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Thank heavens for the Giro d'Italia. Not my words, but surely what Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford was thinking to himself midway through last week, as his two team leaders continued their Cold War from two outposts which seem to symbolize the unbridgeable gulf between them: Wigan for Bradley Wiggins and Monte Carlo for Chris Froome.
Brailsford will have been grateful that the Giro diverted everyone's thoughts to Team Sky's immediate future and Italy. Well, sort of, because as Wiggins' now infamous press conference last Monday showed, the Tour de France and the question of who will lead Sky in the Grande Boucle is nigh on inescapable. It looms over Sky's every race, permeates Brailsford's every public statement, and infiltrates every stroke of Wiggins and Froome's pedals. There is no way to outrun it, nowhere to hide and no way that it will disappear except via some unfortunate turn of events. Wiggins crashing at the Giro, for example, or his form failing him dramatically. Neither of which Brailsford wants.
The only way to deal with it, indeed, was to tackle it head on, which Brailsford belatedly did on Monday. "It is crucial," he said, "that there is clarity of purpose and, for that reason, we will go to the Tour with one leader. Taking that into consideration and given Chris's step up in performances this year, our plan, as it has been since January, is to have him lead the Tour de France team."
It sounded crystal clear - and sounded as though it had been since January. That, though, has clearly not been the case. Even, delivered as it was this week, on closer inspection, Brailsford's message is clear only in its ambiguity: "Our plan is to have him lead the Tour de France team." Plan, as in, "We're not yet sure. We'll see. We hope. If all goes well." The room for manoeuvre is still very ample.
And of course, it has to be, because Sky need to be prepared for all eventualities. Insisting the "Froome-dog" is their top dog just to honour some kind of explicit or unspoken, Hinault-esque promise made last year, or because they're scared that otherwise he'll leave, would be cutting off their nose to spite their face. Same with not having Wiggins at the Tour and ready to step up should their "plan" go awry. Brailsford needs to keep his options and the team's open, not only now but until the Tour leaves the Alps on the penultimate evening of the race, he'll hope, with Froome in the yellow jersey.
So no argument about that. Completely fair, completely reasonable. The question is why Wiggins, as the team's leader and star, was showing no acknowledgement of this supposedly long-standing plan as recently as last week, and whether he will now that it has been restated. Not only that, but whether he really should acknowledge it, is under any obligation. In what other sport, after all, would a defending champion, a man hailed by one national newspaper as the greatest athlete Britain has ever produced just a few months ago, be asked to step aside in favour of someone the general public will regard as a virtual unknown?
It really comes down to the hardest part of this puzzle for Brailsford to solve - the relationship between Wiggins and Froome. Or rather lack of relationship, because all lines of communication have completely broken down. When Froome read Wiggins' comments last week, he phoned Brailsford, angry and confused. Brailsford assured him that the plan, the famous "plan" hadn't changed, but more messages were exchanged over the next day or two and more assurances sought. This all culminated in Brailsford's statement to the press over the weekend. Again, though, the doubt remained Wiggins. Had he accepted the decision, and could he find it within himself to get completely behind Froome, whom he has never forgiven for his momentary, he thinks mutinous attacks in the Alps and Pyrenees last year?
These are questions, ultimately, for Bradley Wiggins and not us. They are the new questions stalking Team Sky, their boss Sir Dave Brailsford, and their new Tour de France leader Chris Froome.
For this and more download this week’s issue of Cyclingnews HD. Issue 54 has all the latest from the Giro d’Italia, including wins for Mark Cavendish and Team Sky. Ryder Hesjedal throws the first punches in the GC battle. In depth analysis of all the action, with stunning photography. We also take a look forward at the up and coming key stages at the Giro, plus an exclusive interview with Carlos Betancur.
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