Chris Froome has revealed that he came close to leaving Team Sky at the end of the 2011 season. In extracts from his new autobiography The Climb, published in The Sunday Times, Froome says he believed he wasn’t getting the support his talents deserved.
"They were offering much less than other teams and I wanted a contract that reflected being a leader, rather than a domestique,” he said. “Before the 2011 Tour of Spain I would have settled for any extension of my contract but as the race progressed and I stayed in contention, my value was going up.”
Froome spent the 2011 and 2012 seasons working as a domestique for Bradley Wiggins, as the former track specialist aimed to become the first Briton to win the Tour de France. After Wiggins crashed out of the Tour in 2011, the pair was sent to the Vuelta a España where Froome beat Wiggins and finished second behind Juan José Cobo.
“I doubt that Dave [Brailsford – team manager] expected me to hold it together for the three weeks: Wait for Froomey to have his bad day, then re-sign him for less. But the bad day never came, I finished the Tour second with Bradley third and when we got to the poker game I had some good cards in my hands.”
"I wanted Dave to agree that I had a chance to win the Tour de France, or at least not be stuck in a system where I couldn't,” explained Froome.
"Finishing second in Spain, after doing so much work for Brad, had given me confidence. When other teams proposed contracts that showed me they wanted me as their leader that made me think: why shouldn't I go for the Tour de France?”
Taking matters into his own hands
While Froome’s confidence was at a high, it looked like the team were ready to back him for success. "Dave was enthusiastic and convincing and, though I wanted reassurance, I also wanted to stay with the team.”
However, it didn’t work out that way and Froome would end up riding for Wiggins at the 2012 Tour de France. The Kenyan-born rider was disappointed that he wouldn’t get his chance to show what he could do. “In hindsight I can see that Dave was being clever. I thought that what he told me meant that I could go to the Tour de France and have my chance to win it. But he didn't actually say this. Instead, he spoke of two guys riding for GC with one being the designated leader and the other riding as his back-up."
"Dave’s approach was rather like a character in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” My understanding was that I would go to the Tour as a protected rider but the details were never teased out. Dave’s words would mean just what he chose them to mean.”
His results in 2011 had obviously raised Froome’s stock and the team gave him a five year offer that was more than he’d been on. However, Froome had been given bigger and better offers from other teams and he wanted Sky to do better. Cyclingnews understands that both Saxo Bank and Astana were interested. Sky and Froome meanwhile struggled to come up with a deal they were both happy with, so Froome took matters into his own hands.
“It was getting stressful and I sent Dave a long and quite strong message saying there would be no more going back and forth,” explained Froome. “We both knew I wanted to stay with the team and, to do that, I was prepared to accept less than was available elsewhere. So in that message I told him I would meet him halfway. “This doesn’t need to be difficult. You need to just tell me, ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I’m not looking for a five-year contract. I’m looking for three years with these numbers. You accept or you don’t.”
Brailsford was quick to call Froome and straighten things out. It was a brief but telling exchange, where Froome said that he would leave the team if the offer wasn’t upped. A few days later, while he was out training, Brailsford called him with a new offer on the table.
The deal was done and Froome was now with the team for the foreseeable future. He had hoped that the new contract would raise his status further in the team, but it was back to helping Wiggins at the 2012 Tour de France. Right from the start, Froome felt put out by the lack of support from the team. “I felt that the team weren’t prepared to recognise that I was a potential winner. If I wasn’t allowed to try, accepting that would involve a very significant sacrifice on my part: they hadn’t treated me in the way that had been promised."
“I was in third place now and had my reservations as to how Brad was going to cope when we got to the real mountains.”
Froome was the first of the two riders to take victory in that year’s race, winning atop La Planche des Belles Filles and putting himself in to the mountains classification jersey. Wiggins would also ride himself into the yellow jersey on that day, after finishing third.
“He had to do lots of interviews,” Froome said of Wiggins, after the stage. “I heard him say something like: ‘A fantastic day for the team. Chris winning the stage; I’m in the yellow jersey. Great.’ Then he added: ‘Now he’s got his stage win, he’s going to be an integral part of helping me to try to win the Tour.’
“I thought it was such an arrogant thing to say: Chris has had his little moment, now he can concentrate on his real job.”
With Froome feeling usurped by Wiggins there was a tense relationship between the leader and his domestique. The tension became clear on La Toussuire when Froome attacked Wiggins, a move that he had planned long before the climb.
Almost immediately, he had team sports director Sean Yates in his ear asking if he’d been given the ok from Wiggins to go up the road. It became clear that it wasn’t as Wiggins began shouting down the radio at his dissenting teammate.
“He sounded like a man who had just dropped his oxygen tank near the top of Everest,” said Froome. “Brad was folding physically and mentally, and quicker than I had thought possible. I got the feeling that he would literally just get off his bike were I to carry on pushing. What was a simple and perfect plan to me seemed to translate for Brad into a public humiliation.”
His attack was met with annoyance from the team. “I suggested that maybe it might be possible for me to attack towards the end of the stage, after I had shepherded Brad almost to the top.
“The response was a frown from team principal Dave Brailsford and a slight unease that the question had been asked. I was used to this hypersensitivity towards Brad’s feelings but Brad was basically two minutes ahead.
“I wasn’t putting my hand up and asking if I could help myself to Brad’s Tour or have a weekend away with his wife. I was asking could I go for a stage win, and get myself in a slightly better position.”
Froome did, however, get some support from another of his teammates, who was also feeling unsupported by the team. “Within the team, the mood wasn’t as good as it should have been: Brad wasn’t always happy, I wasn’t happy and Cav wasn’t happy. One day on the bus Cav slipped me a note: “No great man ever complains of want of opportunity.”
“I felt Cav was saying: ‘Don’t get to the end and say you didn’t have the opportunity.”
Tension spills over
After the attack, Froome was visited by Dave Brailsford, who had a tough task at trying to manage the situation. Froome had anticipated the visit and had rung his girlfriend Michelle Cound earlier that day to check the finer details of his contract. He wanted to make sure that Brailsford was aware of what had been agreed, but the team manager was having none of it.
“Dave said that Brad was now in yellow. We only had one mountaintop finish to go and one time trial from today onwards. At the moment, standing right where we were in GC, Brad had the better chance of winning. So now we were all going to go 100% behind that."
After the attack on La Toussuire, Wiggins had felt betrayed by Froome and had to be persuaded by the team to stay in the race. “Dave said to me: “Brad wants to go home. He’s ready to pack his bags and leave the race altogether.”
“I remember thinking, so it’s okay for him to leave and not give anybody else a hand?” If he leaves, will I have to carry his bags?”
He decided to confront Wiggins on the team bus the following day.
“I turned straight to Brad and said: “Listen, if you’ve got a problem with me, come straight to me, don’t go round to other people and make the problem worse. Come speak to me and we can sort it out. But it doesn’t help if you go telling Sean, telling Dave, telling everyone else what problem you’ve got or why you’re unhappy. Speak to me about it.” He sort of nodded and muttered a few words.
“You didn’t really expect to have a conversation with him, especially at the Tour where he was under all the pressure. We rode around him and his moods like he was a traffic island.”
The ill feeling between the two riders lasted long after the race. It was revealed later last year that Wiggins withheld Froome’s share of the prize money for over a year. But it was also Wiggins’ supposed lack of appreciation that annoyed Froome.
Froome believed that he could have won that year’s Tour de France, but he was fighting against something that was already set in stone. “It was never going to be any different. The story was completed long before we got to France. Bradley wins. The book is written. The documentary is made. The promise is fulfilled. We had just been acting it out.”