If cyclists were to use football parlance then Wednesday at La Rosiere was such a moment for Mikel Nieve of Mitchelton-Scott to feel “gutted” when after a lengthy breakaway on Stage 11 of the Tour de France, his efforts fell asunder. Just a few hundred of metres from the finish line. His former Sky teammates, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome, flashing past Frosty – as he was named by Sky – to leave the Spaniard fifth despite a hard day’s work. Indeed, leading on his own on the final kilometres of the climb. But such is the sport of cycling that it so often features thankless moments and drains any sentimentality one might feel. Perhaps part of the overall fascination of the sport even amidst the perennial drug allegations.
The sheer physical demands of the Alpine stages are always full of drama and require super human effort. Which although can offer enthralling spectacle it also means that performance enhancement is part and parcel of it all. A history of the Tour which goes well beyond just Lance Armstrong and a total list that is almost endless: Alberto Contador, Marco Pantani, Pedro Delgado, Thomas Ullrich, Richard Virenque – to just name a few. Curiously, in recent times it is the fate of the one-time domestiques of Team Sky that offer a footnote to these events. As once outside the team and that bubble their air of invincibility as individuals fades. All of a sudden real life embraces them one by one with Nieve experiencing that on Wednesday.
Australian Richie Porte, a one-time favourite perhaps to win the Tour - based on his work at Team Sky - fell victim yet again to injury this year after another accident ending hopes of a Grand Tour victory. In 2015, and indeed 2013, Porte’s hard work were key to Sky victories at the Tour. So, in 2016 when he declared he was leaving for BMC and seen as an ideal replacement for fellow countryman Cadell Evans, a victory was almost expected. Unfortunately, last year a bad fall ended his chances as it has this year on the cobbled roads to Roubaix on Sunday.
Mikel Landa was another who spent a season as a domestique at Team Sky and fulfilled his fair share of duties at the Giro, Tour and Vuelta for \=Froome & Co. Like a number of the prominent Spanish cyclists he came from Euzkatel-Euzkadi - a Basque team which lost its funding in 2013 - with many promising riders on the books. But last year Landa moved to Team Movistar which placed him alongside Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde. If not as an equal it promised a future more appealing than slaving for Froome or Thomas for yet another season.
On the way to La Rosiere Landa showed flashes of ambition but under team instruction no doubt remained in the peloton with Quintana as Thomas and Froome raced away. The frustration of not seeing Movistar battle was lessened by the breakaways of Valverde and Marc Soler on Wednesday. Perhaps the team hatching plans for Alpe d’Huez stage on Thursday’s long stage. Which may stifle the criticism of Movistar’s lack of ambition and willingness to compete with Team Sky despite a gala a roster. Although the team showed they have the ability to upset but perhaps lacked the belief on Stage 11. On Wednesday there was a sense of their talent and a possibility beyond just the team prize.
Meanwhile it was left to Nieve to make the run on his own. Another of that Eustakel generation Nieve showed why he nurtured his own ambitions outside the Sky team. The climbing specialist moving to Orica-Scott on a two-year deal in 2018. A reward for the 33-year-old after he assisted Froome in winning the 2016 and 2017 editions of the Tour de France. With a strong CV, Frosty has ridden in 13 Grand Tours and achieved five top 10 placings. At La Rosiere he was unlucky as G forced the issue just as Frosty ran out of steam. Perhaps victim of inside knowledge that only a former teammate of the Spanish rider would have at hand. Leaving him in his wake with Froome, Tom Dumoulin of Sunweb and Damiano Caruso of BMC all taking the first four places on the stage.
Thursday may haunt Nieve as he wonders about the far-reaching power of Team Sky or Lady Luck. A bit like Porte no doubt. But both riders have had good seasons already and these are just short-term hiccups. In fairness, Nicholas Roche had a short sojourn at Sky and has battled with BMC Racing over recent years more competitively and unshackled. Looking at a top five place at La Vuelta at one stage in 2017. More importantly, enjoying the sport more now with BMC rather than just a being a Team Sky domestique. Viviani signed for Team Sky from Cannondale in 2015, riding the Giro d’Italia in 2015 and 2016 as part of the British team. However, he was reportedly unhappy about not being selected for his home Grand Tour in 2017 and departed despite having one year left on his contract. A move to Quick-Step this season saw him enjoy a very successful Giro D’Italia in Israel.
Obviously the most famous former Team Sky rider, Bradley Wiggins, winner of the Tour 2012 shared his views on the team with Eurosport this week, highlighting the possibility that Thomas might take the yellow jersey in Tuesday’s first Alpine stage,
“This is where it gets difficult, as we hit the first mountain stage,” Wiggins said. “If Geraint stays where he is and takes the yellow jersey they’ve got a real problem on their hands.
“Both riders have got this joint leadership role, but that’s dangerous. But the quality they have in that team, they could end up first or second.”
Wiggins continued, describing the Team Sky principal, Dave Brailsford, as “divisive” and “self-serving.” He said: “Does Dave B come in and do his usual and be quite divisive and get in each other’s ear and kind of keep them both motivated for the same goal and there be a natural selection?
“Dave will be telling them they can both win it, as a way of motivating them, as a way of playing these cards deep in to the race. He’s quite self-serving. For him it’s about the team winning, it’s not about the individuals or the characters. He will always be in those riders’ ears constantly, and he has been, up till now as you can see.”
Last year Dan Martin revealed he declined a contract offer from Team Sky the British World Tour outfit seeing the Irishman as a replacement for Landa and offered the chance to focus on some events, including one-week stage races, for himself with Team Sky. But when it came to the Tour de France he would then ride for Chris Froome. However, when UAE Team Emirates saw him as outright team leader for the Tour de France it was an easy switch from Quick-Step. In the 2018 Toru Martin has looked strong and clearly hay with his choice.
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Thursday Stage 12