Sky team principal David Brailsford’s principles are under scrutiny. Criticism of the team’s tactics has been building since last year’s Paris-Nice, when Bradley Wiggins started his winning run that culminated in victory at the Tour de France.

The squad’s collective performance is too robotic. Too unfeeling, they say. Not in the spirit of real racing. None of this mattered a couple of years ago when the team weren’t winning, but now they are – and it does.

Cycling is undergoing a sea change, and Sky are central to that change. Cycling is swapping sciences from chemistry to physics, and Sky are the class nerds that got in there first and made it work.

The root cause of criticism of Sky’s technological tactics comes partly from the team itself. Brailsford’s early catchphrases of ‘marginal gains’ and ‘the numbers look good’ are more rooted in management and planning than the rose-tinted nostalgia of ‘riding on feel’. Once the source of ridicule, Sky’s repeatable results have made other teams treat such phrases with more reverence.

It’s not an infallible system by any means, as Vincenzo Nibali showed in Tirreno-Adriatico this week where the Astana rider overhauled Sky’s Chris Froome’s lead with a breath-taking downhill attack in appalling weather conditions at the end of an extremely tough day. It was an inspiring ride, and a spectacle to watch, there’s no argument against that.

Swelled by the result, Nibali used his post-win press conference to accuse Sky of ‘racing by numbers’, of putting the read-out of their wattage and instructions from the team car before in-the-saddle tactical nous and pure strength. The Italian even suggested banning SRM power data from racing. Although we note that such rallying cries against science didn’t stop him from donning a carefully created aerodynamic helmet, skinsuit and sleek Specialized time trial bike complete with SRM power cranks in the final time trial…

His Tirreno win was a fair one, but you can’t help thinking that Nibali was perhaps thinking back more to last year’s Tour, where he placed third behind Sky duo Wiggins and Froome. The duo’s measured, grinding pace up the climbs was too much for Nibali, and he lost time there and in the two key time trials. That must still be stinging.

Are Nibali’s calls to remove SRM power data and other technological tricks during races justified? Well, he’s been at the rough end of that particular technology’s success, but why stop at SRMs. We’ve already had experiments on banning team radio technology, and that didn’t really work. The UCI is already pretty strict on certain aspects of bike design too, almost laughably so with those ‘UCI Approved‘ frame stickers and blazered commissaires measuring the ratio of frame geometry on riders’ bikes on the start line.

Part of the argument against technology is that cycling becomes a battle of budgets rather than a sport. Biggest wind tunnel and bag of cash wins. But central to cycling is the cycle itself, an unnatural product of technology that has been developed over many decades by engineers and designers. Why shouldn’t people continue to advance its efficiency?

If we really got rid of every scrap of technology from cycling you’d be left with naked men running up a hill barefoot. And that’s a different sport all together.

Twitter: @NigelWynn


Cycling Weekly April 17 2014 issue
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  • phil

    am i alone in thinking that radios have killed the drama of the big stage races?? think back to hinault v lemond. foome vs wiggins without a radio screaming at froome to slow down would have been gripping. as it was, last years tdf was a rather boring procession.

  • guy

    Dont forget lads & lasses…one has to stay upright and injury free and the best legs win.. simple… get out your armchair and show us all eh? hmm .. its all gone quiet..

  • David

    The thing is with “hes doing 500 watts let him go” is that it’s not really a guess, someone in the team car will have a laptop and they know the gradient, the riders weight (more or less), etc. so they can calculate what their output is and tell the riders.

    If you then assume that x watts is the maximum possible (without, ahem, help!) then you know he will blow a fuse. It does take the guess work out of things…and the unpredictability, which is a shame because racing becomes less of a game of poker and more like F1 car racing – and I don’t mean that as a compliment!

  • alvelo

    GRAEME, I dont understand your arguement, when you say Sky riders say “hes doing 500 watts let him go” This can only be a guess. If you are a pro you are able to judge outputs and speeds pretty well on feel alone. Ie when I’m on one of my bikes with HRMs, then go onto another with no HRMs its is amazing how accurate I can guess what my effort is [when I ask a riding partner]
    My point is that, the said Sky rider would have likely said that anyway even if they had no meters at that time, as they are so tuned into using them while training.

    Surely Nibali realises that the riders seldom use them at the time, but are used for historical records more than anything. He is a great one for going on about respect…..me thinks he needs a mirror to have a good long look at himself.

