On Monday night, Dave Brailsford delivered the news to his team at their mini Tour de France reconnaissance in Courchevel, France. The message was swift and to the point, with his new master plan based on the removal of Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas from the Tour line-up.
In one fell swoop, Brailsford had wiped out five of the last six Tour wins from his potential roster, with Froome posted to the Vuelta a España, Thomas dispatched to the Giro d’Italia, and Egan Bernal handed a free path towards the defence of his yellow jersey.
On form alone, Brailsford has made the right call and, not for the first time in his managerial career, he has demonstrated his dogged pursuit of Tour de France glory, and his ability to remove all sentimentality when it comes making key decisions.
We’ve been here before, of course. In 2013, when it became evident that Froome and Bradley Wiggins couldn’t share a room let alone a Tour roster, Wiggins was shifted to the Giro d'Italia.
A year later, Wiggins famously went on BBC Breakfast – a programme broadcast by a rival to sponsor Sky – to announce he had been overlooked for the Tour de France once more.
At the time, there were cries that Brailsford had shown disrespect towards Britain’s first Tour winner but when it comes to Tour selection, and backed by his unrivalled budget, Brailsford has rarely been wrong when it comes to nailing his colours to the right mast. He has backed the right Tour de France leader and ultimate winner every year bar one since 2012, and even that disruption in 2014 came due to a crash, rather than poor tactics.
Leaving the Tour selection this late was also a canny move on Brailsford’s part. The Critérium du Dauphiné highlighted the deficiencies throughout his team for all the world to see, with Froome and Thomas combining to lose over two hours in the space of just five days. Historically, Ineos and, before them, Team Sky, have competed and often cleaned up in the pre-Tour warm-up event but their shortcomings were evident throughout this year’s edition.
On stage 2, when they at least attempted to put Jumbo-Visma under pressure, Froome was unable to take a pull on the front, while Thomas’ stint lasted less than 700 metres. In previous years, a show of force from Thomas and Froome would have typically reduced the lead group to just a handful of gasping rivals but when Bernal looked back along the line to survey the damage, he could see that his team’s efforts had accounted for just a handful of casualties.
It wasn’t good enough and it was palpably clear from that moment alone that Froome and Thomas would not just struggle for leadership billing at the Tour but also with the tasks of pace-setting in the mountains. Yet their Tour selection still looked possible based on experience and the presumption that Ineos wouldn’t shift Richard Carapaz so late in the day from the defence of his Giro. Again, sentimentality would count for nothing.
Froome’s omission is the least surprising part of the Team Ineos Tour de France announcement. That’s clear from both results and his honest admission that he is still missing his best form due to last year’s horrific crash. A generous move to the Vuelta a España buys him more time but it also deflects unwanted attention for Brailsford.
With Froome out of the frame for the next few weeks, all of the focus can fall on Bernal and there will be no sideshows or pockets of dissent based around Froome's decision to switch teams at the end of the year. Brailsford’s choreographed announcement also buys him time to analyse Carapaz's Tour ride ahead of a possible doubling up at the Vuelta. It’s not impossible to envisage a situation in which Froome never rides a Grand Tour for Brailsford again.
As for Thomas, his drop in form has been alarming to say the least. The Welshman’s struggles have almost gone unnoticed as Froome’s transfer and recovery hogged the headlines, but the 2018 Tour winner is clearly out of sorts.
Whatever Thomas’ excuses, Brailford has at least bought him some time by allowing him to peak for a race further down the line. The Giro d’Italia is a step down for Thomas, and it must grate with him that he has spent the better half of a year publicly stating that his main ambitions were the Tour and the Classics. Both of those objectives are now off the table but if he can regain fitness and form, the Giro route is certainly one that suits his skill set, with its three time trials and relatively weak field.
All is not lost, except for Brailsford’s current faith when it comes to the Tour.
A watershed moment
Despite the common sense over the Tour roster and the decision to base a team around a single leader, Wednesday’s announcement still feels like a changing of the guard and a watershed moment at Team Ineos.
Froome will soon be gone, and, at 34, Thomas is nearing the end of his journey. It’s also perhaps telling that five of the eight riders on this year’s Tour team share one agent and that Luke Rowe represents the only British rider on a team that has a robust yet soberingly efficient feel to it. But within sport, evolution never halts and standing still is the same as going backwards.
Brailsford doesn’t really do retrospection or standing still - it’s too complicated - and in this case it would mean the careful and perhaps embarrassing consideration that until just a few days ago he had instructed Bernal, Thomas and Froome to prepare for the Tour as if they were going.
At the core of this is the fact that sentimentality wins no prizes and, when it comes to the major decisions, the ability to put emotion to one side has always been one of Brailsford’s strengths.
A bruising Dauphiné, a leadership trifecta not fit for purpose, and the chance to sell this latest manoeuvre as challenge to win all three Grand Tours in one season has prompted change. Time will tell whether Brailsford has got this right.
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