Dave Brailsford gently wields Ineos knife on Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas before Tour de France fight

Brailsford has never been one for sentimentality, and with the rise of rivals Jumbo-Visma he has turned to hard-nosed pragmatism in cutting Froome and Thomas from his Tour de France squad

Lawrence Ostlere
Friday 21 August 2020 13:31 BST
Chris Froome in profile

Gary Neville used to tell a story about Sir Alex Ferguson and how the manager handled his autumn years. Ferguson would come into his hotel room the day before a big game, against Arsenal for example, and let the defender know that he wasn’t going to be playing tomorrow but that he was crucial to his plans for the match in a couple of weeks against Crystal Palace. You’ll be starting that game and I’ll need you, he’d say with urgency. So make sure you’re ready. Ferguson would walk out of the room and Neville would scratch his head. He felt energised, like he’d been given some great purpose, but he was also pretty sure he’d just been dropped.

Several Manchester United players tell a similar story and it is one that speaks of Ferguson’s surprisingly deft touch with people, his ability to nurture morale, a style that carries plenty of parallels with British cycling’s most successful manager Sir Dave Brailsford. On Wednesday, Ineos released a video of Brailsford sitting in the countryside, sunshine gently illuminating his smiling face, as he wielded the knife on Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas. They would not be riding the Tour de France, with the team led instead by reigning champion Egan Bernal and this season’s new signing, Richard Carapaz.

The move itself was typically ruthless but its delivery was carefully choreographed. Thomas deserved the “opportunity” to race the Giro d’Italia, Brailsford beamed. “A Welshman’s never won the Giro before,” he added enthusiastically, in much the same tone as a parent offering to time their child doing something they’d rather not. Froome “deserves the opportunity to go into a Grand Tour as a leader as well,” Brailsford explained, and so he was being packed off to the Vuelta a Espana, every rider’s third favourite Grand Tour.

None of this should be particularly surprising. Brailsford has rarely had room for sentimentality, from the exit of Bradley Wiggins in 2014-15 through to Froome’s imminent departure. Froome was put out by Bernal’s bullish comments on the leadership battle in a Spanish TV interview back in March, and his relationship with Brailsford deteriorated as he failed to gain assurances and began courting other teams. Froome joins Israel Start-Up Nation this winter, so the 35-year-old’s shaky recent form was the perfect excuse to push him aside and avoid an awkward Bernal v Froome narrative.

Thomas’s omission was arguably more left-field, but like Froome his post-lockdown form has been underwhelming while the young pretenders have impressed, including the talented Pavel Sivakov, 23, selected to make his Tour debut. The 27-year-old Carapaz is well-suited to ride beside Bernal: the Ecuadorian rider grew up racing in Bernal’s native Colombia, and both are natural climbers having been raised nearly 3,000m above sea level. They balance well, with Carapaz more suited to explosive solo attacks and Bernal more likely to grind his rivals into the Alpine road.

Besides, perhaps there is the need for hard-nosed pragmatism now more than ever. For the first time in more or less a decade, Sky/Ineos probably won’t be the best team on the start line at the Tour de France. The Dutch outfit Jumbo-Visma have been quietly assembling something special for a couple of years now: in 2019 they signed time-trialist and fierce domestique Tony Martin, the prodigious Wout van Aert and the supreme young climber Laurens De Plus; this season they added former Giro winner Tom Dumoulin to former Vuelta winner Primoz Roglic as the spearheads of their assault on the Tour, and allied with last year’s Tour runner-up Steven Kruijswijk they will have a strong team geared to winning the race.

There is already something of a compelling rivalry brewing between Ineos and Jumbo-Visma, fuelled by last year’s close battle and the mid-race punch-up that saw their two road captains Luke Rowe and Tony Martin disqualified and forced to issue grovelling apologies containing words like “racing incident” and “respect” and “it’s hot out there”. More recently tensions have been stoked by rumours Ineos are trying to coax the impressive De Plus over from Jumbo, while the Dutch team’s announcement of their Tour line-up several months early felt like something of a power move.

Of course, experience counts for something in all this. Jumbo are chasing their first Tour de France victory while Ineos have been there, done that and literally got the T-shirt, multiple times. Yet without Froome or Thomas it is a more callow team, one with inexperienced leaders still learning about the Tour and each other. It will also be Ineos’s first Tour without key directeur sportif Nico Portal following his sudden death in March.

So perhaps this is what Brailsford meant when he added that they might need a different strategy this time around. Ineos never quite had full control of last year’s race, dominated by the brilliant Julian Alaphilippe, and the sheer strength of Jumbo-Visma will deny them the chance to deploy the start-to-finish control of years gone by this time too. Ineos will have to find a different road to victory, under a new plan, one in which neither of Brailsford’s former lynchpins Froome or Thomas quite fit.

Ferguson was once asked by Brailsford for the secret to his longevity in football management. “Get rid of the c***s,” was his advice. That sage nugget would be pretty unfairly applied to the popular Thomas and the respected Froome in this case, but you suspect Brailsford has never forgotten that line and its relevance. Harmony is everything, and nostalgic affection wins no prizes. Now Froome has been dropped for the Tour, saved specially for the Vuelta, and left scratching his head as Brailsford walks out the door.

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