Road

How the blockbuster Froome-Israel deal came together

Timing, money and ambition add up to momentous transfer.

Who says you can’t believe what you read in the news?

When Sylvan Adams, the billionaire co-owner of Israel Start-Up Nation, saw media reports that Chris Froome wasn’t happy with his situation at Team Ineos, he didn’t miss a beat.

Adams got his people to get in touch with Froome’s people, and within days, the pair spoke on the phone in a long, open, and sometimes emotional conversation that laid the foundation to cycling’s biggest blockbuster transfer in years.

The subsequent details would be worked out later, but it was that initial connection between Froome and Adams that put the wheels in motion.

“Chris and I got in touch, and things took on a life of their own,” Adams told VeloNews. “We had a very nice conversation, and of course we had many more after that, but things came together very quickly after our first call.”

From that pivotal first connection — which focused more on soul than money — things moved swiftly. Confident that common ground was reached, Adams stepped back as Froome’s manager and Israel Start-Up Nation staffers hashed out the finer details. In what’s a unique, open-ended contract that will allow Froome to end his career with the Israeli-backed team, both parties agreed to terms about three weeks later.

“From the first conversation we had with Chris, it was very positive,” Adams said in a telephone interview. “He liked our philosophy, and he liked the fact that our program is not just a cycling team. We are more like a family, and we are bringing the sport of bike racing to an entire nation.”

The news of Froome’s imminent exit from Tour de France juggernaut Ineos to the relatively new infrastructure at Israel Start-Up Nation continues to rattle the peloton barely a week after its announcement. There are larger questions of if Froome’s new relatively inexperienced team, which will make its Tour debut in August, will be up to the task of supporting his GC ambitions, and if Ineos might leave Froome at home during this year’s Tour to avoid possible internal turmoil with a rider with one foot out the door.

It’s a big bet on both sides. Froome is counting on Adams’ promises that the team will recruit additional firepower to support him in the Tour, and Adams is counting on Froome to be the same rider who’s won seven grand tours as the decade’s most dominant stage race rider.

The start of a blossoming relationship: Froome and Adams at the 2018 Giro. Photo: ISN/Gilad Adin

Adams and Froome were familiar with each other, but not close. The pair first met at the start of the 2018 Giro d’Italia underwritten by Adams, the same year Froome won. The Canadian real estate magnate lured RCS Sport to Jerusalem for that year’s “big start” in what not only marked the first time a grand tour started outside of Europe, but also introduced Adams to the larger peloton.

The pair had spoken since a few times, but they were not in serious contact until just a few weeks ago.

After more than 10 years with Dave Brailsford at Team Ineos, Froome seemed ready for a change. Froome joined Sky in 2010, and with his contract up at the end of this season, Froome wanted one more multi-year deal. Ineos officials did not comment for this story and Brailsford declined an interview request from VeloNews. Sources close to the deal, however, said that there was a disagreement over terms of a possible contract extension to stay at Ineos.

When Adams and his staff discretely reached out to Ineos brass last month to see if they had their blessing to negotiate with Froome, Ineos did not object. Knowing that Ineos was no longer interested helped speed negotiations between Adams and Froome.

There have been some suggestions that Froome was grating under Brailsford’s management style, and found the prospect appealing of working on a newer team — albeit with a smaller budget — that had room to grow.

“We are also a young team, and Chris liked that idea,” Adams said. “Most of all of what he liked is that this is not a corporate enterprise. I am putting a lot of my own money into the team. Ineos is pretty structured, and I think he liked what he heard about how we are doing things here.”

Froome, 35, was curious to learn about the team as much as he could, and peppered Adams with questions. After their initiation conversation, representatives from both parties put in long hours behind the scenes to work out a deal. Sources confirmed that a mid-season transfer to race in Israeli team colors in 2020 was never on the table.

Four yellow jerseys and counting. Photo: Tim De Waele / Getty.

