Team Sky's Geraint Thomas (left) and Chris Froome pictured after the final stage of the 2018 Tour de FranceTeam Sky's Geraint Thomas (left) and Chris Froome pictured after the final stage of the 2018 Tour de France (AFP Photo/Jeff PACHOUD)
London (AFP) - The future of cycling giant Team Sky was thrown into doubt on Wednesday after British media company Sky announced it was ending a partnership that has delivered six Tour de France titles in the past seven years.
Team Sky have clocked up eight Grand Tour wins since their formation, but they have also been plunged into controversy for using special exemptions to administer drugs that can enhance performance.
The outfit, which has 322 wins in total since 2010, will operate for the last season as Team Sky in 2019 and could continue under a different name if a new backer is found, a Sky statement said.
Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford is confident he can keep his group at the top of the sport regardless of their suddenly uncertain future.
"Every change brings opportunity. We like to build things, we're creators, we build. From our point of view I see it very much as an opportunity," Brailsford told Sky Sports News.
Insisting he wasn't caught unawares by the announcement, Brailsford added: "Let's face it, the reality of the situation with Sky and the environment and everything else...did it come as a surprise? No, not really.
"We started out with ambition, thinking: 'could we win the Tour de France in five years?'
"Who'd have thought then that 10 years later we'd be looking at our 10th season."
Sky's announcement closes an extraordinary chapter in cycling that began with the dream of creating Britain's first Tour de France champion -- which seemed overly ambitious at the time.
Froome responded to the news by insisting his team expect to return stronger than ever with a new backer.
"We are not finished yet by any means. Everyone at Team Sky has got big ambitions for 2019 and this news has made us more determined than ever to make them happen," Froome wrote on his Twitter account.
"I can't predict the future but I can say this with absolute certainty, this is a really special team.
"We plan to be together in 2020 if at all possible and we will all be doing everything we can to help make that happen - in different colours with a new partner but the same values, focus and desire to win."
- From marginal gains to mystery package -
Deep-pocketed Sky are known for Brailsford's meticulous and innovative application of 'marginal gains', the theory that many small advantages in areas as diverse as wind resistance, diet and sleep quality can add up to a significant improvement in performance.
However, Sky's image was clouded in the controversy over so-called therapeutic use exemptions, after a damning British parliamentary report said the team crossed an "ethical line" by using the loophole to administer drugs to enhance performance.
The Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee report said MPs believed that triamcinolone, used to treat asthma, "was being used to prepare Wiggins, and possibly other riders supporting him, for the Tour de France".
Sky were also in the crosshairs for a suspected anti-doping violation over a mystery package reportedly destined for Wiggins in 2011, although a UK Anti-Doping investigation concluded with no charges brought.
Sky was then caught in a long-running doping controversy that began when Froome returned an adverse doping test, for elevated levels of the asthma medication salbutamol, on his way to victory in the Vuelta a Espana in 2017. He was cleared 10 months later.
Team Sky also have plenty of detractors within cycling for tactics that many believe stifle racing.
Their superior budget has allowed them to employ riders who would be leaders elsewhere in a support capacity and effectively shut down attacks in the biggest races, something that has proved unpopular with many, particularly at the Tour de France.
Sky began its involvement with the sport in 2008, when it successfully teamed up with British Cycling to increase participation and support the country's elite riders, who became a major force at world events including the Olympic Games.
"We came into cycling with the aim of using elite success to inspire greater participation at all levels," said Jeremy Darroch, Sky's group chief executive.
"After more than a decade of involvement, I couldn't be prouder of what we've achieved with Team Sky and our long-standing partners at British Cycling."