Cycling has always had rivals. From Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi to Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani more recently. These soap operas are what continue to make cycling a fascinating spectator sport. To a distant observer, it can seem like a straight forward competition to get from point A to point B in the fastest time. But this ignores the often vicious politics of the peloton.
These rivalries can be especially bitter when they exist amongst teammates. The duel between Stephen Roche and his Italian team leader Roberto Visentini during the 1987 Giro has become a part of cycling’s folklore. Roche disobeyed team orders when he believed his team leader was flagging and went on the win the Tour infuriating the Italian public, his team and especially Visentini.
More recently we have been treated to another, perhaps more sanitised rivalry between Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome at Team Sky. Certainly less dramatic than the two Carrera cyclists in 1987, nonetheless it will be a scintillating subplot to the 2014 Tour de France.
The media’s fascination with the rivalry stretches back to Wiggins’ 2012 Tour win. He was assisted by Froome as domestique however, on stage 11 from Albertville to La Tousuire, Froome ignored team orders and rode clear of his team leader. Froome eventually stepped back in line but this act was widely interpreted as an act of defiance. Wiggins was said to be furious afterwards, even threatening to withdraw from the race.
Froome seemed determined to display to the world that it was he who was hauling his suffering team leader up the climb. He explained afterwards that he wanted to pull in a breakaway led by Vicenzo Nibali, one of Wiggins remaining GC competitors, and in doing so collect a stage win. But it led to the so called War of the Wags where the partners of both cyclists engaged in a public spat, inevitably via twitter. There were even suggestions that Wiggins was slow to distribute the prize money amongst the team, as is the custom.
Both riders admit that there were difficulties in the past but that they have a good professional relationship. But it’s likely that their difficulties predate Froome’s solo attempt in 2012. Even in terms of personality they appear like opposites. Wiggins with his Mod haircut and abrasive media demeanour contrasts the more introverted, PR friendly Froome.
But if there are difficulties during the Tour, it is the clean cut Froome who can land the first punch with the battle of the biographies. Froome will release his autobiography in June which will broach the subject of Wiggins. At best this is very poor timing; at worst it is intentionally malicious. And it is expected to be a response to Wiggins’ own tome, released after his 2012 success, which suggested that Froome was tactically naive and lacked cycling knowledge.
Tensions rose again after the 2013 Tour when Wiggins failed to congratulate Froome on his win. Overall though, it was convenient that Wiggins was injured for much of that year. They have ridden together since, most recently in the Tour of Oman in February. However any difficulties are likely to be exposed over an arduous three week Grand Tour, and the unenviable task of managing these two egos lies with Team Sky’s David Brailsford.
Brailsford seems to have accommodated both so far. Wiggins has said that he intends to ride for Froome but for himself on the time trials. But he is fresh from winning the Tour of California. While this is not considered the most prestigious of events, apparently Rupert Murdoch requested their participation, it does suggest that Wiggins is in form as a GC contender.
Froome, as defending Champion, will face more challengers this year, other than Wiggins. Contador is basing his season around the Tour de France and looked in good form in the Tour of the Basque Country earlier this year and Quintana will always be a presence on the climbs especially after the experience of last year.
It will be fascinating to see if Brailsford can keep the peace in July with these pressures surrounding the team. Given their dominance over the last two years, Team Sky will be targeted by the peloton in any moves. When the heat is on, can Froome fully rely on his compatriot? Wiggins might fancy one last crack at the Tour; or maybe just revenge for Froome’s show of independence two years before.
Alan Casey, Pundit Arena.
Featured image by Sapin88 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.