With Ineos insiders insisting Chris Froome will race in France this summer, you can load up on popcorn and wait for intra-team fireworks to fly.
When the British outfit broke the news that it would be parting ways with its seven-time grand tour winner at the close of the season, team boss David Brailsford stated it was intended to “put an end to recent speculation and allow the team to focus on the season ahead.”
However, with Ineos insiders insisting that Thursday’s shock announcement of Froome’s imminent departure will not change team tactics at this year’s Grande Boucle, Brailsford and his British outfit have added a whole new route for rumor and the potential for mid-race fireworks.
Speaking to Dutch outlet Nu.nl on Friday, Ineos sport director Servais Knaven stated that the team’s Tour selection and strategy remain unchanged: Froome will share leadership with reigning Tour champion Egan Bernal and 2o18 winner Geraint Thomas in France this summer.
“During the Tour, there will all be questions whether the fact that Chris is leaving affects his status in the team, but I see no reason why his position would be different now,” Knaven said. “We want to win the Tour. And if Chris is the best, he wins. That he will leave us after this year really makes no difference.”
With the Tour packing a route that spices up as early as the mountains of Stage 2 and features a testing seven-kilometer summit finish atop Orcières-Merlette on stage 4, the first week of racing will take an all-new twist. Team Ineos’ “let the road decide” approach to leadership will come under a whole new level of scrutiny as its fractured trio of leaders heads to the hills, and Tour boss Christian Prudhomme is one who will be watching for fireworks particularly closely.
“The announcement on Froome, it adds an additional element,” Prudhomme told Cyclism’Actu. “I’m curious to see what it will give on the Tour, especially since with the Grand Départ of Nice, we have a Tour which will be in the mountains very quickly.
“So is there going to be a little bit of what we knew before between Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond [who were locked in a fierce inter-team rivalry in 1986], with a Chris Froome who would try to escape? And who would ride behind him? If that happens, we will be quickly fixed on the strategy of Ineos; it puts an extra spice on it.”
The balance of power between Froome, who has clearly stated his goal of taking a record-equalling fifth yellow jersey with Team Ineos this summer, and his equally-ambitious co-captains Bernal and Thomas adds a whole extra dimension to this summer’s race. Atop of that is the intrigue of how super-successful team boss Brailsford pulls the strings as he looks to mastermind an eighth Tour de France title under his watch.
Brailsford will above all else want to secure yet another win to add to the seven Tour trophies already on his resume, no matter which rider achieves it. However, the management of long-term relationships with his future leaders, particularly 23-year-old Bernal, who is signed to Ineos through 2023, could weigh heavily on his mind.
Should one of Ineos’ triumvirate snatch handfuls of seconds in the foothills of the Alps in the Tour’s opening weeks and maintain it, Brailsford will be spared having to make a tough call between three leaders that could be on an equal pegging as the Tour draws toward a close.
If the road hasn’t decided who is the undisputed leader of the Ineos team in the opening salvo of mountain stages, management may have to weigh the kudos and PR of sending one rider to five yellow jerseys on the one hand with the longer-term goodwill and co-operation of young superstar Bernal on the other.
Mathew Hayman, a former Team Sky rider and now a director with Mitchelton-Scott feels that if Brailsford has to set the agenda for his three leaders, the decision will be based on the simple objective of victory, irrespective of Froome’s future or establishing loyalty from his future team captains.
“Dave will make the tough call; he’s very good at managing all of those guys at that high level and getting a result,” Hayman recently told VeloNews. ‘I mean, he’s done it on a number of occasions with different people whether it’s been Brad [Wiggins] and Chris, or G [Thomas] and Chris, or G and Bernal. Ultimately Dave likes to win, and I think that will dictate things above all.”
However, no matter what the orders from the team car on in the bus briefing, it’s Bernal, Froome, and Thomas that will be turning the pedals, and the way they choose to do it will be based upon where their scales tip between personal ambition and team loyalty.
Team Ineos had hoped that their early confirmation of the Froome departure would take the spin out of the rumor mill and silence the speculation. While the news has shuttered one avenue of presumption and postulation after months of discussions of Froome’s future, the team’s suggestion that they will still take the 35-year-old to the Tour simply opens up another alleyway for armchair analysis and social media supposition.
“All questions about Chris’s future have now been answered, so we don’t have to talk about that anymore and we will no longer be distracted in the run-up to and during the Tour,” Knaven told Nu.nl.
Far from it.