Hours, maybe even a day or two before Thursday’s stage 17 finale ever played out on the road, the scenario that unfolded had likely been foreseen, discussed, and decided on, either in the Sky hotel, the team bus, or over the radio.
The race was in the final, gasping kilometers of this last mountain stage, ascending the 5.1-percent ramps to the Peyragudes ski station. Cadel Evans, the defending champion already sunk by stomach issues the day before, was dropped. Vincenzo Nibali, the only man who could truly threaten Sky’s one-two hold on GC, had been brought to heel. A lone breakaway, the not-what-he-used-to-be Alejandro Valverde, was still within reach of the yellow jersey group. It was the perfect opportunity for Chris Froome to nip away for a second stage win, a personal reward for the yeoman’s work he had done for Bradley Wiggins over two mountain ranges, yet notably leaving Froome too little road to threaten his leader’s overall advantage.
That Froome — seemingly ravenous for victories — did not leap away gives some insight into what Sky’s closed door decision was. But Froome, who has remained grudgingly loyal to Wiggins despite being heralded by many as the strongest GC man in the race, did not go quietly. He surged ahead in the closing kilometer, every bit the dog straining at his leash. After ripping a small gap, he looked back to Wiggins, apparently but not overtly taunting him before laying off and picking the yellow jersey up again. The message was clear: “I will do what I am paid to do, but look what I could do if I didn’t.”
As this Tour has from early on, the awkward closing to the Pyrénées begged the question of what’s next for Chris Froome. Following his breakout performance in the 2011 Vuelta, where he overhauled Wiggins to finish second, Froome re-upped with Sky for another three years, ostensibly locking him down through the 2014 season. Now, that commitment looks less secure.
Froome has said that he would like to have leadership of the Sky team if a more mountainous 2013 Tour route favors his strengths over Wiggins’. Barring injury or other catastrophic change to Wiggins’ form, that will not happen, regardless of the route. Wiggins is and always has been the team’s darling, its marquis rider. The current yellow jersey is as already a British Olympic hero, a Commander of the British Empire, an avowed Mod as comfortable being wrapped in the Union Jack as Pete Townshend. For a British team backed by the nation’s cycling federation, it doesn’t get much more ideal. Should Wiggins return to the Tour as defending champion and not receive the full and unquestioned support of his team, there will be a national outcry.
Froome might be stronger than Wiggins this year, and he may be stronger next year, too. But as a born-in-Kenya, raised-in-South Africa rider whose British citizenship and racing license are reflective of his father’s country of birth, Froome will never be management’s preferred choice if both men are within reach of the victory. In professional cycling, being the more marketable rider is sometimes more important than being the stronger one. Sky may be able to pacify Froome with a Giro or Vuelta arrangement, but if both men are on the Tour’s start line for Sky next year, the most Froome can hope for is to inherit leadership on the road.
Or, he could leave. Despite his contractual status, Froome will almost certainly be receiving overtures after the Tour if he isn’t already. And after prying Wiggins from his Garmin contract with a golden crowbar, Sky boss Dave Brailsford will have little room to complain publicly about the tactic. But Froome’s freedom faces several hurdles.
The first will be Sky’s willingness to let Froome go. On sporting grounds, keeping Froome against his will is a mixed bag. On one hand, while Froome fulfilled his duties in the face of temptation during this Tour; he’s clearly unhappy with some aspects of his role and hungry to see what he can do in a leadership position. Whether he’ll remain as loyal in the future is a serious consideration. And even if he commits no outright betrayal, disgruntled employees can be unmotivated and dangerous for morale. However, if Sky does turn him loose, it would release the current number one threat to Wiggins’ title defense into the wild, though the return of Alberto Contador will alter that assessment somewhat. Unlike Contador, though, Froome is not just a physical threat, he’s an intelligence threat as well — he knows how Sky engineered its likely Tour victory from the inside, and will take that knowledge with him wherever he goes.
The second problem is finding a team that both needs and, more importantly, can afford him. The base salary Sky pays Froome is rumored to be considerable — nearly that of Wiggins. On top of that, Brailsford would likely demand a heavy buyout fee. However, other teams can offer him the one thing he wants that Sky cannot — outright leadership — and for that, he may be willing to take a pay cut.
At this point, it is way too early to know where Froome will ultimately end up should he leave Sky, but there could be a handful of likely suitors.
With presumptive Tour third place Vincenzo Nibali leaving at year’s end, Liquigas will be in need of a GC rider for the near term. If Froome reached a two or three year deal there, joining former Barloworld director Albert Volpi, it could see the 27-year-old through his prime years with a team that’s proven capable of supporting a top GC rider. It would also give the team’s rising star Peter Sagan the time and space to determine where he’ll ultimately direct his seemingly boundless talent.
Katusha stands out as a team with the financial might to potentially absorb Froome’s salary and buyout fee. The state-backed Russian team finally secured homegrown GC man Denis Menchov for this year, but he fizzled early in a Tour that should have suited him and, at 34, likely has only a few good years, if any, left. And with Joaquim Rodríguez already on the payroll, Katusha has proven open to foreign leadership and with his comments on Menchov this week to VeloNews, the team’s top director, Valerio Piva sounds as though he’s ready to move on from the Menchov experiment.
Orica-GreenEdge, another nationally-oriented squad with relatively deep pockets, has a host of up-and-coming Australian talent, but could be interested in Froome if it wants to make a more immediate impact on grand tour GC. Though he’s not Australian, going to another Anglo-oriented team might make an easier fit and ease the transition from Sky. Orica would offer familiar surroundings to Froome, as a number of his former Barloworld and Sky teammates, including South African Daryl Impey and Simon Gerrans, made the move to the first-year Australian squad for 2012.
Omega Pharma-Quick-Step has been on a perpetual hunt for a GC rider for what feels like decades, and with Levi Leipheimer coming to the end of an injury-marred one-year deal and an anonymous Tour performance, the team might be in the market again. Patrick Lefevre’s team is well funded, but not overly wealthy, and still has to keep Tom Boonen in the style to which he’s accustomed, both in terms of salary and support riders. And if the team found the interest and money to sign Froome, grand tour support would be a serious concern in a heavily classics-focused team.
Should Froome take a pay cut to move elsewhere, he’ll consider it an investment in himself — if he rides well, to the expectations he’s set this Tour, he’ll make his money back and more. Or, like any investment, it could go bad. The road is littered with super-domestiques that struck out on their own and never pulled off the grand tour win that once seemed within reach. As Wiggins himself has observed, Froome’s stellar performances have come when he is not under the intense media scrutiny of a favorite. They have also come as he’s had the riders, expertise, and resources of one of the world’s best funded and tightest run cycling teams behind him.
But once he’s in the glare of the spotlight, expected to carry a team, without Sky behind him and with the weight of Britain, Kenya, and maybe even Africa itself on his shoulders? Only then will we know what Chris Froome will do next.
Ryan Newill has contributed to VeloNews since 1999. He also writes on his site www.theservicecourse.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SC_Cycling.