Like dramas from the ancients, the greatest cycling stories involve intense conflict and betrayal. The one best known to the English-speaking audience was the melodrama between Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault that lasted through two full Tours, 1985-1986 – it was so good that they’re still making movies about it.
In ’85 Hinault was in Yellow. He crashed and broke his nose, and was chasing behind, his face a mask of blood. In front, Lemond went on the attack taking Stephen Roche, the hyper-talented Irishman, with him. Lemond’s director, Paul Koecheli ordered Greg to stop racing and let the Yellow catch back up. Cue mawkish John Tesh music, CBS close-up shots of a crying and visibly betrayed Greg and a star was born for the American public. Problem was that Koecheli made the right call: Roche was too close on GC and too good a rider to be taken up the road like that and plus – it was the Yellow Jersey of his own team who was broken and bleeding.
The next year Greg announces to the world that he’s the team leader and that Hinault was there to pay back his “sacrifice” of the previous Tour. Problem is that Blaireau (The Badger as Hinault is known) never got the memo. The idea that a five-time Tour winner like Blaireau would simply give away another Tour beggars belief. “Ok Ali, you go down in the 5th…com’on Foreman’s earned it.”
Well, Hinault made the best of it, mercilessly torturing his young teammate in every way and at every opportunity for three weeks. The team was split in half, eating at separate tables and racing for separate leaders. Suspicion and paranoia reigned supreme. It was fantastic.
Ten years later we got the Italian version, which of course was even more dramatic. Stephen Roche was at the height of his powers and at the Giro to win. Problem was that he had a talented Italian teammate named Roberto Visentini, the son of a rich undertaker known for his perfect hair. Never mussed, I assure you. Visentini was the defending Giro champion and of course, wanted to repeat.
Roche, who never met a team he couldn’t plunge into instant chaos, did just that by racing for his own account, and, as with Lemond-Hinault the team was split in half. This being Italy, death threats entered stage left, a chorus of armed guards stage right, hotel food was checked for poison – the Italians really showed up the French on how to create great, entertaining drama.
In 2013 Sir David Brailsford made a dreadful decision that betrayed not another rider but rather the entire world of cycling and its devout fans. He left the defending Tour champion, Sir Bradley Wiggins home, depriving him the chance to defend his title, all in the favor of Chris Froome, a man with the corporate in-fighting skills of a ruthless Fortune 500 career climber. It was a triumph of corporate calculation vs sporting truth for the public. Brailsford’s lack of managerial skill, his inability to manage two strong egos in the race as he should have, cheated us all to the everlasting shame of Team Sky.
Karma’s a bitch. Because the wheel has now turned for Team Sky and now Brailsford’s got a problem. Geraint Thomas, one of my favorite racers, is currently ahead of Froome in the chase for Yellow and is “expected” to be in the jersey tonight. Thomas, recent winner of the Dauphine (a condensed Tour de France in May, all in the Alps region) is on the form of his life, and, crucially, at the end of his contract. The questions on who is the true team leader of Sky have been swirling around the press for months. “We’ll see on the road”; “There’s only one leader, and that’s Froome”, all sorts of answers have been coming out of the UK camp. Add in Wiggins, who’s stepped back into the fray and pouring gasoline everywhere (what happened to him in 2013 is a scar that will never heal), his wife reigniting the scorched-earth social media war with Froome’s partner…it’s a mess, a big, beautiful mess.
Watch the Sky team riders today and for the rest of the Tour. Look to see where Egan Bernal and Wout Poels are positioned for clues as to their allegiances to see if there are any rifts in team unity and for other teams to try and take advantage of the split loyalties that may, and may is the key word here, emerge. Whatever happens, there’s a new element to look for out on the road, an exquisite tension to be exploited. This Tour’s getting great.
John Eustice, is the organizer of the Thompson Bucks County Classic in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and a long-time cycling analyst who has contributed to ESPN, ABC Sports, Time Magazine, and CNN among others. The Bucks County native resides in New York City. He was a pioneer on the European racing circuit and is a two-time United States Professional Champion.