When the news broke that Chris Froome could leave Ineos mid-season and race the Tour de France this August with another squad, on paper there was, surely, a strong case for a kneejerk ‘yeah, right’ reaction and going back to way more important current questions for most people in these troubled times.
Like, for example, some realistic uses for the mini-mountain of toilet rolls you panic-bought when lockdown was announced, or why everybody – still – seems to be obsessed with making their own bread. You know, stuff that actually matters. (We could add in questions like whether you’ll still have a job next week, but this is supposed to be a lighthearted kind of blog entry, so we’ll skip that one for now.)
Then again, all psychologists currently seem to be recommending mild forms of harmless escapism as a way of resisting the more detrimental mental health effects of lockdown and even if Froome’s potential exit from Ineos certainly has something of that “and-then-I-woke-up-and-it-was-day-1,299-of-lockdown-only-3,259-to-go-til-we’re-out-of-this-crap” feel to it, on reflection it’s not totally unrealistic that Froome could move on. And that’s even if the only previous recent example of a multiple Grand Tour winner of Froome’s stature quitting what is – no dis-respect to the long-absent Konica-Minolta and Barloworld squads intended – his only major professional team at a point when he seemed destined to do battle for at least one more Grand Tour never actually happened either.
It is, in fact, at this point in cycling history that the careers of Chris Froome and five-times Tour winner Miguel Indurain (who once, fun fact time, helped Froome put on his leader’s jersey at a Vuelta a España, bonus pointless lockdown-quiz points for those readers who remember where and when) could run parallel off the bike as well as on it.
Back in 1996, as us more senior members of the ‘cycling community’ (now there’s another fantasy concept to keep us entertained during lockdown) remember, Indurain threw his toys out of the pram big-time after a) losing the Tour for the first time in six years b) being forced by his team to ride the Vuelta a España when all he wanted to do was stay home and – who knows? – maybe watch back editions of the Eurovision Song Contest or finally finish the same book he’d invariably claim he was reading during each Tour. (More pointless lockdown quiz points if you can name that particular tome, and no, it wasn’t War and Peace.) 25 years back, the fall-out on that particular will-he-won’t-he saga headed well into what was the closest annual cycling equivalent of no-news lock-down prior to the real thing – in other words the off-season, and November.
For weeks, with very little else to think about (sound familiar?) we savoured and drooled over mocked-up pictures of Indurain wearing an ONCE jersey. Given the depth of the rivalry between the two Spanish teams, this was viewed in some quarters as being on a scale of potential sporting treachery as what actually happened a few years later when US Postal domestique Kevin Livingston abandoned Lance Armstrong’s side and signed for Jan Ullrich’s Telekom (This fleeing across cycling no-mans-land to join the opposition army sparked Lance Armstrong’s famous comment about Livingston’s switch being akin to the top US military officer, and first Gulf War Allied forces commander “General Schwarzkopf visiting” – ie defecting to – “Communist China.”(Armstrong, for the record, since said he wishes he hadn’t made that comment. Regrets, he’s had a few…).
Anyway back to Indurain: if it wasn’t he was going to sign for ONCE, it was Lampre, or Polti. …Things got so bad in terms of speculation that his Banesto director, Jose Miguel Echavarri, admitted he’d taken to lighting candles in his local cathedral for divine assistance to try and find a way out of what was clearly a monumental balls-up by somebody in Indurain’s team that had sparked off Indurain’s wrath. It all got so hyped that the Diario de Navarra newspaper in his home town of Pamplona printed a cartoon of Big Mig going out a-hunting for some ‘light relief’ and to get away from it all, but… even the wild boar Indurain had lined up in his rifle’s sights, presumably to blast to kingdom come, poked its head out of the bushes to ask Miguel “So is it ONCE or Banesto or retirement?”
Finally, as we all know, on January 2nd 1997, Indurain announced to all and sundry (as well as any wild piggies who happened to be wandering around downtown Pamplona that day) that it was the latter and a million copy sports writers wondered if it was a day too late to talk about New Year’s hangovers shattering the dream, grim reality setting in after the christmas Festivities and so on.
And in Froome’s case, the bubble-bursting, (minus Navarran pigs and Big-Mig totin’ guns, that is) , might well be similar, although – credit due as ever to his massive tenacity and willingness to fight back after such a dreadful series of injuries – ending his career at the end of 2020 is not an option for Froome right now. But as for signing for another team… even leaving aside the massive personal history and strong relationships Froome surely has bult in the squad where he is, with Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard, just one of three original members, for one thing, is there anybody out there with a spare couple of million euros at least lying around willing to spend it this summer when (and this is the crunch part) we have little to no idea if the Tour de France will happen? And is there really another team out there than can offer Froome the same sort of Grand Tour firepower and know-now as Ineos? The answer to both questions is almost certainly, although not totally definitely, ‘No’, and Froome surely knows it. Which begs the rather more interesting question – why, in a contract year, has somebody let the moggie out of the saddlebag that Froome is weighing up his options for 2021 at least rather than simply signing on the dotted line for a final few glorious years at Ineos?
But back to 2020 and the idea of Froome early exit from Ineos just for a moment, because, well, – it’s such a good story. Froome taking on Bernal, Thomas and Carapaz (the rider who never gets mentioned and who could, perhaps, benefit the most from all the mutual eyeballing and talk of leadership contests if he gets in a break early on) and trying to beat them as he fights for a fifth Tour would prove to be a massive media and fan draw. That’s without even beginning to reflect on all the additional backstories of a comeback from career-threatening injuries, the age factor (there’s now only one rider, Fermin Lambot, who won the Tour older than Froome, and that was a mere 98 years ago), the difficulty and complexity of this year’s route, the team that dares to take on all-conquering Ineos and maybe wins…. Not to mention the difficulties the Tour will surely face to be held this year at all.
So who wants to wake up and realise we’re still in the middle of lockdown and this is almost certainly not going to happen? Any takers out there? Thought not.