What is it about Team Sky that rankles so? Why do the come across as mirthless, joyless automatons? Can it be because they actually are? Or is there more to it than that?
Unlike football teams, cycling teams generally lack a definable character and so generally it’s hard to truly love or dislike a team. With that in mind, Sky have really outdone themselves to draw such opprobrium from cycling fans.
Let’s consider football squads. Chelsea FC are just plain annoying and at times excruciatingly smug to anyone who isn’t a supporter, and Real Madrid represent footballing royalty and can be fittingly described as sanctimonious to the nth degree, whereas Bayern Munich are cold, calculating and lacking in any mercy whatsoever.
But Belkin? They stir almost absolutely nothing in me. I can take them or leave them. Lampre-Merida? Their kit makes me feel rather nauseous but other than that, meh. BMC Racing? Gee, kinda cool bikes, dodgy owner, Cadel is a blast, but again, kind of the cycling equivalent of beige.
Unlike football fans, most of us don’t really have ‘our’ team.
You may like the kit of this team or the bikes of that, or be a fan of a particular rider on another but for all intents and purposes not many teams stir a passion, whether it be positive or negative. When a favourite rider leaves one team for another, you follow the rider, not the team per se.
Of course, there are exceptions. Any team that had Lance Armstrong on it is a perfect example. The Americans and many an Anglo loved US Postal and Discovery (well, for a time, until we discovered what was really being delivered by Lance’s postie). The vast majority of the French, however, loathed those teams.
Teams that are put together to incubate home-grown talent are another exception, with the Basque squads such as Euskaltel-Euskadi and the Aussie crew of Orica-GreenEDGE drawing warm support in their respective homelands.
But no single team seems to get folk irked in the manner that Sky do.
They’d probably say they don’t need the support of the fans in any case, knowing them, but their riders could certainly do with a cheer and a hug or two after what has been a pretty dismal early season campaign.
Chris Froome took the scalp at the Tour of Oman, which was a nice start, then Ian Stannard cracked the peloton to win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, then cracked his vertebrae at Gent-Wevelgem, depriving them of their leader for most of the Classics.
Wiggins and Geraint Thomas performed admirably at Paris-Roubaix but, as ever in this sport, or any sport, winning is king.
On the weekend they had a terrible Liege-Bastogne-Liege, with just one single rider finishing the race that he and five of his teammates started. Nathan Earle put up a good show to finish and come in in 70th, but for a high profile team like Sky, the past few weeks have been just not good enough.
“When you actually analyse and look at all of the illnesses and crashes we’ve had this year,” said Dave Brailsford in Liege, “we’ve had proportionally more than you’d expect to have and when you look at the last couple of years, we’ve had proportionally less than you’d expect to have. It’s like we’ve saved them all up and had them at once.”
Interestingly, the team changed the training schedules of some riders ahead of the Classics campaign, meaning several skipped altitude training.
“We feel we didn’t get the training that wrong last year, but we refined a few things,” Tim Kerrison, Sky’s head coach, said this winter.
“Training at 2000 metres is not required for the classics. Some of the guys for the classics team didn’t thrive in that environment. For some of the bigger classics guys, that mountainous environment just doesn’t suit them. We also wanted to get them more race days before the classics.”
Maybe those blueprints need looking at again. It’s not quite been stellar for Sky so far. Of course, a win in the Tour de France for Froome would in many senses turn the season completely around, though Alberto Contador might be standing in his way this year.
Still, whatever Sky do on the road they have sweet little chance of altering many a cycling fan’s perception of them. Dour, joyless, irritable, narky, and I’m only talking about Sir Bradley here, never mind the rest of the team.
Strolling around the team area at the start of the Tour of Flanders recently, I was taken aback by the sheer volume of supporters hanging around outside the buses of Boonen, Peter Sagan and Cancellara, all putting up huge cheers when their heroes emerged.
The Sky bus, in contrast, looked like the gathering point for a very small Paul Weller fanclub. Pehaps 20 to 25 Rapha-clad English guys stood around, almost all sporting a Mod-inspired barnet. Deafening cheers definitely did not ring in the ears of the Sky lads when they finally emerged.
You do reap what you sow. Never a truer word uttered. And this is what Sky have been asking for, in a sense. Many just cannot love or admire them, thought they may (some, anyway), respect what they have achieved.
Early season 2010, several teams let it be known that they were less than enamored with Sky’s tactics in the Tour of Oman, where then-leader Boasson Hagen was attacked en masse after stopping for a pee with 55km to race on Stage 4. It was a sneaky move but many were pissed off after Sky had been lining out the peloton in the wind and through feed zones earlier in the day.
Internal squabbling hasn’t helped them either, with Froome and Wiggo famously fighting at the Tour of 2012. Then we had also the prickly Mark Cavendish, a love or hate figure if ever there was one. On top of that of course there was the Gert Leinders mess, the Tiernan-Locke business and now the Michael Barry mularky. Barry, in case you missed it, has just confessed to taking the legal drug Tramadol through to the end of his career.
It’s not just that so few can like them, it’s really that so many truly dislike them, and almost as many distrust them. That can’t be a very nice feeling, no matter how focused you are.
Do they care? No, almost certainly not. They are businessmen, and they get the job done (sometimes). But would it kill them to crack a smile from time to time? Maybe ditch the sarcasm and the irony for a moment in post-race interviews? Even have a laugh at themselves? Be more transparent?
No, they’d definitely still be breathing, and it wouldn’t cost them a penny. Well, maybe the transparency would, but til they sort themselves out they’ll continue to be a dark force, in many a mind.