Michael Pavitt

On one of the final days of the Baku 2015 European Games a tweet caught my eye that Team Sky boss Sir David Brailsford was set to announce their team for the 2015 Tour de France live on Sky television that morning.

It seemed strange to think that only a decade ago British cyclists appearing at the Tour de France would probably have received one of two lines in a national newspaper - if they were lucky.

Yet, here we were with an announcement receiving live television coverage with the national media eagerly waiting to find out who had been chosen. 

Both Brailsford and Sky have played a fundamental role in developing British interest in cycling, from essentially a third-rate sport, to one that arguably stands behind only football, rugby union and cricket in the national interest. Both parties have become synonymous with the national governing body, British Cycling,  over that period.

If Brailsford’s departure in as the performance director of British Cycling in April last year felt like the end of an era, the definite ending of Sky’s partnership with the governing body in 2016 feels more like a confirmation a golden period in Britain’s sporting history may be over.

The partnership between British Cycling and Sky appeared to be like a hand fitting in a glove since the early days, with the agreement beginning just prior to Britain’s remarkable success at Beijing 2008 in which they won eight Olympic gold medals, four silvers and two bronze medals. In fact the telecommunications tagline “believe in better” actually sounds like the kind of motivational phrase uttered by Brailsford over the years.

Obviously,  Britain’s success at Beijing 2008 would have been wonderful for Sky as a sponsor, but as British Cycling’s statement referred to when confirming the end of the partnership, the telecommunications company have played a crucial role in developing the whole sport from the grassroots up across the country.

Primarily they have been able to use the assets of having the likes of six-time Olympic champion Sir Chris Hoy and two-time gold medallist Victoria Pendleton available to promote the sport during the duration of the partnership.

In partnership with British Cycling, Sky helped build on the success of the Beijing 2008 Olympics by supported development programmes at grassroots level
In partnership with British Cycling, Sky helped build on the success of the Beijing 2008 Olympics by supported development programmes at grassroots level ©Getty Images

Without the platform provided by Sky, the success at the Olympic Games may have only remained a success at the elite level. With their additional coverage, however,  British Cycling’s amazing success has been able to catch the imagination of a large percentage of the public, with the membership having risen from 21,000 in January 2008 to over 111,000 by the end of last month.

Part of that has also been due to their support of British Cycling’s development schemes, such as the Sky Ride. Cynically it could be said that Sky’s investment in the development side may have been for material reasons as the company were often viewed as being rather ruthless, with the idea of getting families out on their bikes seen as a means to show their softer side.

Undoubtedly, their influence has been a major behind the huge numbers taking up the sport, with nearly one million people having participated in Sky Rides, including holding traffic-free cycling events for all ages to participate in, since the establishment of the partnership.

It must also be said that, without the continued success of British Cycling across the decade, Sky’s support and their promotion of the sport may have been a rather short-lived notion.

For instance in the early years of their partnership, Britain’s Mark Cavendish was dominating the sprint stages of the Tour de France, before arguably one of British Cycling’s finest achievements, delivering the Manxman to the 2011 World Championship Road Race title in Copenhagen.

It could perhaps be argued that with Cavendish pulling up trees at the Tour de France and Sir Bradley Wiggins showcasing his potential as a Grand Tour winner in 2009, Sky’s continued expansion into the sport may not have happened with the development of Team Sky, who they are now so understandably keen to promote.

In recent years, the line between Sky’s involvement with British Cycling and their involvement with Team Sky has often appeared blurred, with many of the key cyclists and officials involved in both the International Cycling Union (UCI) World Tour team in addition to the national set-up.

Sky's continued involvement with Team Sky will continue to give their brand exposure through cycling
Sky's continued involvement with Team Sky will continue to give their brand exposure through cycling ©AFP/Getty Images

It may not then be too much of a surprise that Sky have joined Brailsford and many of the British male track in opting for Team Sky rather than continuing with the likes of track cycling. By following the lure of the Tour de France, Sky will be able claim the greater exposure for their brand every year rather than potential success at the end of a four-year Olympic period, just as it offers cyclists greater riches than the track programme would.

Additionally, part of their decision may be due to the likelihood of sustained British success on the track appearing unlikely, with a repeat of that Beijing 2008 performance looking a distant prospect at Rio 2016 having only secured three silver medals at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Paris earlier this year. 

With Sky still boasting the benefit of having a potential Tour de France winner in their midst in Chris Froome, they certainly look likely to continue to benefit from their association with British Cycling even when their relationship formally comes to an end in 2016.

British Cycling may still feel the benefits on the track as they look for success at Rio 2016. Several of their young potential stars ,  including double Olympic champion Laura Trott and two-time team pursuit world champion Elinor Barker, were discovered by British Cycling’s development programme Go-Ride, which was supported by Sky.

Should the new generation prove able to continue the success at Rio 2016, another big sponsor could be tempted to get involved.

But, a performance like the one at the recent World Championships, may be the absolute confirmation that a golden era may have drawn to a close.