As Team Ineos confirm Chris Froome's departure at the end of the season, Felix Lowe asks whether Israel Start-Up Nation have picked up a busted flush or if there's life in the old dog yet.
Sylvan Adams, the man who brought Lionel Messi to Israel for a friendly football match and Madonna over for Eurovision, has just gone and pulled Chris Froome out of the bag.
Moments after Team Ineos announced they would not be extending the contract of the four-time Tour de France winner beyond the end of the 2020 season, Israel Start-Up Nation, the ambitious team co-owned by Adams, confirmed Froome's arrival for 2021.
It is the latest coup from Adams, the Canadian-born businessman who was the architect behind the Giro's 2018 Grande Partenza in Jerusalem, and who this year oversaw the merger with Katusha and Israel Start-Up Nation's subsequent step up to WorldTour status.
In a press release which momentarily crashed the team's website, ISN announced that "the legendary champion will sign a long-term contract that will see Froome wear blue and white until the end of his illustrious career".
There's no doubting the illustriousness of Froome's career thus far. Over the course of his decade-long relationship with the team originally known as Sky, Froome became only the seventh rider in history to win all three Grand Tours.
Not bad, considering this is the same ungainly and overweight rider who was booted off the 2010 Giro for holding onto a motorbike up the Mortirolo, and who was on the verge of being cut loose by Dave Brailsford before his breakthrough performance in the Vuelta one year later.
With his four Tour titles, two Vuelta victories and one Giro gong, Froome and the Italian Vincenzo Nibali are the only riders in today's peloton with victories in all three of cycling's Grand Tours. The Kenyan-born Briton is, tantalisingly, just one trip to Paris in yellow away from joining the elusive five-Tour club currently populated by Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.
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It is now over two years since Froome last won a Grand Tour. Even that splendid Giro triumph – an historic third Grand Tour win on the bounce – came at the eleventh hour after a torrid start saw the pre-race favourite crash in training ahead of the opening time trial in… Jerusalem.
Froome will not have good memories of those three days in Israel; it certainly would never have crossed his mind that, three years later, his career lifeline would be coming from an Israeli team yet to notch a single victory in a WorldTour race. How the mighty have fallen.
Since Froome's last Tour victory for Sky in 2017, the team has won cycling's most prestigious race twice with two different riders. If fatigue and early spills in the 2018 Tour saw Froome play second fiddle to Geraint Thomas that year, his horrific high-speed crash in the Dauphine 11 months later at least eased a selection headache for Brailsford as Egan Bernal and Thomas secured a memorable one-two in Paris.
‘Christopher Froome has attacked and Bradley Wiggins is dropped’ – Stage 11 of the 2012 Tour
During his long layoff, Ineos have also added to their squad Froome's Giro successor, the Ecuadorian Richard Carapaz, as well as time trial specialist Rohan Dennis.
It's no longer a case of too many cooks; it's a mass gathering of Michelin-starred chefs. Once the Marco Pierre White of his team, Froome risks been reduced to a mere sommelier distributing bidons.
The difficulty with which Froome returned to competitive action at February's UAE Tour, his first race back following that career-threatening crash, emphasised how he has fast become an anachronism at Ineos; a remnant of the old pre-Jim Ratcliffe era, rather than the new chapter over which the cycling-mad team owner is hoping to preside.
Brailsford said on Thursday that the peculiar timing of the announcement was so that Ineos could "focus on the season ahead". While paying tribute to Froome, he admitted that the sole team leadership that Froome craves "is not something we are able to guarantee him at this point".
Leaving Ineos will not only give the outgoing Froome that certainty, it will, according to Brailsford, "give other members of our team the leadership opportunities they too have earned and are rightly seeking".
Chris Froome at Team INEOS
Image credit: Getty Images
This is, after all, a team which boasts three further Grand Tour winners in its ranks – Thomas, Bernal and Carapaz – not to forget the young prospects Pavel Sivakov, Ivan Sosa, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Eddie Dunbar.
Tellingly, Brailsford made no specific mention of the upcoming Tour; it was only Froome, in a quote tagged along at the end, who spoke of his "focus on winning a fifth Tour de France with Team Ineos".
But surely there now hangs a huge question mark over whether Froome will even make the team selection for the Tour, which begins in Nice on Saturday 29 August.
Brailsford is a ruthless leader of a team of winners for whom there is no room for sentimentality. Some have said that Ineos owe it to Froome, a long-standing servant and the cornerstone of their success, to let him lead the team one final time in France.
But does a team built around a crocked rider who hasn't raced properly in well over a year stand a chance of beating, say, a strengthened Jumbo-Visma with their three-pronged attack of Primoz Roglic, Tom Dumoulin and Steven Kruijswijk?
Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas at the Tour de France
Image credit: Getty Images
Ineos will have done their homework. They will have followed the progress of their riders in lockdown and they have clearly decided that a team built around Thomas and Bernal – perhaps with Froome in support – stands the best chance of delivering their eighth Tour win in nine years.
This week's announcement, however, seems increasingly like a softener ahead of the news that Froome will be given team leadership for Ineos at the Vuelta; and given the condensed nature of the Covid-affected calendar, that would probably rule him out of the team's Tour selection.
Indeed, Brailsford will already be looking at things with an eye on 2021, when Froome will be no longer part of his organisation, but a rival. Keeping him away from the Tour for a second year running will only help hit a nail into Froome's Tour coffin, whereby playing into Ineos' hands further down the line.
And so, the focus and pressure is already on Israel Start-Up Nation, a team on the rise who clearly offered Froome more money and stability as he enters the final years of his career than his current employers were willing to commit.
In a comprehensive interview with Cyclist magazine earlier this year, Adams spoke freely of the "extraordinary things" he was doing "to speak to the world about Israel as a country".
One of those things was help fund an Israeli space program – although he glossed over the fact that this attempt at the first ever private moon landing failed after a glitch caused a high-speed crash into the lunar surface in April 2019.
"The next chapter of my life will be dedicated to promoting Israel," he said. "I see this project as having long legs and I can't see an issue sticking with it."
We now know that those long legs belong to Froome, who on Thursday told the ISN website that he was "energised to be along for the ride" and stressed "we can achieve great things together".
Wiggins: 'Froome can win another Tour de France'
Froome will join his former Sky teammate Kjell Carlstrom at ISN. The Finnish team manager describes Froome as "the perfect leader to mark our arrival as a contender for these races, particularly the Tour de France."
It's true that having even a Froome on the wane suddenly elevates ISN to contender status. They get a famous rider with an impeccable track record and a wealth of experience who, on his day, has proven himself to be the best in the business. And as Carlstrom stresses, Froome can be the ideal mentor for emerging talents, not to mention a big name to attract fans, sponsors and future investment.
But if, as Froome vouches, he's "look[ing] forward to challenging and being challenged by [the team's] talent," then Adams is going to have to get out his chequebook on many more occasions between now and next July.
This is a team whose star sprinter is soon-to-be 38-year-old Andre Greipel and whose main mountain lieutenant is 36-year-old Dani Navarro. Sure, ISN captured the signature of Dan Martin this season, but the Irishman, while a top talent, is not in the same league as an in-form Froome.
Adams has spoken of his "enormous pride" in securing the services of Froome. And while he is right in describing the arrival as an "historic moment" for the team, there's little to suggest that the signing is anything beyond symbolic.
Taking it as a near-given that Froome will not win the 2020 Tour, were he to realise his ambition of winning five Tours in his first season at ISR in 2021, he will have to become, at 36 and two months, the second oldest Tour winner in history, the oldest since Firmin Lambot 99 years previously.
Image credit: Getty Images
In stating that "Chris is the best rider of his generation" Adams is clearly mixing up his tenses. Froome undoubtedly was the best of his generation, but his time is up. Since Froome last turned a competitive pedal in anger, a new generation led by the likes of Bernal, Roglic, Julian Alaphilippe, Remco Evenepoel and Tadej Pogacar has emerged; Froome is no longer even the best rider on his team.
It's all very well Adams talking loftily about "making history" by elevating Froome to the status of "the greatest cyclist of all time" with that elusive fifth Tour win, but this all smacks of deliberately hyperbolic marketing speak. Adams knows what he is doing; he knows he is taking a massive punt on a rider whose broken hip, fractured femur, fractured elbow and broken ribs have clearly, understandably, had an irreversibly detrimental effect to his ability to ride a bicycle.
But Adams also knows that it's probably a win-win situation: the publicity generated by Froome's arrival will outweigh any downside brought by disappointments in the saddle. His capture of Froome reflects Adams' status of a businessman worth $1.5bn just as much as Ineos's offloading of the same asset is a reflection of their owner's net worth of $16bn. These are the opposing luxuries for those dining out on cycling's top table.
As for the rider himself, well, there is a good reason why former footballing greats go to places like China, the USA, the Middle East and other emerging footballing regions to see out the last few years of their career in ostensible semi-retirement.
Froome will be a figurehead, a role model and an ambassador at Israel Start-Up Nation. He will pick up a huge pay cheque and may even pick up the odd victory here and there, too. But he won't ever be a Grand Tour winner again.