Blazin' Saddles: Can the Tour de France be saved from Sky suffocation?
After Chris Froome won his third Tour de France at a relative canter – excluding his jog up Mont Ventoux – our cyclo-scribe Felix Lowe asks what the race organisers can do to re-inject some pizzazz into proceedings and put a cap on Team Sky's domination.
Great Britain's Christopher Froome (R), wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey
Before the 103rd edition of the Grand Boucle this same humble column ran a piece about Team Sky entering their strongest Tour de France team ever. It proved as such over the three weeks in July, with eventual winner Chris Froome always supported by a medley of riders in black and blue – whether it was in the mountains or on the flat.
The inevitable comparisons with Lance Armstrong's US Postal have been doing the rounds for quite some time now. Even though these facile and lazy analogies have been largely debunked there still remains the feeling that Team Sky – for all their apparent brilliance and professionalism – have squeezed most of the joy out of the summer's most popular cycling extravaganza.
Try as they might, ASO's attempts at reinvigorating the green jersey competition have fallen flatter than a Dutch time trial on Shrove Tuesday – with Peter Sagan every year winning by an increasing tally of points despite the supposed efforts to put pressure on the world champion superstar.
But can Christian Prudhomme and his cronies at ASO do anything to encourage more unpredictability in the battle for the maillot jaune? Here are a few possible avenues to explore...
Reduce the size of teams
Yellow jersey leader Team Sky rider Chris Froome
Image credit: Reuters
This is the obvious step to take – and something already being considered by Prudhomme, who confirmed both before and after the Tour that a reduction from nine to eight riders is in the pipeline. The question now is whether or not it would make much difference.
Last year, Sky rode the final week without Peter Kennaugh, who withdrew with an injury. He was hardly missed. Two years earlier, during Froome's first victory, Sky lost both Edvald Boasson Hagen and Vasil Kiryienka for most of the second half of the race – but still prevailed against Nairo Quintana's Movistar, themselves down to eight riders.
This year each and every rider in Sky's roster pulled for one goal and one goal alone – and nothing should be taken away from any of their contributions. Wout Poels, for instance, was quite incredible. But take Vasil Kiryienka or Mikel Nieve out of the equation and, sure, their loss would be felt, but hardly in a game-changing way.
What's more, it's not as if such a rule would only apply to Sky. Whether it's nine verses nine, or eight verses eight, Sky's strength in depth would still shine through. Unless teams were reduced to as low as five riders – as they are during the Olympic road race – then Sky would continue to hold all the aces up their soon-to-be-no-longer Rapha sleeves.
In an era where the sport is reportedly cleaner than ever before there are other ways to cut corners and steal a march over your rivals. Sky's famous "marginal gains" have been around long enough to be copied by much of the peloton, but there's no denying that the British team remain the pioneers of this particular field.
There's also the huge matter of team budgets which, more than anything else, unevens the playing field. Is it any surprise, for instance, that a team with a reported budget of €35m can out perform teams such as FDJ or Cannondale-Drapac, who are restricted to just €10m per year. Heck, even Astana's budget of €20m is just over half that of Sky's while Tinkoff's €25m is about two-thirds.
Now, Britain's proposed exit from the European Union would bring about organically what a salary cap may do more explicitly in that it would stop Sky offering huge wages to the best non-British riders in Europe – the likes of Mikel Landa or Wout Poels, who would be genuine GC contenders themselves at any other team.
That said, a salary cap would not be a bad idea at all. Although try saying that to Bora-Argon18 – currently boasting a budget of €3.5m per year and yet about to hit the big time with a sugar daddy owner and, if you believe the rumours, the impending arrival of Peter Sagan.
Ban Chris Froome
A little extreme, this one. And rather hard to enforce. Although the spectators have been doing their part to at least discourage Froome from wanting to ride in France – what with last year's spitting incidents, and this summer's confrontations with over-eager fans.
The truth, however, is that even were Froome somehow banned or hindered from racing the Tour, then Sky – provided they could plan for it – could merely win the race with someone else. Take your pick from Landa, Poels, Nieve, Geraint Thomas, Sergio Henao, even Leopold Konig (remember him?) – if Sky worked up to a Grand Tour with one leader in mind and everyone else pulling for that man, such is their ethos and spirit, they'd probably still come out on top.
Some American Football-style drafting system for young riders could be introduced in the WorldTour – although in cycling drafting is something that can still earn you a fine, or at least some online scrutiny (isn't that right Mark "It was only a p*ss!" Cavendish?).
BAD LANGUAGE WARNING: Mark Cavendish loses it with camerman
Learn something from Velogames
Perhaps ASO can take a leaf out of one of the leading fantasy cycling platforms by introducing some kind of selection criteria that all teams must adhere to. What if each team had to contain two all-rounders, two climbers, one sprinter, three domestiques and a wildcard? How marvellous would that be! Then, instead of teams like Sky putting all their eggs in one basket, they'd be forced to spread themselves a bit thinner across all terrains. Quids in.
A two-in-top-10 rule
If the above is wacky then how about this: a rider in yellow can only stand atop the podium in Paris if he has another team-mate in the top 10 of the race. Just think about that for a moment. It would mean Sky's lieutenants could not do their one-day-on, one-day-off routine. At least one of them would have to be on the boil at all times – much like Thomas was in 2015.
Or perhaps an alternative take on this – the overall winner is decided by the lowest positional tally of a team's top two riders. So should Froome win and Thomas finish 11th, then that resultant 12 points would lose out to Nairo Quintana finishing third and Alejandro sixth (nine points).
Of course, this is utter baloney and would never happen. But back in the day the Tour was often decided on a points system – so there is form, however distant and unlikely.
Yellow jersey leader and overall winner Team Sky rider Chris Froome
Image credit: Reuters
Just as the size of each team in the Olympic road race comes down to some kind of coefficient depending on that nation's prior performances, perhaps the same could be done for the Tour. The numbers of riders per team (up to, say, eight) should depend on performances not just in previous Tours and Grand Tours, but results throughout the season in the major races – be they stage races or one-day races.
That would at least discourage teams from specialising in one race only and push them to perform across all platforms. This regulation could be interpreted individually with riders encouraged to race frequently in the build up to the Tour and not just pick and choose their race days sparingly.
Riders entering the Tour each concede a time penalty based on a complicated algorithm boiling down to how they finished the year before and how dominant they have been in races during the season. In short, Romain Bardet would start with a cushion of around four-minutes on Froome next July – turning the Tour in to some kind of on-going cycling ladder, if you will.
Any more for any more? Share below your thoughts – both serious and otherwise – about how the Tour organisers can end Team Sky's strangle hold on the Grand Boucle.