A big sporting name switching to another team is nothing unusual – but Chris Froome’s departure from Team Ineos to Israel Start-Up Nation is one of the more bizarre transfers of recent times.
Froome has gone to a team who, up until a takeover of Katusha last October, were in pro cycling’s second division – ineligible to compete in races such as the Tour de France. Think Lionel Messi leaving Barcelona to play in the English Championship, and you’ll get the idea.
There’s more to this than meets the eye, though. This is a story of a country keen to make a big impact in the sport and a cycling-mad billionaire “very excited” at the prospect of Froome – four times the Tour de France winner – surpassing Eddy Merckx to become the greatest rider of all-time.
That billionaire is Israeli-Canadian businessman Sylvan Adams, Israel Start-Up Nation’s co-owner. “Everybody pays attention to the winner – and what we have started will hopefully be amplified by Chris’ presence,” Adams says.
“And he’s a very nice fella – I’d like to have a beer with him.”
Why did Froome leave Ineos?
Ineos, known as Team Sky until last year, have been a dominant force in cycling over the past decade. They have the biggest budget and the top names, and have won seven of the past eight Tours de France.
Froome, whose abilities as an endurance athlete won him the race in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, had seemed perfectly suited to the team.
There’s little doubt that the environment at Ineos had been harmonious and geared towards his substantial success for many years. But in the months leading up to Thursday’s announcement that the team would not renew his contract, relations were a little more fractured.
Behind the scenes, there were feelings that Froome’s camp lacked the grace expected in negotiations, given the support the team had shown him during his rehabilitation following his crash a year ago during a practice ride at the Criterium de Dauphine. He sustained multiple injuries, including a broken leg.
Froome was also believed to have been frustrated with the team for not reprimanding last year’s Tour winner Egan Bernal over comments made in April. The Colombian told reporters that, if he was in a winning position at this year’s Tour, he would not move over to let Froome lead the team. Insiders felt the quote was fair enough, given the high status of both riders.
Had things been handled differently in recent weeks, Froome could well have seen out his career at Ineos.
Israel Start-Up what?
Still, it’s happened now. Froome’s deal with Israel Start-Up Nation is likely to make him world cycling’s top earner, personal sponsorship deals permitting, at around 5m euros a year.
That multi-year deal was made possible by the team’s billionaire owners – property developer Adams and investment banker Ron Baron. They are spending to establish Israel Start-Up Nation as a main player on the World Tour. They also want to upset cycling’s established order. Just as Sir Dave Brailsford did a decade ago with Sky.
They became approved as a World Tour team by the UCI, cycling’s governing body, last October after Israel Cycling Academy completed a takeover of Katusha. The new team took on Katusha’s World Tour licence following the deal. Now they have big plans with Froome on board.
“Chris is a gentleman,” says Adams from his home in Tel Aviv. “Polite to a fault. Very softly spoken. But none of that should be mistaken for a lack of heart and a burning desire to win.
“He’s on the scale of a Michael Jordan or a Lionel Messi. His desire to win is powerful and overwhelming. He is one of the greatest talents in the sport.”
Adams’ excitement comes from a deep passion for cycling, having only discovered his own talent for the sport when he took it up in his forties.
The 61-year-old went on win a world masters title in 2015 and 2017, having won six titles in Canada before his move to Israel in 2015.
Much has been achieved since. A velodrome has been constructed in Tel Aviv, and Israel hosted the first three stages of the 2018 Giro d’Italia. Now Adams has the second most decorated cyclist in Tour history to power him to glory.
What’s in it for Froome?
In April, Froome said his focus for the remainder of his career was on trying to win more Tours de France than any other rider.
Back in April, Froome announced his focus for the remainder of his career is to try to win more Tours than any other rider. Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Miguel Indurain and Bernard Hinault have all won five. Froome needs two more victories to pass them.
This is the big reason for him to sign with Israel Start-Up Nation: He will be the sole focus of the team’s primary aim – to win the Tour de France. Ineos only guarantee to give their full backing to whichever rider is in better form going into the decisive part of a Grand Tour race.
At Ineos, Froome was having to share the status of team leader with Bernal and 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas. His unease had been growing across this year.
“Chris wants to be the greatest Tour de France rider of all time,” says Adams. “And he also has a secondary goal, by the way, which is to win 11 Grand Tours.
“If he wins two more Tours he would be up to nine – just two away the great Eddy Merckx’s 11 Grand Tour wins. And I believe Merckx is considered to be the greatest cyclist of all time. So this could make a good case for Chris to be the greatest.”
Froome is signing up with someone who knows his stuff. Adams is a real cycling fan – following all the three-week races and the spring classics. He even attends training camps and rides with the squad.
What is the team’s ambition?
To boost the team that will carry the weight of Froome’s expectations, Israel Start-Up Nation will make additions. They already boast some quality riders, though – Ireland’s combative Dan Martin and British former hour record holder Alex Dowsett, who became part of the team following the Katusha takeover.
Adams is the “self-appointed ambassador of Israel” and is determined to change the way the country is viewed and put them on the cycling map.
“I stole a page from British cycling,” he said. “Britain went from being a non entity in cycling to being the greatest nation on Earth, and I’m hoping that tiny Israel can imitate the UK’s success and we can have some champions.”
He’s stolen more than a page. He’s stolen the best rider.
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