  • GRAEME

    Yes Mike I think there is a fair bit of anti British feeling and a bit of a witch hunt on the part of the continentals(mainly the latin countries) towards SKY and Bradley Wiggins. They seem to be despised on L`Equipe amongst the French fans of the sport and all you ever see regarding Wiggo and SKY are the words ‘AICAR’ , ‘US POSTAL’ and ‘FESTINA’.
    They may well be right of course,but it does seem a case of guilty until proven innocent,whereas riders from the continent seem to be given the benefit of the doubt on the whole!
    David makes a good point on here about the Boardman/Obree era and the UCI`s reaction to it.
    The British in general seemed to be victimised in sport,cycling being just another. UEFA and FIFA`s treatment of English football clubs and fans being a classic case in point!

  • Mike

    Well Robert, thats one oppinion.

    I am not a Sky fan, I am a fan of cycling and individual riders. What Iam not is one of the “Anti Sky” brigade, who knock them for no other reason than thay win races, lots of them.
    This rant abut any team being dopers unless proved otherwise is bordering on a whitch hunt.
    Guilty untill proven innocent is it????

  • Chris T

    Enjoyed the comment about Nibali’s tech in the TT….

  • Robert

    Thag wrote, “Throw in jingoism, nationalism and jealousy and you have perfect conditions for breeding packs of baying media trolls.”. For a moment I thought that this was a reference to Sky’s fan base, who seem to rival only Armstrong’s former fans for jingoism and nationalistic fervour! They even seem to repeat exactly the same arguments as Armstrong’s fans did, ‘It’s all down to working harder’ etc. etc. Blind faith is no substitute for keeping an open, critical mind and given the recent history of cycling only a fool would declare that they are 100% certain that any rider or team is clean. Truth is, we simply don’t know.

  • David

    Cycling has a lot more worry about than banning wattage data. It still hasn’t got rid of doping or the dopers – all this talk of technology is reminiscent of the Boardman/Obree era when the UCI paid more attention to getting rid of British record breakers and their bikes than getting rid of drugs.

    Funny how Brits winning gets things changed in cycling isn’t it? They got rid of half the Olympic track events to stop us dominating. Maybe they’ll try to outlaw round wheels because SKY use them!

  • GRAEME

    It`s a difficult one and I can see both sides of the argument. With technology where do you draw the line? A few years ago racket technology made mens tennis boring. Guys who were big servers and could get a high percentage of first serves in invariably beat the more skilled player who didn`t have as big a serve.
    In cycling power meters could kill the sport imo if they continue to be used during racing. I`ve read a few times about riders that have attacked on a climb against the SKY lads only for one to say “he`s doing 500 watts,let him go,he won`t be able to sustain that”. Sure enough the rider in question wasn`t able to sustain it! But to me part of the skill of bike racing is surely being able to rely on your instinct,mixed with a little bit of luck,as well as have the physical attributes isn`t it? if everyone starts relying on their power meters in the way highlighted above then why bother racing,you may just as well stay in the lab and give your lab results…the rider with the greatest power output being delared the winner!!
    Don`t get me wrong I LOVED seeing a Brit winning the TDF last year and a British team doing so well,but if every TDF was like 2012 it would be flippin` boring!
    In my opinion power meters should be for training rides and left in the lab,otherwise you could just end of killing the sport…or at least the spectacle.
    However I can`t help but feel that a lot of this criticism that SKY are receiving is pure jealousy and a thorough of the English/British in general by our continental cousins. You only have to read the forums on L`Equipe after yet another Brit victory to realise that!

  • Mitch Lowe.

    You don’t need big budgets to train hard and learn your besting zones and limits! Any team can do it! Create a plan it not hard. Contador was racing against 3 team sky riders at head of field! Where was his team mates? Answer not good enough to keep at the head of race! Work hard and plan results will come!

  • Phil Riley

    I think everyone, especially Nibali, needs to remember that a power meter is an unstrument to measure power. It does not generate the power for you.

  • Samuel Gamester

    It is only because Sky have buying power and therefore comprehensively excellent staff and riders that they can dominate in this way. Yes, its tough at the top. In many sports there are ‘eras’ when a particular individual or team dominate, in my opinion this creates the possibility of increased dramatic tension as other competitors try to slay the giant in any way they can. It is up to Nibali et al to try daring tactical suprises and take risks in order to outfox the sky train, which makes the sport MORE exciting, not less. Sky have set the standard, the other teams must rise to the challenge. With the sky train the peloton seems to operate like a fast-flowing river in dynamic tension. If other teams were able to match the pace and discipline of sky the resulting multiple trains would fragment the peloton into a more chaotic flow. It might be interesting to analyse the dynamics of the peloton mathematically, has anyone ever done this?

  • Ron

    cyclingnews.com is one of the best cycling web sites around but has allowed the trolls to completely dominate their blogs to the point where I no longer read them.
    Free speech is one thing but publishing complete B******s about Sky and “doping” every day becomes too negative to be bothered with eventually.

