GOING DOWN : Team Sky's Chris Froome crashes during Stage 9 of the Tour de France, France, July 15, 2018. Photo: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

LONDON – British media company Sky on Wednesday said it would axe its sponsorship of cycling giant Team Sky after next season, 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.

“The vision for Team Sky began with the ambition to build a clean, winning team around a core of British riders and staff,” said team principal Sir Dave Brailsford. “We are proud of the part we have played in Britain's transformation into a cycling nation over the last decade,” he added.

“While Sky will be moving on at the end of next year, the team is open-minded about the future and the potential of working with a new partner, should the right opportunity present itself.”

Sky's announcement closes an extraordinary chapter in cycling which began with the dream of creating Britain's first Tour de France champion - which seemed overly ambitious at the time.

But Bradley Wiggins made it reality in 2012, before Chris Froome won four Tour de France titles and Geraint Thomas became Sky's third winner of cycling's landmark event this year.

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.

 Team Sky in action during a Time Trial. Photo: REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader
Team Sky in action during a Time Trial. Photo: REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

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”.

“The purpose of this was not to treat medical need, but to improve his power-to-weight ratio ahead of the race,” it added.

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 also 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.

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.”

Agence France-Presse (AFP)