By Jonny Long
What a delicious prospect it would be having four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome racing against Ineos, the team that helped him to those victories, at the 2020 Tour de France.
According to the 35-year-old he is back to his best form after last year's horror crash at the Critérium du Dauphiné and the time off the bike has made him hungrier than ever to claim what would be a record-equalling fifth Tour title.
However, things aren't as simple as Froome recovering and getting back to top form. Already at his last French Grand Tour in 2018 he ended up playing second fiddle to Geraint Thomas, while the Welshman then had to watch on the next year as team-mate Egan Bernal claimed Colombia's first Tour victory.
Therefore, it's maybe not the most surprising thing in the world that Chris Froome could be moving away from Ineos as soon as this summer. Cycling News understands that Froome is in discussions over a potential mid-season transfer, with two teams having approached the rider about coming on board either this summer or at the end of the year when his contract with Ineos is up.
Maybe this is just bluster from Froome's agent in order to get the wheels rolling on a contract renewal, and Ineos have come out and dismissed the rumours to quieten the storm, calling them "fake news" according to Gazzetta dello Sport, although the Italian newspaper's source reiterated that Froome is still not guaranteed team leadership at this year's Tour.
It looks like Froome could be finding himself being squeezed out of the pecking order at Ineos, Egan Bernal has recently said if he's on form he doesn't see himself riding for a team-mate at this year's Tour. With the current lack of racing, it's these sorts of stories that keep fans entertained and the lights on in newsrooms.
Therefore, let's imagine for a second Froome is on his way out at Ineos, where could he possibly end up? Here's how we think the pre-eminent Grand Tour rider of the last decade could fit into other WorldTour teams.
Let's start with what would have initially looked like one of the more surprising destinations, until Spanish media reported Movistar were one of the teams enquiring about acquiring Froome's services. We've gone into more detail on that story here,
But alongside their sponsor Telefónica recently teaming up with Virgin's parent company for a British joint venture, a number of big names departed the team last year, which you'd imagine has saved them a sizeable portion of their budget.
Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa, Andrey Amador and Richard Carapaz all left the Spanish squad, with Movistar even saying they had the money to re-sign Carapaz on a better deal after his Giro d'Italia win. Team boss Eusebio Unzué has also made hints that his squad is one of the least financially afflicted teams currently, so it all seems to line up that Movistar would indeed have the money.
But do they have the need for Froome? Alejandro Valverde is their most proven Grand Tour rider, who has only won one Vuelta a España way back in 2009. Meanwhile, Enric Mas and Marc Soler have been touted as their prospects for the future but, for the most part, remain unproven.
Would the slightly chaotic team atmosphere, as documented in their Netflix series, put Froome off? Maybe, but the team has the strength and experience to give Froome at least a shot of winning a fifth Tour title.
Bahrain-McLaren may have been one of the first teams to pop into most peoples' heads when they heard that Froome was potentially parting ways with Ineos, and that's because of one man: Rod Ellingworth. The Bahrain-McLaren boss spent the last decade with the British squad before taking the chance to head-up his own WorldTour project and he wasted no time in drafting in some blasts from the past.
Mark Cavendish was thankful to be given a new lease of life away from Dimension Data, but more interestingly, in the context of Froome's potential arrival at least, were the signings of Mikel Landa and Wout Poels. Both riders arrived looking for their own opportunities to win races, with Poels wanting a new challenge away from being an Ineos mountain domestique and Landa failing to take charge at Movistar.
You can imagine the signing of Froome would not go down particularly well within the Landa camp, you'd have to wait just seconds before the re-emergence of the #FreeLanda movement on Twitter, but Ellingworth seems quite singular in his focus - to win the Tour de France. Signing Chris Froome, a proven winner, could potentially be a shortcut to achieving this.
Although Bahrain-McLaren's riders have been forced to have 70 per cent of their pay checks deferred for three months during the coronavirus pandemic, you would assume the sovereign wealth will be able to weather the slump in oil prices.
Israel Start-Up Nation
Another team presumed to be able to survive relatively well compared to their competitors is Israel Start-Up Nation. New to the WorldTour this year, their co-owner Sylvan Adams would be able to stump up the cash for Froome, which would be quite a statement of intent from the cycling upstarts. Indeed, the team didn't exactly deny they'd be interested in signing Froome when asked by Israeli media.
The squad already boasts 30 riders, a mish-mash of their previous roster and those they picked up from Katusha-Alpecin, whose WorldTour licence they took over, but pedigree talent isn't immediately apparent.
Irishman Dan Martin is the most likely to deliver a major victory, but having Chris Froome riding in an Israeli team's first-ever Tour de France, potentially alongside the first-ever Israeli rider in the French Grand Tour, would be the marketing coup of the century.
The downsides? Froome would have to win a Tour de France largely on his own. Israel Start-Up Nation don't have the squad to re-create the Sky train of years gone by. Coming off the back of a career-threatening injury, Froome is likely to need all the help he can get if he is to claim another yellow jersey.
NTT Pro Cycling
The whole South African squad only had one more WorldTour victory than Froome during the 2019 season, and that came on stage one of the Critérium du Dauphiné, the race Froome would rather forget, courtesy of Edvald Boasson Hagen.
However, with a new name and new colours also came a new man at the helm, Bjarne Riis. Returning to the WorldTour for the first time since 2015, when differences with Oleg Tinkov led to Riis' departure from Tinkoff-Saxo.
