversy led to speculation that Team Sky riders wanted a change in the top management, although this was defused when riders such as Thomas took to social media to express their support for the under-fire supremo. A new front opened up when it was revealed that anti-doping investigators had found evidence that testosterone patches were delivered to Dr Freeman at British Cycling and Team Sky’s HQ. It was claimed that the package was delivered in error.

Meanwhile, Michal Kwiatkowski delivered a second monument in the form of Milan-San Remo and Sky looked well place to win their first Giro with joint-leaders Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa leading the charge. However, a brutal crash on Stage 9 wiped out most of Team Sky. Thomas raced on for one more stage but had to abandon.

Froome came into play in the Tour and won his fourth title overall despite failing to claim a stage win. He then extended his form into the Vuelta, which he won for the first time despite struggling on Stage 17 to Los Machucos. Froome was the first British rider to win the Vuelta and the first to claim a Tour-Vuelta double since the Spanish Grand Tour was moved to the end of the calendar.

In November, UKAD announced it would be winding down an investigation into the jiffy bag affair without bringing any charges as it would be “impossible” to determine what was in the package without the relevant records.

However, in December the news was leaked that Froome had returned an adverse analytical finding during the Vuelta as he had been found to have twice the legal limit of salbutamol in his urine following Stage 18. Froome was not suspended but Sky were asked to explain the finding in a new controversy which would rumble on for months.

2018 – Thomas’s time, a damning report

Tom Dumoulin, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome, Tour de France

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In March, a report from the digital, culture, media and sport select committee contained the devastating conclusion that Team Sky abused the anti-doping system to assist Wiggins in winning the 2012 Tour de France.

“From the evidence that has been received by the committee, we believe that this powerful corticosteroid [triamcinolone] was being used to prepare Bradley Wiggins, and possibly other riders supporting him, for the Tour de France,” the report said.

The purpose of this was not to treat medical need, but to improve his power-to-weight ratio ahead of the race. The application for the TUE for the triamcinolone for Bradley Wiggins, ahead of the 2012 Tour de France, also meant that he benefited from the performance-enhancing properties of this drug during the race. This does not constitute a violation of the World Anti-Doping Agency code, but it does cross the ethical line that David Brailsford says he himself drew for Team Sky. In this case, and contrary to the testimony of David Brailsford in front of the committee, we believe that drugs were being used by Team Sky, within the Wada rules, to enhance the performance of riders, and not just to treat medical need.

Sky’s explanation of the jiffy bag story was also described as “implausible, to say the least” in a damning report. Brailsford was personally criticised for a lack of sufficient medical records being retained: “David Brailsford must take responsibility for these failures, the regime under which Team Sky riders trained and competed and the damaging scepticism about the legitimacy of his team’s performance and accomplishments.”

Despite the firestorm, and with Froome still having a potential suspension hanging over him following his test result at the Vuelta, Sky battled on in the Giro with Froome catapulting himself to an astonishing GC victory with one of the most incredible stage rides in cycling history on Stage 19, as he attacked with 80km to go to overturn a three-minute deficit.

After avoiding any suspension over his Vuelta incident, Froome wanted to follow up with a fifth Tour de France but instead it was time for Thomas to shine as he became the third British Tour de France champion – a positive story for Team Sky to tell after another turbulent year.


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