Alasdair Fotheringham: Chris Froome’s exit exposes Sky’s folly in lacking Plan B

 

Team Sky’s strategy of placing all their bets on Chris Froome for the Tour de France in 2014, rather than having Sir Bradley Wiggins in the line-up as a Plan B, is in disarray following the abandonment of the race by the Kenyan-born Briton after barely five stages.

The management’s decision to leave Wiggins at home was widely seen as a way of ensuring that team unity was at a maximum, and that there would be no potential for the kind of public falling-out that erupted between Froome and Wiggins on the 2012 Tour.

But the risk was simple: without Wiggins, the team lacked a second option for the overall classification with the Londoner’s knowledge and experience.

Richie Porte now steps up as Sky’s general classification contender, and the Australian has shown strongly in a three-week Grand Tour before, such as the 2010 Giro d’Italia, which he led for a week. And today he raced extremely well, despite crashing, to move into eighth overall.

But for now, Porte has lacked consistency in three-week racing – last year, after lying second overall on one mountain stage in the Tour, he cracked completely in the next. Whether he can fill Froome’s shoes is a whole new departure for Team Sky and a big step into the unknown.

That Froome’s exit from the Tour should come on the day that the Tour tackled the cobbled sectors usually reserved for the Paris-Roubaix Classic was, in fact, coincidental. The Briton’s first crash was in the first hour and the second was well before the race tackled the first section of pavé. Heavy rain rendered the Belgian roads dangerous and Froome was already in some pain after a bad crash on Tuesday.

But the absence of Wiggins from Team Sky’s line-up could hardly go unnoticed, particularly as just a few minutes after Froome had abandoned the race, the bunch roared on to the very same lethal cobbled sections where the Londoner had excelled in the Paris-Roubaix Classic this April, taking ninth and staying in contention for the outright victory into the final hour of racing. So could Wiggins have taken up the mantle of leader again?

Froome proved last year that he was more than capable of winning the Tour alone. But for some observers, this year’s extremely complicated first week and the plethora of difficult stages in which Sky have historically been at their weakest made it unwise to place all their eggs in the one Froome-shaped basket.

It was not as if Sky had not had warnings of the potential risks. In the Critérium du Dauphiné, Froome’s bad crash, which caused him to slump from second to 12th, left them exposed. Earlier on, injuries and illnesses had contributed to a very uneven first half of the season.

Wiggins had said he expected his role to be that of a domestique working for Froome and he showed nothing but solidarity for him. However, the question of whether Wiggins could have been there to help that process is now highlighted again. His form was clearly strong, as he showed with a win in the Tour of California and again in the British national championships time trial, less than 10 days before the Tour.

But instead of the Tour, he is racing in the Commonwealth Games before returning to the road in the Vuelta a Espana this August. It will be intriguing, if Froome and he now coincide again in that race, to see how the two will handle the leadership question there.

But the reality is that a huge hole has been punched in Sky’s chances of a third straight victory in the Tour de France, with a British rider to boot. Following Mark Cavendish’s exit on stage one, and despite the success of the three stages in Britain, the 2014 Tour looks like being a race of very mixed fortunes for British cycling.

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