The 2016 Tour de France ended similarly to the last four Tours: the eventual champion grabbed the yellow jersey early and smashed the field for the rest of the race, with the help of their dominant team. The yellow jersey hasn’t changed hands in the last week of the race since 2011, and—save Vincenzo Nibali’s odd, crash-marred win in 2014—Team Sky has been fully responsible for the staid proceedings over the past half decade. Chris Froome, the 2016 Tour champion, is a worthy and strong bike rider, and he may very well have won even if he was on a weaker team. But he wouldn’t have been able to strangle the fun out of the yellow jersey race like he did this year if not for his strong team.
Froome has now won three Tours, one of only eight riders to ever do so. In contrast to his 2013 and 2015 wins, where he dominated other general classification (GC) contenders in the time trials, rode everyone off his wheel in the early mountains, then held on as his team ferried him through the tough third week, Froome took some chances this year. He punched a dude out during a climb and earned the yellow jersey by escaping on a descent with a surprise attack. Throw in his escape with Peter Sagan into the crosswinds that got him 12 more seconds, and you have a different-looking Froome win. He was active in places nobody expected him to be. He also ran up a hill in cleats, which is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in the Tour de France.
However, the mountain stages at this Tour were boring as dirt because Froome’s teammates snuffed the life out of them. Erstwhile Team Sky foil Nairo Quintana never gave them any sort of trouble, and the only time anyone managed to ride away from Froome and Sky en masse was after he crashed and ended up on a teammate’s ill-fitting bike. By the time the peloton would wind its way up to the top of difficult climbs, Quintana, Romain Bardet, and other GC contenders were typically alone, while Froome had Wout Poels and Sergio Henao for company. When asked about his team chasing down every single attack, Froome himself even said, “It’s got to be pretty discouraging.”
Team Sky’s dominance is a look into the financially imbalanced world of professional cycling. Their annual budget is reportedly in the neighborhood of €35 million (their 2015 budget was slightly lower), which is more than twice as much as almost every other team. Quintana’s Movistar team runs on €15 million. Sky use their excess funds to ensure that Froome is looked after by a crop of riders that could easily lead other Tour de France squads, were they able to afford them. There are only so many jobs to go around, and a rider like Poels could go lead LottoNL-Jumbo and take a pay cut, or help Froome win and earn more money (and, in all honestly, get more TV time as well). Oleg Tinkov is leaving the sport in part because he doesn’t think he can afford to pay for a team that can challenge Sky.
I’m not sure franchising, smaller teams, or a salary cap would solve cycling’s imbalances without dangerously hampering an already financially sick sport, but as long as Sky can pay GC money for domestiques, they’ll be able to dictate the terms of the Tour de France. Money is not a guarantee of a victory of course—Katusha, the second-highest budgeted team, didn’t really do shit—but in a sport like cycling, it significantly tilts the playing field.
Maybe Nairo Quintana is really good enough to beat Froome if he can isolate him in the mountains next year. Crashes and general chaos are facts of life at the Tour de France, so it’s not as if anyone can truly buy a victory. However, given the general financial turmoil within cycling and the obvious, defensible choice riders like Poels and Henao make to be handsomely paid helpers rather than leaders, future races for the yellow jersey will probably be a lot like this one.