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Commentary: Froome vs. Ineos? Bring it on!

Reports of a possible split inside the decade's most prolific Tour de France team opens the door to a potentially dramatic clash on the roads.

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Trade rumors are usually just that; rumors, at least until the ink is dry on a contract.

Yesterday’s insider scoop from Daniel Benson about a possible rare, mid-season transfer out of Team Ineos for Chris Froome, however, is so tantalizingly juicy one hopes it’s true.

Who wouldn’t love to see Froome racing against the very same “Fortress Froome” that carried him to such grand tour heights?

There are so many strands to this possibility, it’s best to unwind them one at a time.

First off, would Froome even considering leaving Team Ineos, his professional home since 2010, and where he’s flowered into the best grand tour rider of a new century?

The answer is yes, if the price is right.

Froome’s been the team’s franchise rider since Bradley Wiggins made history with his 2012 Tour de France victory. Wiggo got the one-off on the Tour’s last TT-friendly route, and Sky-turned-Ineos wisely pivoted to Froome. Despite his sometimes awkward yet brutally efficient pedaling style that broils the purists to no end, Froome emerged as one of the most prolific grand tour riders in history.

So the idea that Froome, who’s won seven grand tours in a Sky-Ineos jersey since 2011, might leave the team mid-season seems a bit far-fetched at first glance. Add a few layers to the story, however, and it’s not so outlandish as it first might appear.

There might not be enough room at the top of the Ineos hierarchy. Consider these factors: Froome’s age (35 in May), his career-threatening injuries from a crash at the 2019 Critérium du Dauphiné, and the presence of Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas, both Tour winners still under contract through 2021 and beyond. With Froome off contract in 2020, it’s no surprise that he’s testing the waters.

Chris Froome and Team Ineos
Chris Froome and Team INEOS during the 2020 UAE Tour. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images.

There are two key points in any contract negotiation: quantity and duration. With his recovery looking better than expected, Froome has already said he has no intention of retiring. So Froome is looking for a three-year deal, with an asking price in the neighborhood of $5 million per season. Those two numbers are the likely source of any contention.

Even with Team Ineos boasting cycling’s biggest payroll — at about $46 million annually — the numbers might not be there to keep Froome on his terms. Instead of re-upping Froome, team principal Dave Brailsford could spend that princely sum on rising talent and old-school workhorses. With Bernal under contract through 2024, Brailsford is clearly looking forward when it comes to signing riders, not rewarding past performances.

Sources have confirmed to VeloNews that so far Team Ineos has not reduced wages, but there could be larger macroeconomic fallout from the coronavirus crisis that could impact the team’s relationship with Froome going forward. The fortune of team owner Jim Ratcliffe, worth an estimated $18 billion, will inevitably be impacted by the coronavirus crisis. One of his subsidiaries — PetroIneos — is asking for a half-billion-dollars worth of government assistance, British media reported this week. So even Team Ineos could be facing some purse-tightening if and when the sport recovers from its growing crisis.

Egan bernal
Egan Bernal will not give up the chance at defending his Tour de France title for the sake of Chris Froome. Photo: Maximiliano Blanco/Getty Images

Are there any other reasons why Froome would want to leave his longtime professional home? Probably not. By all accounts, Froome and Brailsford get along as well as could be expected. Froome is comfortable on the team, gets along well with staffers and riders, and fits seamlessly into the Brailsford method. Froome has always delivered for the team, and Brailsford has always backed him with the peloton’s best helpers. Even when Froome was facing career-damaging allegations from his controversial salbutamol case in 2017, Brailsford and the team stuck by Froome. The team’s also supported Froome in his lengthy return from his Dauphiné crash. There’s a lot of packed-in loyalty into that bond, and it would take a lot to break the decade-long relationship between Froome and Brailsford.

The joker in the deal is Bernal. The 23-year-old defending Tour champion is under contract through the end of 2024. And despite his loyalty to Froome, Brailsford has clearly bet on Bernal. The Colombian is the future of the franchise, offering Brailsford the best chance to continue the team’s unprecedented domination of the Tour into the next decade. And based on recent remarks, Bernal has no intention of laying down for a Froome run for a fifth maillot jaune.

What other factors might nudge Froome out the door? The unexpected death of Nicolas Portal, who died of a heart attack at 41, means there’s one less link for Froome to the team. Portal was Froome’s favorite sport director, and the easy-going Frenchman calmly helped to guide him to his most important victories. Add the presence of 2018 Tour winner Thomas, under contract through 2021, and Froome’s untested strength in grand tour race conditions — Froome hasn’t raced a grand tour since finishing second in the 2018 Tour — and it’s easy to understand why Froome would be testing the waters, and why Brailsford might make the calculated move to let him go.

Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal
Geraint Thomas is yet another Team Ineos Tour de France champion. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

It’s likely Brailsford will find the money and the right race strategy to placate Froome to keep him in an Ineos jersey. After all, having all the Tour favorites under one tent has worked out pretty well so far for the team. Froome’s best chance to win another Tour is at Team Ineos. That tent, however, is clearly getting crowded with three, and Froome has the urgency to win a record-tying fifth yellow jersey.

The big question mark on the other side of the equation — which teams in the peloton might have the money to sign him? Considering that one-third of the WorldTour teams have cut wages, deferred payments, laid-off staffers, and face uncertain futures, that list is suddenly much smaller than it might have been just three months ago.

Yet when there’s a rider of Froome’s quality, and at least one rich and ambitious team owner, a deal is never out of the question.

Many are looking naturally to Bahrain-McLaren, where former Sky performance manager and longtime Froome confidante Rod Ellingworth took over as general manager last winter. The pair is close, and with former teammates Wout Poels and Mikel Landa already there, a fit could come easily. There could be a few complications. Those two joined in hopes of becoming leaders after riding in the shadow of Froome, and the team’s main backers, the Bahraini investment group and McLaren motors (owned by Bahraini interests), are both feeling the pinch from the global crash of oil demand. The team already deferred rider salaries, so an open checkbook under these conditions might not be as easy as expected.

Team Israel Start - Up Nation
Could Israel Start-Up Nation be Froome’s next home. Photo: Maximiliano Blanco/Getty Images

Another option could be Israel Start-Up Nation. Team owner Sylvan Adams, a billionaire real estate tycoon, already tried to link up with Brailsford last year before Ratcliffe and Ineos stepped in to secure the team’s future. The ambitious Adams, who dreams of bringing the first Israeli-backed team to the Tour de France, later merged with Katusha to enter the WorldTour for 2020. Adams might have the money, but the relatively young and untested team infrastructure might not be ideal for Froome’s immediate needs.

UAE-Emirates would be another candidate. Even the global oil crisis wouldn’t slow the ambitions of the wealthiest and most diverse of Middle East economies. The team would have the checkbook to sign Froome, but Froome might not want to go to a team where he doesn’t have too many personal connections.

One team that certainly has some room on top is Movistar. The Spanish WorldTour squad lost its three marquee grand tour captains in the off-season, with longtime Froome nemesis Nairo Quintana going to Arkea-Samsic, Landa to Bahrain-McLaren, and 2019 Giro d’Italia winner Richard Carapaz to Ineos. With the aging Alejandro Valverde and rising Spanish prospects Marc Soler and Enric Mas set to lead, Movistar would bring a fleet of domestiques and grand tour acumen that Froome would find attractive. It would be too ironic to see Quintana trying to drop a Froome wearing a Movistar jersey.

Another option would be a ready-built Froome deal that includes outside sponsors. Many of cycling’s bigger moves are often linked to a bike manufacturer or a sponsor a rider brings to the table. That’s how deals are structured between Peter Sagan and Specialized, and Mathieu van der Poel and Canyon, each boasting major contracts with the manufacturers that help cover their salaries apart from their respective team’s budgets. Froome has raced on Pinarello during his Sky-Ineos run, so it’s unlikely he could bring the Italian frame-builder with him to another team. Perhaps another manufacturer could step up, though the rumor mill has not hinted at any imminent deal along those lines so far.

Sagan and Gilbert at the 2019 Paris-Roubaix
Specialized traveled with the three-time world champion Peter Sagan when he made the transfer to Bora-Hansgrohe. Photo: James Startt

Many big-name transfers also typically include a retinue of helpers that moves in step with their captain, be it sport directors, mechanics, soigneurs, and a few choice riders. A mid-season transfer makes that almost impossible, and with longtime trainer Tim Kerrison entrenched at Ineos. So if Froome leaves, it will likely be him alone.

And that sets up the most intriguing and interesting strand of the story: If Froome leaves and lands at another team, could Froome alone beat the mighty Ineos fortress that’s been built up over the better part of a decade?

Who wouldn’t love to see Froome attacking his former teammates, or vice-versa? If Froome did jump ship, it would have to be caused by a major split with Brailsford. And there would be no love lost between the two if he did leave. It would set up a titan struggle between the decade’s best team and the decade’s best grand tour rider.

Imagine Froome, perhaps riding in a Movistar or a Bahrain-McLaren jersey, attacking hard at the front to try to drop Bernal and Thomas, with Quintana giving chase, and everyone else trying to hang on. Pitted against each other, with pride and legacy on the line, Froome versus Ineos would be one for the ages.