allez le jaune

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In spring, as Lord Alfred Tennyson observed, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to  thoughts of love…and cycling. As it’s been too cold of late to venture out with any real gusto I’ve started to reminisce on the last couple of two-wheeled adventures and put-my-thinking-cap on wrt the next one. Several have involved trips across La Manche to follow le maillot jaune and this made me consider whether Team Sky are looking forward to this year’s Tour de France as much as I am?

Following the recent acquisition of Sky by 21st Century Fox, the conglomerate have decided to pull the plug on funding Team Sky, the winner of the six of the last seven ‘grande boule’, at the end of the year. Though a Sky rider cruising down the Champs-Elysees now feels a given, it was formed only several short years ago (2009) by an undeniably driven and ambitious leader, David Brailsford and was largely ridiculed on the larger European cycling stage for having the gall, the temerity, in believing a British team, a clean British team no-less, would triumph in such a tough discipline. Zut alors! Time has proved him right. Time and time again. But at what cost? In recent years, a series of controversies has tarnished its brand and tainted its victories.

Let’s not beat around the bush, Sky money is what really gave Team Sky its edge and we are justified in considering it a Manchester City or Chelsea of the peloton. Its budget last year alone was £34.5m, the largest of any cycling team and a multiple of most, allowing them to stockpile cyclists of varying strengths (sprinters, climbers, all-rounders, time-trialists) and field the squad most likely to win a particular race or grand tour. None of which is either illegal or immoral so why do I feel so blasé about my home country’s team potential demise?

For all their success, there are just too many unanswered questions, too many compromises. Last year, a parliamentary committee ruled it had indeed “crossed an ethical line” in obtaining a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) permission for Sir Wiggo of Bradley to knock-back a powerful corticosteroid which had nothing to do with medical need and everything to do with enhanced performance. Ditto Chris Froome in 2013 & 2014. And then there’s the ongoing ‘Jiffy bag’ saga, where even this week Team Sky’s doctor claimed he ordered a shed-load of testosterone for use by a “non-athlete member of staff”. WTF. With February’s medical misconduct inquiry about to start, Dr Richard Freeman really should just stop digging!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not railing against Team Sky for doping. No, I’m doing so for them dressing it up as a medical necessity, and for claiming to compete under a ‘clean’ banner when nothing could’ve been further from the truth. I have more respect for Lance Armstrong, who never actually stated he had not doped, opting instead for the ambiguous fact that he had ‘never tested positive’. As flamboyant five-time Tour winner, Jacques Anquetil, once commented “Riders have always doped and for fifty years bike racers have been taking stimulants. Obviously, we can do without them in a race, but then we will pedal fifteen miles an hour instead of twenty-five. Leave me in peace, everybody takes dope.”

I, for one, will shed no tears for the passing of Team Sky and the upsides will be a general levelling of the cycling field together with, please God, no further cyclist being crowned as the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year.