The opening three days of the Tour of Britain have been a microcosm of Team Sky’s year. Success on Sunday's stage two was followed, on Monday’s stage through the Welsh mountains, by a reversal of fortune so dramatic that it has probably cost them any chance of winning their home tour.
The British squad’s debut season has been marked by similar highs and lows, from victory in their debut race, the curtain-raiser to the Tour Down Under, to disappointment at the Tour de France, where Bradley Wiggins wasn’t able to match his fourth-place finish of last year.
There was much discussion about the team’s tactics after Sunday’s second stage to Stoke, which was won by Sky’s Greg Henderson. The race appeared to be going perfectly to plan for the British squad, with three riders – Henderson, Geraint Thomas and Wiggins – in an 18-man break that quickly established a huge lead.
And yet, behind the scenes, there was adversity of an entirely unpredictable nature. One of the two team cars, being driven by Sky’s sports director Dan Hunt and on its way up to the leading 18, punctured.
Before Hunt moved forward to support the break, a quick transfer of spare bikes for Henderson, Thomas and Wiggins had taken place with the other team car, driven by Steven de Jongh. Now a message was relayed to de Jongh, who was behind, following the bunch.
When Hunt’s stricken vehicle appeared at the side of the road, de Jongh screeched to a halt and the bikes were swapped back – but in completing this manoeuvre, both cars fell outside the race ‘bubble’.
Eventually, after dodging ‘civilian’ vehicles on re-opened roads, de Jongh was able to regain the back of the race. Then he weaved his way through the peloton – no mean feat on the narrow Staffordshire roads – and up to the break to provide cover for the three Sky riders.
It was then that a strategy was agreed. Plan A would see Wiggins try an attack in the final 5km. Henderson represented plan B, and Thomas, who admitted he was tired, would stay with Henderson, ready to lead him out if it came back for a sprint.
But in the final 15km Wiggins had second thoughts. He dropped back to the team car and spoke to de Jongh. A headwind to the finish made a solo attack more difficult. He asked de Jongh: “Would it not be better to try and control it for Greg?”
This is when it started to go wrong for Sky. While Wiggins was back speaking to his team car, Heinrich Haussler (Cervélo TestTeam) and Michael Golas (Vacansoleil) attacked. They gained 10 seconds before Wiggins was back in the group and Sky – through Thomas – could start chasing.
For most of the remaining 15km Thomas sat on the front, pulling the 15 riders behind him. Wiggins helped out, especially in the final 5km. But with 2km remaining Thomas was spent, and pulled up.
Taking over from Thomas, Wiggins put in a big turn and then, as the road began to climb to the finish, he too swung off. It was now down solely to Henderson – and he delivered. But both Thomas and Wiggins conceded over a minute. They were effectively out of overall contention, and so Henderson would have to bear the weight of the team’s ambition.
Greg Henderson, left, may have won a stage but it could prove a pyrrhic victory for Sky
Before Monday’s stage, starting in Newtown, Henderson emerged from the team bus and discussed the previous day’s events. “You have to be attentive in a race like this," he said. "We were all trying to cover the moves, and in the end, it was really good having three guys in the break."
“Geraint did a big job," continued the New Zealander. "I’m not sure if Brad was feeling his best; he didn’t want to attack into a headwind. But unfortunately he also lost time in the last kilometre, which puts all the pressure on me. But I’ll have a go.”
Just before he headed to the start, Henderson’s last remarks proved prophetic: “It’s going to be hard, because, with such small teams, it’s difficult to control things. We’re going to have some bike racing, that’s for sure.”
And so we did: HTC-Columbia’s Michael Albasini, second to Henderson in Stoke, attacked on the day’s big climb, the appropriately named (for Sky) Black Mountain. Wiggins was able to go with him; Henderson was not.
Had Wiggins not lost time in the final kilometre of the previous day, he would have been in a strong position to fight for yellow. But he wasn’t. And so, as de Jongh explained after the stage, “Bradley made the call to wait to help Greg. He dropped back, and then they did everything they could to chase, but they couldn’t bring it back.”
As Albasini won in Swansea, also claiming the yellow jersey – after phenomenal help from Tony Martin, his team-mate in the break – it appeared that HTC-Columbia had played a blinder, while Team Sky, who had seemed in an impregnable position until the final 2km of the previous day's stage, hadn't so much dropped the ball as chucked it away.
There remains a long way to go, and much – theoretically – to play for, particularly with talk of foul play during Monday’s stage. Sources close to Team Sky claimed that Martin broke an unwritten rule by attacking when the yellow jersey – Henderson – stopped mid-stage to answer a call of nature.
The rivalry between these teams has been intense all season, and incidents like these can only intensify it. So while de Jongh sounded a defeatist note on Monday evening in admitting that, “I don’t think GC [general classification] is possible now”, that could be as premature as the prediction at the beginning of this article.
After all, this year's Tour of Britain has so far been characterised by unexpected twists and unpredictability – who says there may not be more before it reaches London on Saturday?