Chris Froomes impending triumph cannot mask the unpopularity of a team tainted by the increasing bullishness of Dave Brailsford in the face of legitimate questions
When Team Sky changed their jerseys from black to white for this years Tour de France, it was a reasonably transparent attempt to rebrand themselves as good guys. A line of eight or nine riders in pitch-black uniforms stretching out at the front of the peloton day in day out, squeezing the life out of the rivalry, was never a sympathetic look.
So now, as Chris Froome closes to within one 22.5 km hour trial around the sights of Marseille and one ceremonial procession into Paris of his fourth Tour win in five years, did it do the job? On an aesthetic level, perhaps it did. The Sky squad still rode on the front, all eight of them en bloc after an accident forced Geraint Thomas to withdraw, but the sight of that crushing might was less oppressive.
In competitive terms, however, they were even more imposing. Very early in the race we could see how their massive budget had been used to assemble a group of riders of formidable skills to subsistence Froomes campaign, including some like Michal Kwiatkowski and Mikel Landa who might have had legitimate aspirations of their own had they been with other teams. The decision to leave Peter Kennaugh and Ian Stannard at home was built on the basis that for this assault merely the very, very best would do.
They began with the unexpected bonus of four days in amber for Thomas, the winner of the opening time trial. But then day in day out Skys squadron of domestiques de luxe rode at the front, challenging the teams of Froomes principal rivals Romain Bardets AG2R-La Mondiale, Fabio Arus Astana, Rigoberto Urns Cannondale-Drapac to meet them on their own terms. None could manage it, although Bardets humen devoted it a decent go on Thursday, when they swept to the front of the peloton on the Col de Vars in an attempt to provide their leader with the platform from which to launch a race-winning assault on the Izoard. They disintegrated eventually but at least they tried.
As a group, Sky ride to their power meters, and as individuals they are strong and clever enough to execute that carefully plotted strategy with such efficiency that no serious challenger can ride away from them. But it has not constructed them loved, or even admired, by those who value motorcycle racing for its humanity, spontaneity and unpredictability.
Froome is a likeable man who opposed hard to get where he is. His whirring, elbows-out style symbolises his status as something of an outsider. He has expended the past three weeks overcoming a series of minor afflictions: an off-road excursion, a broken spoke and a sudden loss of power at the top of Peyragudes. Yet he continues to bear the brunt of the teams unpopularity. On the way to victory in 2015 a beaker of urine was thrown in his face. This year a New York Times reporter wrote of assuring fans on the Mont du Chat painting a syringe on the road, bearing Froomes name, until a race official persuaded them to erase it. Last Sunday he was booed by local fans as he chased after Bardet on the road towards Le Puy-en-Velay.
As Barry Hoban said on ITV, the French have always tended to boo foreigners who take over the race and threaten their favourites. The great Eddy Merckx, he remembered, was mercilessly abused. Sometimes they even boo their own: In the days of the rivalry between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, Anquetil got booed since they are liked Poulidor. In a way it is a compliment: Merckx and Anquetil were both as close to unbeatable as it gets.
In fact Froome is probably getting an easier hour from the French than from the British. Many fans in his adopted country find it difficult to warm to a man born in Kenya and educated in South Africa who joined Sky to take advantage of a setup based on British Cyclings Olympic programme.
He has never lived in Britain or proven much of an interest in racing in the country whose flag he flies, except when it came to the 2012 Game. Even if he goes on to win five or more Tours de France, it is hard to imagine him carrying off the BBC athletics personality of the year award.
Dave Brailsford, having begun his campaign of refusal at the start of the year by borrowing from his friend Alastair Campbells playbook, has suddenly switched to the mode of public relations employed by Sean Spicer( until Fridays resignation ). A policy of restricting press briefings to selected broadcasters and denying access to print journalists was bad enough. To tell a couple of journalists from the Cycling News website this week he would not talk to them because they had been writing shit about me was to go the full Donald Trump.
It was also unwise , not least because neutrals could see the piece to which Brailsford referred, published last month, was reasonable in its criticisms of the way he has managed the recent crisis. It was Brailsfords failure to make a convincing case for his squads innocence or, failing that, to admit to errors that got him into this unhappy posture, where formerly sympathetic journalists are now calling for his resignation.
We stimulate history you only write about it. Those were the scornful terms spoken by Ron Dennis, the former mechanic who constructed the McLaren grand prix squad into a technology company worth billions, to a reporter. Its true, of course. All journalists know that but Dennis was stupid to say it. All his claim did was expose the arrogance that brought about his downfall when he was finally forced out of the company a few weeks ago( if, that is, accepting 250 m for his shareholding can be described as a downfall ).
Its something for Brailsford to bear in mind when he leaves the celebrations of Froomes success in Paris on Sunday night. By accepting the responsibility of a public posture and by making claims for the probity of his organisation, he invited constant scrutiny. The best style to handle that is to remain calmer than your critics, to recognise truth is stronger than PR, and to accepted your own vulnerability.