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The Sky’s the limit?

You have to give Team Sky credit for having lofty aims. Led by David Brailsford, the mastermind behind British cycling’s unprecendeted success at the Beijing Olympics, the team aims to achieve the following three-point plan:

  • Create the first British winner of the Tour de France within five years
  • Inspire people of all ages and abilities to get on their bikes, through the team’s positive profile, attitude and success
  • Add further support to competitive cycling in Great Britain

The team, one of two high profile new entrants onto the road race scene for 2010 – Lance Armstrong‘s Team Radio Shack being the other – has today announced its first six riders, all of whom are British.

The line-up includes Geraint Thomas, an Olympic gold medallist in the team pursuit; Chris Froome, Thomas’s Barloworld teammate and a fellow veteran of the Tour de France; Russell Downing, winner of last month’s Tour of Ireland; Ian Stannard, third in the 2008 Tour of Britain, who competed in his first Grand Tour at the Giro d’Italia in May; Steve Cummings of Barloworld, and Peter Kennaugh of the GB Academy team.

It’s a promising start. Sky will announce a further 20 or so names in the coming weeks; some may be British, although many will not.

Sky’s commitment to items two and three of its three-point plan is obvious and unquestionable. The series of six city Skyrides to promote cycling among the general public – you may have seen London Mayor Boris Johnson and TV presenter/actress/model Kelly Brook promoting the London Skyride (which takes place on September 20th) yesterday – is perhaps the most visible component thus far.

However, there is still much work to be done to deliver on its ultimate aim of creating a British Tour de France winner. Which, talented though today’s announced signings are, will only be achieved by the presence of a genuine marquee name.

That must surely mean that the name at the top of Brailsford and Sky’s wish-list is Bradley Wiggins.

Not Mark Cavendish. The Manxman would certainly guarantee stage wins (he notched up his 23rd of the year – and 51st overall – at the Tour of Missouri yesterday) and a massive public profile for the team. But Cavendish already rides for one of the strongest squads, Columbia-HTC, in the pro peloton, is the central focus of his team, and has stated that he will not be moving for 2010. Sky may one day become Cavendish’s home but I wouldn’t count on it while the team’s primary aim is the Tour’s yellow jersey, which is incompatible with Cav’s single-minded focus on winning stages and the sprinters’ green jersey.

It won’t be David Millar either. The 32-year-old remains a contender in individual time trials – he was second, trailing only Fabian Cancellara, in the time trial at the Vuelta A Espana last week – or for breakaway stage wins, but his days of looking to be an overall contender are long gone. He would, however, be a valuable addition to Team Sky, as he amply demonstrated at this year’s Tour, where he buried himself in the service of his Garmin-Slipstream team leaders Wiggins and Christian Vande Velde. I would be very surprised if Brailsford wasn’t at least asking after his availability. But Millar won’t be the team’s linchpin.

Which brings us back to ‘Wiggo’, a multiple gold medallist on the track but an unknown quantity on the road until his breakthrough at the Tour de France in July where he placed a strong fourth, equalling the best ever finish by a British rider. Before then, the prospect of even a top ten finish looked like a pipe dream, particularly when you consider that Carlos Sastre (the 2008 winner), Cadel Evans (2008 runner-up) and Denis Menchov (2009 Giro d’Italia winner) all failed to make the top ten in Paris this year.

Without Wiggins – the only Briton in more than 20 years with the combination of talent and experience to race at the sharp end throughout a three-week Grand Tour – the chances of achieving the top step of the Paris podium within the next five years are either slim (if you’re wildly optimistic) or none (if you’re anything else).

If Team Sky is serious about delivering a British yellow jersey winner, then extricating Wiggins from his Garmin contract must be the top – make that sole – priority. Today’s announcements are a promising start, but that’s all they are.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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