To understand how it is that six weeks before Chris Froome might have been starting out on his quest for a fifth Tour de France he is contemplating his imminent departure from his team of 10 years, you have only to consider two of Sir Dave Brailsford’s favourite catch phrases. Mission clarity. Compassionate ruthlessness.
The unhappy 2012 Tour when Bradley Wiggins and Froome failed to gel perfectly taught Brailsford about mission clarity: make sure your leaders know the hierarchy and be certain they will stick to it. The emergence of a young, thrusting talent in the 2019 Tour winner, Egan Bernal, alongside two former winners in Froome and Geraint Thomas would be a nightmare to handle in ideal circumstances. Achieving clarity while racing the Tour with two leaders is bad enough, but three would be a very crowded marriage.
When the one of the three with the strongest record is also trying to construct a comeback from a career threatening injury, as Froome is, the nightmare is compounded. Someone had to go, and Froome was always going to be the one. From his perspective there is another factor: the untimely death of Sky/Ineos director sportive Nicolas Portal this spring, which robbed him of his staunchest ally within the team.
History makes it plain how Brailsford and Froome can part company. In 2013, when Froome was the thrusting Tour contender, and Wiggins was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, Brailsford had little hesitation in throwing sentiment aside, ditching a rider he had worked with since his career started, and going with Froome. A lesser man might have backed Sir Brad, but Sir Dave had the clarity of mind, the nerve and the cold-bloodedness to go with Froome. Given the results the pair have achieved since then, it was clearly the right move. Compassionate ruthlessness: wield the knife but in the front not the back and do it with a kind smile while saying the right things.
The split raises obvious questions. First, what will Froome’s programme be for the end of the season? Will Ineos dare put their former leader in the Tour de France? Froome will be desperate to ride but why would Brailsford want to risk disrupting the balance of his team? And how would Froome react if told politely that he can have his head in the Giro or the Vuelta, albeit not with the same level of team support?
How will Froome deal with transferring to his new team for 2021 and can he return to his former level? Whatever the training numbers, the only way of seeing if he can come back after his horrific accident of last year to what he was from 2015-18 is for him to ride a Grand Tour in anger. So to that extent, it might be the best solution for him to return in the Giro or the Vuelta, away from the hot-house of the Tour de France and away from the constant questions about who is leader.
Whether Israel Start-Up Nation can offer him the same level of support as Ineos is a simpler one: they can’t, until 2022 at the earliest. By 2013 when Froome won his first Tour, Team Sky had two successful Grand Tour-focused seasons behind them, winning both the 2011 Vuelta and the 2012 Tour. By 2017-18 when he achieved the grand slam of Tour, Vuelta and Giro on the trot Team Sky were the best Grand Tour team, at least since Miguel Indurain’s Banesto.
Even if budget is not a factor a machine of that quality is not constructed overnight; putting the parts in place takes time, and getting them to work in harmony takes longer. ISN have not even begun to shop around beyond their leader, and there is no chance of them buying the team riders they need before the end of 2021. Next year, Froome will have to cope without the multiple support riders in the mountains that Team Sky bought and developed over the years.
He is a doughty competitor but even if he returns to his best – a considerable ask at 36 years of age, as he will be next year – he will be at a disadvantage faced with more seasoned units such as Ineos, Primoz Roglic’s Jumbo-Visma, and Thibaut Pinot’s FDJ. A leader of Froome’s quality will lift those around him, speeding up the development process, but it could be that ISN improve as his strength fades with age.
When the history books are written, the relationship between Froome and Brailsford will be simple to sum up. This is not a sudden, acrimonious breakup when one party pushed the other too far, along the lines of Indurain’s sudden departure from Banesto in 1996. Indurain was their boy through and through and could not contemplate riding for any other team, hence his decision to retire rather than move.
This partnership between Froome and Brailsford is more cold-blooded, a marriage of convenience between two equally hard-nosed and driven men, each with an eye for the main chance, and each of whom found considerable use for the other. As with Wiggins, when the end had to come, there will have been warm words but little sentiment and no tears in private.