Dominant Team Sky doing it by numbers
PARIS (Reuters) - It has long been part of cycling to see a well-drilled train leading out their team's top sprinter in a stage finale but Team Sky are taking things to a new level by stamping their authority from the start, even when there is a mountain to be climbed.
Supremely conditioned, extremely well-organised and slavish followers of their power meters, Sky leave nothing to chance.
Their approach has helped them to win the Tour of Oman and the Paris-Nice stage races this year while Chris Froome looks primed to claim the Tirreno-Adriatico on Wednesday.
Victory would add to last year's wins on the Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie, Criterium du Dauphine and their one-two in the Tour de France.
Froome took the overall lead in the Tirreno-Adriatico in Sky trademark fashion on Saturday, with his team mates setting a devilish pace at the foot of the final climb to prevent attacks from their rivals.
Even a top climber such as Alberto Contador failed to unsettle the well-oiled machine, which works similarly to Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal in the early 2000s, although the American team were built solely around the Texan while Sky have other potential winners.
In the Tour of Oman, the Spaniard attacked repeatedly in the queen stage - featuring the highest climb - but he was eventually reeled in and he could not overthrow Froome on Saturday in the Tirreno-Adriatico either.
Contador paid for it when Froome himself attacked in the final kilometre - a carbon copy of Australian Richie Porte's winning move on the Paris-Nice the day before.
Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins explained the system, and the reliance on power meters which measure a rider's power output and enable him to control his efforts on varying terrain, at his final news conference in France last July.
"Someone would attack and Mick (Sky team mate Michael Rogers) would say: 'Just leave them; he can't sustain that'," Wiggins said.
"It's not possible to sustain that if we're riding 450 watts, someone's going to have to sustain 500 watts to stay away on a 20-minute climb which is not possible anymore unless you've got a couple of extra litres of blood."
Briton David Millar, who rides with Garmin-Sharp, told Reuters: "You have to be aiming for perfection; some guys thrive on it, some teams are better than others. We aim for it but I guess in a more random way than Sky.
"(Team manager) Jonathan (Vaughters) is very different from (Team Sky principal) Dave Brailsford, he's not as OCD as Dave is.
"Dave is very rational. Emotion is not part of what he does and of what Sky do. It is something they try to remove from the equation and it works fantastically well."
To achieve that, Sky have built an awe-inspiring team featuring Wiggins, Tour runner-up Froome, Porte - who would be team leader in many of the World Tour outfits - and Colombian climbers Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao.
It is the way cycling is evolving, according to Millar.
"They (the new generation) have done the work, they know what they can do and what they can't. They look at the numbers when they're racing," the Scot said.
"Brad is one of the best at it. Lots of guys will have their power metres taped over, they don't want to see it. Brad and the majority of Sky riders have been taught to always be looking at it - so they don't freak out, start panicking.
"The racing is becoming more and more methodical and science-based. We can criticise that but I don't see why it should compromise the racing," Millar added.
"Sky are very dominant but at the same time they're a minority. When everybody's like that it's going to be a bit boring but at the moment it's still quite exciting."
Contador, an instinctive rider who has been frustrated in his attempts to thwart Sky this season, hopes to find a way to beat them in time for the Tour, which starts on June 29.
"Whatever the result (in the Tirreno-Adriatico), this race is really good for me because I had seen the working system of Sky on TV but never live," Contador, one of only five men with titles in all three grand Tours, said on Sunday.
"I think this will help me to plan the tactics in the Tour."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)
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