Two former Tour de France champions were taken off their team roster this week. Four-time champ Chris Froome was seen as not good enough to ride for his team. Same goes for 2018 winner Geraint Thomas.
To be fair, both riders were off the pace in the mountains during last week’s Criterium du Dauphine. And Froome is coming back from a near career-ending injury at last year’s Dauphine. But then, several of their teammates were also off the pace. And it was an extremely mountainous parcours. And many riders gunning for Tour glory also rode semi-anonymously. And they could have still been building for the Tour, which starts nearly two weeks after the Dauphine ends.
Of course, they’re also teammates of each other and of defending Tour champ Egan Bernal on the Ineos squad. Who dropped out of the same Dauphine, citing “back problems,” after he had been distanced by rivals on the two previous stages.
When Ineos first announced they’d be going to the tour with three co-leaders, the commentariat and most other teams scoffed. It seemed like a recipe for disaster. Too many chiefs, not enough helpers. Too many pursuing their own agenda.
While it does, from the outside, look like a team divided, Ineos, and their previous incarnation, Team Sky, have gone to the Tour with multiple leaders on several occasion. In 2012, the team was supposed to be built around Bradley Wiggins. But first lieutenant Chris Froome looked stronger in the final mountain stages. Wiggins won, but in 2013, he was dispatched to the Giro d’Italia, while Froome lead Sky to victory at the Tour. In 2018, Froome was dealing with a possibly-imminent doping-related suspension, from an infraction that occurred en route to his 2017 Vuelta a España victory, so he went off and won the Giro, not knowing what his July would look like. The suspension didn’t happen, and his first lieutenant, Thomas, was going better at the Tour. Froome, ever the dutiful teammate, even with his four Tour victories, and titles at the Vuelta and Giro, worked for Thomas, who won the Tour, but not in the dominating fashion of Froome at his best.
Bernal, for his part, did not dominate the Tour a la Froome in 2019, either. And Thomas, who came to the Tour as defending champion, was an uncomplaining lieutenant who worked for Bernal. Arguably, Bernal’s rival Thibaut Pinot was riding stronger until an injury took him out of the race, and then a freak snowstorm shortened the final two mountain stages, smoothing the way to Bernal’s victory. But, with his win, Bernal was talking smack, telling the media he expected to be the protected rider.
Now, that Ineos decided to leave Froome and Thomas off their Tour roster, the experts are critical of their departure. Because they’re former champs, because both have shown they can put aside their egos and ambitions for the sake of the team victory.
Froome and Thomas, for their parts, were publicly fine with being left off.
What is surprising, besides the apparent lack of form and being cut, is that the two replacement riders seem, at least from this moment, to be riders of the future, not 2020. Pavel Sivakov is showing great form in the mountains in the few stage races he has done this year, but he has started only two Grand Tours, dropping out of the Vuelta in 2018 and then coming in 9th at the Giro in 2019. Richard Carapaz was a surprise winner of the Giro in 2019, but his race schedule didn’t seem to have focused him on the Tour this year, as he’s ridden only two races, not against the toughest competition, and the second of which finished three weeks before the Tour. More likely, his program was designed with him going to the Giro to defend his title.
Carapaz is an additional wrinkle, as his Giro win highlighted not only his skills as a rider, but his willingness to ride for himself when team orders are to ride for others. Ambition is great, but pursuing one’s own agenda is something that Ineos has always frowned upon, and can be devastating for a team in a hard race.
Ineos’ director, Dave Brailsford, often gets praised for being a near genius in the bike racing world. He helped bring terms like “marginal gains” to mainstream acceptance in elite racing. But sometimes it can seem like high gloss on what can be pretty ugly practices—like a smokescreen for doping. With Brailsford and his British Cycling, Sky, and Ineos endeavors, it could be that money, often a blunt force, is the real answer, and he is able to buy success in many different ways—doping, high-altitude training camps, equipment, enticing journalists with a polished presentation, hiring potential rivals as domestiques, and more. Since it’s clear both Froome and Thomas in public, at least, play the game of dutiful teammates, maybe this was the stroking of one fragile ego and the team’s long-term investment, not about form and racing.
Strikingly, the team that is looking the strongest in stage races this year is the Dutch Jumbo-Visma squad. And they, too, were looking to go to the Tour with three leaders. Jumbo-Visma has already lost one of the three, Steven Kruijswijk, as he crashed out of the Dauphine. And the second leader, Tom Dumoulin, the one I’d pick as their best rider for the Tour, is nominally volunteering to be the top domestique as he claims that teammate Primos Roglic is the team’s best rider. Roglic also pulled out of the Dauphine to recover from injuries sustained in a crash. Dumoulin was not only the only one to finish, but he also worked for Roglic, in what appeared to be him possibly ‘paying it forward’ by sacrificing his own chances and working on his form, possibly for a later peak.
The uncertainty of bike racing often does more to decide things than plans. Bernal’s victory in 2019 looked like he benefitted far more from circumstance than dominance, from him or his team, though the latter did as much as could be expected.
We’ve got a week to go before the Grand Depart, and already, there’s great material for a classic polemico and the race has yet to take off.
JP is the author of Tour Fever: The Armchair Cyclist’s Guide to the Tour de France, which is available both as an eBook and audiobook.