Sky rider ordered to wait for Wiggins
After running according to the agreed script for 10 days, Sky's Tour de France challenge experienced its first plot twist on stage 11 to La Toussuire. Four kilometres from the summit of the climb, Chris Froome ad-libbed by accelerating with such ferocity that he left yellow jersey Bradley Wiggins flailing off the back of the group of favourites.
For a delirious 500 metres, it seemed as though the character actor Froome was about to overshadow the team's box office star. Quite what the studio would have made of it is anyone's guess, but within seconds the director had scrambled into action, and the frantic command to cut the action crackled over Froome's radio earpiece.
His hand pressed against his ear, Froome duly followed orders and slowed the pace accordingly, allowing Wiggins to latch back on to the back of the group, where he would remain until the end of the stage.
Happily for Sky, their chief nemesis Cadel Evans (BMC) had already been distanced (he dropped to fourth overall, 3:19 off Wiggins), and the only further frisson came in the final 500 metres, when Froome clipped off the front with Thibaut Pinot (FDJ-BigMat) to claim third place on the stage.
On crossing the line, Froome was asked if he realised that his fierce effort had put Wiggins into difficulty. "I heard on the radio and they asked to slow down, so I waited for him," he said, before carefully and deliberating reiterating that he is happy to follow the preordained script.
"I think Bradley's in a better position to win the Tour this year than I am to be honest," he said. "I follow orders at all costs. I'm part of a team and I have to do what the team ask me to do. He's just as strong as me I think and he's stronger than me in the time trial and we've still got a 50km time trial coming."
While Wiggins showed his superiority in the time trial at Besançon, there is an increasing sense that Froome is stronger in the mountains. By ordering him simply to control affairs in the climbs, Froome could be forgiven for feeling the dice were loaded in favour of Wiggins.
"It depends on how the team rides it, but this is how Team Sky are choosing to ride and I'm sticking to that," Froome said diplomatically, who insisted that the priority on the day was to put time into the struggling Evans. "It's obviously good to get more time on your rivals."
Indeed, Evans' losses meant Froome moved up to second overall, 2:03 behind his leader Wiggins, and while the pair stumbled over their lines on the road to La Toussuire, the team remains very much in control of the race.
Off the bike, of course, the team has also strained to be in control of every situation. Reporters at the rest day press conference were informed that questions on Twitter-circulated doping suspicions were off-limits. Subsequently, the team was understood to have been displeased by the attention Tuesday's newspapers afforded to its hiring of former Rabobank doctor Geert Leinders.
After the stage, team principal Dave Brailsford was typically determined to put a wholly positive spin on a situation that will surely require delicate internal management. "At the end of the day, we're still in first and second on GC, what a fantastic place to be, and that's all we're worried about," he insisted, before admonishing a television journalist who dared to break from the party line and wonder if Wiggins was indeed the strongest rider on the Sky team.
"Look at the result of the time trial. Stands for itself doesn't it? The fact of the matter is it's your job to make as much as you want out of this. We're in first and second on the Tour de France and let's look for a scandal."
Froome, meanwhile, was gamely insisting that he was happy to play the role of lieutenant. Deep down, however, he must wonder if he is on the verge of a remake of last year's Vuelta a España, when he missed out on overall victory by just 13 seconds after Team Sky only belatedly elevated him above Wiggins to the role of leader.
Asked if he would harbour regrets about such compliance if he were to end his career without a Grand Tour victory, Froome again chose to measure his words.
"That's a thing I'm going to have to see in five or six years time," he said. "I'm happy with the work I'm doing here and I think I'm doing a really good job."
Whether he still feels that way in the Pyrenees remains to be seen.
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