Chris Froome says he came close to leaving Team Sky in late 2011, and has laid bare the tensions within Team Sky during the 2012 Tour de France, where he finished as runner-up to team mate Sir Bradley Wiggins.
Froome, who succeeded Wiggins as Tour de France champion last July, is also critical of Sky team principal Sir Dave Brailsford in extracts published in The Sunday Times from his autobiography, The Climb.
In particular, Froome says thar his understanding of what thhe was promised when he signed a contract to stay with the British WorldTour team in 2011 was not reflected in the way he was treated during the following year's Tour de France, which he rode in support of Wiggins.
Tensions between the Sky’s two star riders began simmering during the 2011 Vuelta, which Wiggins rode after retiring injured from the Tour de France. Froome took the race lead, but was ordered to ride in support of Wiggins.
However, Froome finished the race the stronger rider, placing second behind Geox-TMC ‘s Juan Jose Cobo, and many believe he would have won the race had Sky placed its faith in him rather than Wiggins.
A new deal
It was immediately after the Vuelta that Froome signed a new, three-year deal with Sky, but the 29-year-old says that he was tempted by offers from rival teams that were able to guarantee him undisputed leadership in major stage races.
Referring to the package originally offered to him by Brailsford, he said: "I wanted a contract that reflected being a leader, rather than a domestique.
"It was getting stressful and I sent Dave a long and quite strong message saying there would be no more going back and forth. I also said that that was the final offer, I was going elsewhere."
Froome revealed he was unhappy with the backing he got from Brailsford ahead of the 2012 Tour, saying: "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.
"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?
"Dave was enthusiastic and convincing and, though I wanted reassurance, I also wanted to stay with the team.
"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.
"The details were never teased out. Dave's words would mean just what he chose them to mean.
"To an outsider, unfamiliar with how teams work, it probably seems bizarre that a rider would have to persuade his team to try to allow him to win the biggest race in the sport."
On the 2012 Tour de France, Froome won Stage 7 at La Planche des Belles-Filles, with Wiggins third and taking the race leader’s yellow jersey, which he would keep all the way to Paris. Froome was not happy with his team mate’s reaction, however.
“He had to do lots of interviews,” explained Froome. “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.”
Froome disclosed that he got support from another Sky rider who felt marginalised on that year’s race, then world champion Mark Cavendish whose ambitions of defending the green points jersey he had won the previous year took second place to supporting Wiggins.
He said: “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.’”
Froome went on: “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”
That 'attack' on Wiggins
It was on Stage 11 of the race to La Toussuire-Les Sybelles that the tension between the pair became public knowledge when Froome made a move that some interpreted as an attack on Wiggins.
“The plan was to scorch the earth again, just as we had done on La Planche des Belles Filles to put Bradley in yellow,” explained Froome. “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. Today was a day when we could kill off his main rivals, Cadel Evans and Vincenzo Nibali, for him and take another stage.
“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 recalled how Nibali attacked with 12km of the climb remaining, and how he shut that move down shortly afterwards.
When the Italian attacked again, Froome went past Wiggins in pursuit of Nibali, then overhauled him, with the thought in his head: “Okay, Vincenzo. What have you got now?”
He continued: “It felt electric; pure racing. Brad and I were going to be one and two on GC tonight. Behind me, though, Brad had been dropped by Nibali straight away. [Sports director] Sean Yates was in my ear on the radio. ‘Froomey, Froomey, Froomey. I’m hoping you’ve got the okay from Bradley for that?’
“He was telling me that unless Brad explicitly said I could go, I would be having a spell in the naughty corner. I kept pushing. Then I heard Brad’s voice on the radio.
“’NO-OOO, NO-OOO, NO-OOO.’
“He sounded like a man who had just dropped his oxygen tank near the top of Everest. 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.
“I slowed and waited for him. He hadn’t just cracked; I think he felt betrayed. By the time he was back in touch with me, Brad perked up a little. All the same, I knew that by nightfall I would be in the stockades”
Clearing the air with Brailsford
Froome revealed that in the evening, he was summoned to Brailsford’s room and asked what the matter was, and told the team principal that playing a secondary role to Wiggins was not what had been agreed when his contract had been renegotiated the previous September.
In a sign that his attack that day had long been planned, Froome added in his book that he had checked the document with his girlfriend (and now his fiancée) Michelle Cound that morning should he need to refer Brailsford to it following the stage.
He told her: “I’m going to tell him that I have every right to attack on this climb at the end of the stage. I feel fresh. I can do this.”
Brailsford told Froome that with Wiggins in the yellow jersey and the race heading towards its conclusion with only one summit finish and one individual time trial in the stages remaining, the team’s focus was on Wiggins.
Froome countered that his team mate might crash, as had happened in the previous year’s Tour, or fade in the final week, as he had done in the Vuelta, and it therefore made sense for him to be allowed to try and take time from Nibali.
“Dave, the man with a plan for all occasions, said that it was wrong to speak now of ‘what ifs’. These were the facts. We had to work with the facts. So we talked facts. Day one, I punctured. No contingency plan. Fact.
“Dave immediately apologised for that oversight. He was sincere but the point was made. There had been promises made and yet from the puncture to the special lightweight wheels and skewers, which Brad was using exclusively, all had been geared towards Brad. I had thought this was the team that didn’t do oversights.
“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?’”
At the back of the team bus the following day, with Yates and Brailford in attendance, Froome told Wiggins: “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 said that Wiggins “sort of nodded and muttered a few words.”
A prearranged plan
On the final mountain finish of the race, there were further signs of discord between the pair in the last kilometre when they were the closest two riders in pursuit of stage winner Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, with Froome turning round to gesticulate at Wiggins.
Afterwards, Froome was asked why he didn’t just follow his instincts and ride after the Spaniard.
“I gave the party line. ‘Brad’s in optimum position to win the race, and at the moment he’s poised to win so. . . we’re on track. And no, I’m not going to be attacking or anything like that.’
“I realised, at last, that everything had been geared towards this.
“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,” he added.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.