The catalyst came in May, in a pointed comment by Egan Bernal to a Spanish television station. Asked which of Ineos’s three former champions – Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas or Bernal himself – would lead the team at the Tour de France, he began with the old maxim that “the road will decide”, the sort of stock phrase he’d rolled out a hundred times before meaning whoever proved strongest over the opening days would become the de facto leader. But he added an unequivocal follow-up, interpreted in some quarters as a “warning” to his senior British teammates.
“I’m young, I’ve already won one Tour de France and I’m not going to throw away an opportunity to win another Tour, that’s for sure,” Bernal, 23, told Eurosport Espana. “That I would sacrifice myself, being at 100 per cent? I don’t think I’m going to do that, nor will he [Froome], nor will anyone.”
Froome spoke publicly of putting the team first but privately he was angered by Bernal’s bullish stance, and by a perceived lack of support from Ineos hierarchy. L’Equipe reported Froome telling a friend: “Sharing leadership between two is possible – less so between three”.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
He went to team principal Dave Brailsford for reassurance over his place in the pecking order and his future in the team, and received no guarantees. Froome’s subsequent courting of other teams did not go down well, even less so when he presented Israel Start-up Nation’s lucrative offer. Brailsford has rarely bought into sentimentality: now in the autumn of his career, having just recovered from serious injury and with two other Tour champions in the squad, Froome was deemed expendable. Brailsford has managed two competing ambitions and egos before but as Froome said himself, three is far harder.
And so this will be his final year with Ineos, formerly Team Sky, at the end of a decade filled with glorious highs and some deep lows too. Froome has won all three Grand Tours and collected four yellow jerseys, and at 35 remains adamant he can not only equal the legendary quartet to have won five Tours – Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Indurain – but surpass them. He may yet ride this September’s rescheduled Tour with Ineos, but to win number six he would have to defeat the team with whom he built his career.
The remainder of this season is not straightforward, and Froome will have to earn his place. He travels with the team to Tenerife this weekend for a high-altitude training camp, with two or three races to follow in August to prove he is back in peak condition before the Tour starts on 29 August in Nice. It is hard to know whether his imminent departure will ease tensions or stoke them, but it is now inevitable that Froome vs Bernal will be the underlying narrative, should they both race. The laidback Thomas has a good relationship with both teammates and would be something of an awkward third wheel.
Froome is understood to have had several offers this summer including one from the more established Bahrain-Merida, so his selection of the relatively callow Israel Start-Up Nation is an intriguing one. While it would be naive to overlook financial incentives of what is likely to be his final bumper contract – a reminder that Froome resides in Monaco – he would not have agreed to move without guarantees that he will be supported in chasing cycling history, which can only mean that he has been promised an all-star cast to work with.
Even so, he is taking an almighty gamble switching to a team which so far does not have the ammunition to match Ineos. Yes, he will be the out and out leader – quite what existing front-man Dan Martin thinks is unclear – but a team needs to be built around him before he can challenge. Greg van Avermaet is rumoured to be joining but he is a different kind of rider, a classics specialist, and there is clear need for a super-domestique or two to shield Froome in the mountains. There has never been a better time to build an elite cycling team, with a raft of top riders out of contract as the financial climate bites, but it will take several eye-catching signings to build a squad capable of beating Ineos, Jumbo-Visma and the rest over the next couple of summers.
Froome has already had dealings with some of those in Israeli cycling. The team’s co-owner, the Canadian billionaire Sylvan Adams, was the driving force behind the 2018 Giro d’Italia’s start in Israel, for which Froome was paid several million pounds to race. The Independent understands Froome is determined to bring key Ineos staff members with him to the Israeli team but Ineos hierarchy will not be willing to let them slip away easily.
They say all political careers end in failure, and perhaps it will turn out that all of Brailsford’s stars leave via the back door. That was certainly the case with Bradley Wiggins, pushed out by Froome, and it appears Bernal’s astonishing rise has had a similar effect. September’s Tour could provide one last hurrah for Froome, determined to win No 5 and with more than a point to prove. The road will not be left to decide this particular Tour de France.