  • Eric Kwiatkowski

    Power meters, science, or whatever – ultimately it’s the rider grinding through the race that has to come up with the goods.

  • Ginger

    Its the usual thing. If things are not the way you want them, moan to the press and set the trolls loose. Just because SKY have a winning formula with a highly disciplined, clean, highly motivated and extremely talented squad using good tactics is no reason for others to moan. Its up to the others to get their act together and either compete fairly or quit. Its the same playing field for everyone, assuming they are clean that is.

    If we removed technical innovation from cycling, where would we stop? Four speed derailleur? Three speed Sturmey Archer? Single speed? Wooden frame? Its a ridiculous concept. We should always put rider’s safety first – nobody wants riders not competing through injury – but, that apart, its technology that keeps the sport moving forward.

  • JD

    It’s obvious Sky have put a few noses seriously out of joint and it’s only going to get worse. This year’s Tour is going to be one huge battle between the Sky way of doing things and a number of other teams who feel threatened by change.

    If Brailsford is right about his approach, other teams will try and emulate them. Even if they don’t win the Tour they might still win the battle of ideas.

  • Terry

    Welcome to the world of results by sheer damned hard work and a bit of thought, leave ‘em alone.

  • Mike

    The usual anti Sky rubbish. There seems to be a bandwagon rolling in the press and on cycling forums against Sky. Why?
    What have they done to upset everyone, apart from winning some races, thats what sponsors want isnt it?
    The Sky team “grinding up a mountain so fast no one can attack them”, well, fine or ban them for being so good. Wiggins is not a pure climber, what do you expect him to do, throw the towel in?
    Brad also gets it in the neck for being so good at TTs (he only won the Tour aparently cos it was TT heavy, it was not.) Its his speciality for goodness sake, is he supposed to apologise for being a good tester?
    This Sky bashing is becoming a boring joke.
    A British team winning races obviously upsets the media no end, much better a plucky loser.

  • Alpine Cycling

    Slightly embarrassingly for Nibbles I think I am right in saying that Sir Dave B pointed out that on the key climbing stages in Tirreno (including Froome’s fabulous winning attack on Prato di Tivi) Sky didn’t even have SRM’s becuase they had fitted compact chainsets for the day because of the gradients.They were riding on feel having honed their knowledge of the pace and power at which they ride over many hours in training camps.I love the way Nibali attacks and descends but having a go at your opponents usually comes back and bites you in a way you don’t expect…the rest of the season will tell.

  • Jack

    Aah Geoff, it’s a relief to see one story didn’t slip through the net without someone mentioning doping. Heaven forbid an article about power meters and technology should go a whole ten paragraphs without it being mentioned. Thank the lord you’re here to make sure every single piece of cycling news has the word ‘doping’ attached to it.

  • thag

    Sky is under attack because their wins over the last two seasons, in the eyes of underperforming teams and their supporters, conveniently associate success with guilt. Throw in jingoism, nationalism and jealousy and you have perfect conditions for breeding packs of baying media trolls. Perhaps these trolls should consider Sky’s very successful recruiting over the last couple of seasons, the success of their strategies on road and track, and the fact that other teams over decades had encouraged their doctors to seek the latest pharmaceutical advances rather than their coaches explore training techniques. Now that the chemical route is fraught with danger, many teams methods are outdated in the current ethical climate, leaving their riders under-prepared for the stresses of clean racing. Watch for patchy performances this season as many riders go clean for the first time and are haunted by thoughts: Should I, Shouldn’t I? Are they, Aren’t they? Will they, Won’t they? However none of the above will likely influence a troll’s opinion as their faculties barely operate in sunlight.

  • Nigel Rue

    I think the UCI is currently too restrictive on innovation. The reason we all ride bikes that look the way they do is because the UCI says that is the way it should be.
    Let science & design have a free rein. OK, legislate on safety issues, but for all else let racing be the best it can be.

  • Geoff

    “THEY” presumably being some of the nasty cynical cheating big budget continental teams that turned a blind eye to doping so long as they were winning?

    My advice to them, Stop moaning, get rid of your dopers and get with the new of winning or leave.

  • Kenny Pryde

    Nibali’s comments (if they are an accurate representation of what he said) are plain embarrassing. The idea that riders are staring at their power outputs as they race is a nonsense. Many riders tape over the output data when they race, using only speed and distance. Almost every pro team has access to the same coaching info and the same technology, the truth is that most of them haven’t a freaking clue what they are doing with the data. Old school management with new technology is not a good fit.

  • Bob

    Who are “they” ? I think the quote “Everybody hates us we don’t care” is appropriate