The 56-year-old wasted no time in putting his own stamp on the squad, taking a stage win at the Tour Down Under, with another Giacomo Nizzolo win at Paris-Nice bring their total victories for the year to six, only one less than their 2019 total.
Times are changing at NTT, and the Japanese telecommunications company that sponsor the squad will likely be okay through the coronavirus crisis - its share price the same as a year ago.
Will this mean it wants to outlay a huge amount of money on bringing Chris Froome on board? The African roots of the team are the least clear they've been since the team's inception in 2008, but a Kenyan-born winner of the Tour de France while riding for an African team would be some story.
One thing's for sure about Bjarne Riis, he knows how to win... best put an asterisk beside that statement, but if anyone has the cunning to lure Froome away from Ineos, it's Riis.
The Definitely Nots
The surest way to make something happen is by publishing it, saying it definitely, certainly won't happen. But really, if Froome ends up at any of these teams it would be more shocking than the news he was considering leaving Ineos in the first place.
CCC are having serious financial difficulties and their sponsor is pulling out at the end of the season, so let's discount them, while Alexandre Vinokourov has also sent out a warning about Astana's future. Moreover, the Kazakh squad already has a couple of Grand Tour contenders in Jakob Fuglsang and Miguel Ángel López.
This squad analysis brings us to a better line of thinking than guessing at WorldTour team's financial situations. Jumbo-Visma have an almost Ineos-shaped problem in the number of Grand Tour contenders within their squad, already needing to balance the hunger of Tom Dumoulin, Primož Roglič and Steven Kruijswijk, while also having to accommodate for Dylan Groenewegen and Wout Van Aert.
Groupama-FDJ are unlikely to sideline France's great Tour hope in Thibaut Pinot for the British man who spent the 2010s thwarting compatriot Romain Bardet in their home race, while Arkéa-Samsic also seems an unlikely destination. Granted, they're not a WorldTour outfit, but the signing of Nairo Quintana in order to gain a wildcard invitation to the Tour pretty much puts to bed their interest in Froome, although how mind-boggling would it be to see both riders in the same strip lining up in Nice on August 29.
Equally, Lotto-Soudal have so much one-day Classics and stage victory talent in Philippe Gilbert, John Degenkolb, Thomas De Gendt and Caleb Ewan that they probably wouldn't take a Grand Tour win if it was handed to them on a silver platter. The Belgian squad have also been struggling financially during the coronavirus pandemic.
In between the potential destinations and the definite no-no's lie a number of teams it wouldn't be out of the question for Froome to join.
UAE Team Emirates are backed by another rich Arab nation and possesses a strong squad that doesn't have an excess of Grand Tour contenders. Of course, Tadej Pogačar looks like he'll be the man of the near future, but is he ready for a tilt at the Tour de France? The 21-year-old fought his way to a podium spot in his first-ever Grand Tour at the 2019 Vuelta a España and he may fancy another go in Spain or at the Giro d'Italia before attempting to win the big one.
Meanwhile, Fabio Aru, who's struggled over the past couple of seasons, did manage an improved 14th place at last year's Tour but Froome would provide them a tried and tested contender while they bring through their talented youth prospects. Nearly half of the current squad is 25 years old or younger, and the signings of Mikkel Bjerg and Brandon McNulty show they have ambition.
On the flipside, Trek-Segafredo have an ageing squad, albeit a talented one, boasting Vincenzo Nibali, Bauke Mollema, Richie Porte and Giulio Ciccone. Are any of them capable of winning the Tour de France though?
Sunweb also lost their serious Grand Tour contender when Tom Dumoulin joined Jumbo-Visma last August. Could a mid-season transfer benefit the German squad this time around? The team boast talented riders such as Nicolas Roche and Wilco Kelderman amongst a host of strong riders and Froome would bring them the closest to a Grand Tour victory of any rider potentially available to them.
Lastly, we have six teams that it's pretty much impossible to get a read on in this situation. Deceuninck - Quick-Step, like Lotto-Soudal, are a Belgian team more focused on taking major Classics victories and have a rider in Julian Alaphilippe to potentially develop into a Tour winner, although Patrick Lefevere is another wily operator so don't put it past him.
Mitchelton-Scott are one of only four teams to win a Grand Tour since the start of the 2018 season, so they clearly know what they're doing, and with the Yates' out of contract at the end of the season they could theoretically exchange their British contingent. It would, however, seem crazy for the Australian squad to throw away the two prime talents they've been developing since 2014 as they enter their peak years.
Bora-Hansgrohe not only have a Peter Sagan-shaped salary and star power within their roster, but also a homegrown talent in Emanuel Buchmann who finished fourth in last year's Tour. Although, wouldn't you love to see Froome doing those adverts for showers and extractor fans alongside Sagan?
EF Pro Cycling seem unlikely to splash out on Froome just to stick him on YouTube dragging himself over 500 miles of gravel roads, while Cofidis also seem to lack the punch to attract Froome. Even though Ag2r La Mondiale had planned to give Romain Bardet a break from the Tour de France this year, you would assume they're not about to do away with the rider who's brought France the closest to a home win in recent years.
One thing's for sure, this will be the story of the sport right up until Prudhomme drops the white flag on stage one of the 2020 French Grand Tour, and then will probably rumble on for a while after too.
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