One of the big takeaways for Adams was how passionate Froome remains about racing and his desire to keep winning. Froome, with seven grand tours on his palmarès, isn’t just looking at winning a fifth yellow jersey, but perhaps even trying to match Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 11 grand tours. Touched by Froome’s desire, Adams green-lighted negotiations to go to a higher level.

“This only works if there is confidence between both sides,” Adams said. “We had a very open conversation, and he liked the answers, and I liked what I heard. There was an immediate connection and understanding.”

Another key player in the deal was Israel Start-Up Nation manager Kjell Carlström. The Finn was Froome’s teammate in the first two years at Sky and the pair stayed in touch over the years. Carlström was an important contact person when the negotiations got more serious between Froome’s camp and the team.

Froome and Adams never met in person during the negotiations, in large part due to the coronavirus pandemic. From that initial phone call between Froome and Adams, the overall negotiations took about three weeks to finalize. Everyone was happy to sit on the news, but with the media sniffing around, a deal this big wasn’t going to stay under wraps for long. Hoping to avoid endless speculation during the upcoming Tour de France, everyone agreed to publicly confirm the news well ahead of the sport’s traditional trading window that starts August 1.

Both sides got what they wanted. Froome, who will be entering his 15th year as a pro in 2021, finds a new professional home that will allow him to race as the team’s unrivaled grand tour captain. His arrival also comes with the promise that Israel Start-Up Nation will load up on talent to give him a legitimate shot at taking down Team Ineos in the 2021 Tour. Several names have been linked to moves to Israel Start-Up Nation, but officials have so far refused to confirm any incoming riders.

Sylvan Adams: Cyclist, team owner, unofficial ambassador for Israel. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images.

Froome’s imminent arrival is also a coup for Adams, who’s quickly emerged as one of the most active and high profile owners in the WorldTour.

A Canadian by birth, the 61-year-old son of a holocaust survivor gained Israeli citizenship about five years ago. An avid competitive cyclist, Adams wanted to invest in sport and serve as an unofficial ambassador for Israel. He linked up with the nascent Israel Cycling Academy, which was then a small development team trying to nurture homegrown talent, and joined as co-team owner in 2017.

With Adams’s enthusiasm and checkbook, the team’s profile was quickly on the rise. It bumped from the third to second division in 2017, and became Israel’s first grand-tour team when it earned a berth in the 2018 Giro as part of the larger Israeli “big start” package. Last year, after riding its second Giro, Adams was knocking on the door of the WorldTour. There were merger talks, including with Team Sky and Quickstep, before things finally came together with Katusha. By 2020, the team had climbed into the WorldTour. All Adams needed now was a star.

“I could have never imagined that a rider like Chris Froome would be available,” Adams said. “It’s like if we signed Lionel Messi to a local Israeli club. So when we heard that he might be interested in changing teams, we didn’t wait for a second.”

Terms of the contract were not revealed, but sources say that Froome received a very lucrative offer from Israel Start-Up Nation, which means he will remain among the best-paid riders in the peloton.

In interviews with Adams and sources close to the deal, VeloNews also learned that Israel Start-Up Nation was the only major negotiator for Froome. Other teams might have been interested, but no one moved as quickly and as convincingly as Adams to secure the signature of the four-time Tour winner.

VeloNews also learned that Froome did not undergo a physical test before signing a contract, but team trainers did have privy to some of Froome’s power numbers, assuring that they are not buying damaged goods. That suggests that Froome is nearly if not fully recovered from his crash from the 2019 Critérium du Dauphiné.

Now comes the hard part — waiting until 2021.

“We are going into this hoping and frankly expecting Chris Froome to make history with this team,” Adams said. “Not only am I a positive person, this expectation is based on his determination and talent. I am certain we will win the Tour de France with Chris Froome.”

In 2021, Froome will ride for the first time since 2010 in a jersey that isn’t Sky or Ineos. It all started with a phone call in June.