The emergence of two talented riders from the same nation at the head of the Tour de France standings, both riding for the same team, is not as unusual as you may think. This year, Britain’s Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome are teammates at Sky, but there’s a growing sense among race followers that the younger Froome is the stronger of the pair as this 99th Tour takes on two more mountain stages and a time trial in the final week. So will the first Englishman to win the Tour be the one grew up in Kenya, or the one born in Belgium?
They are not the first riders to face this dilemma because other pairs of countrymen and teammates have raced for the yellow jersey in years past. By recalling these former duels we can see whether there are any lessons that can be applied to the current situation, to see if there is a pattern to the relationships between these frères-ennemis, as the French call colleagues who are also rivals.
The most recently example—and both should have been at this Tour—are Andy and Fränk Schleck from Luxembourg. Their story is not typical of these situations because the Schlecks are brothers who have always supported each other; and though Andy won the 2010 Tour by default after Alberto Contador’s drug suspension, the two brothers have rarely shown the killer instinct that’s normally required to become a Tour champion.
On the road, Andy has finished second in the Tour three times and Fränk placed third once. Their record might have been even better had the Schlecks raced differently in 2008, when Andy made his Tour debut. That was the year they were teammates at CSC with Spanish veteran Carlos Sastre.
With one mountain stage to go in that Tour, Fränk Schleck was in the yellow jersey, but only eight seconds ahead of Cadel Evans. Because Evans, the far better time trialist, was likely to beat either Schleck by two or three minutes in the last time trial, the brothers worked for Sastre on the mountain stage to L’Alpe d’Huez. Sastre won the stage by two minutes and defended well in the TT to win the Tour.
The time trial remains the Schlecks’ Achilles heel, and probably means that they’ll never win another Tour—especially because the younger generation emerging at this Tour, including Froome and BMC Racing’s Tejay Van Garderen, have already reached the highest level of time trialing and climbing.
Before the Schlecks, the previous ones to be Tour contenders from the same country and trade team were Germany’s Jan Ullrich and Andreas Klöden, who raced for Deutsche Telekom. They both grew up in communist East Germany where they were imbued with a culture of following orders and working for the leader. By the time Klöden made his Tour debut in 2001, Ullrich had already won the Tour and placed second in two others. So being 18 months younger and having less experience, Klöden was never the potential threat to his teammate that Froome could be to Wiggins.
Klöden was just as good a time trialist as Ullrich, and when Ullrich faltered in the mountains at the 2004 Tour, it was Klöden who came in second overall behind an unbeatable Lance Armstrong. As a result, Klöden never developed into a team leader, and when Ullrich was excluded from starting the 2006 Tour, the younger German was solid enough to finish on the podium again but he never threatened to overcome default champion Oscar Pereiro or the disqualified winner Floyd Landis.
A more successful relationship was developed between the Spanish riders, Pedro Delgado and Miguel Induráin, who both raced on the Reynolds team in the 1980s (changing sponsors to Reynolds in 1990). Their relationship probably worked because Delgado was six years older than Induráin, and both had solid characteristics. Perhaps that’s a good sign for the racing relationship between Froome, 27, and Wiggins, 32.
Induráin was only 20 when he made his Tour debut in 1986 and he abandoned it in the first week. When Delgado placed second to Stephen Roche in 1987, Induráin was 97th; and the following year, the younger Spaniard helped his team leader win the Tour while he placed 47th.
Delgado remained a leading contender in 1989 and ’90, placing third and fourth respectively, while Induráin finished 17th and 10th—and after this five-year apprenticeship he was ready to take over in 1991. The transfer of power came in that Tour’s first long time trial, where Induráin was two minutes faster than Delgado and went on to win the first of his fives consecutive Tour victories. Last week, just half a minute separated Froome from Wiggins in the long time trial at Besançon.
There was only a one-year age difference between Americans Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten, who both raced for La Vie Claire in 1986. LeMond had already placed third and second in his first two Tours and was the favorite to win, while Hampsten was making his debut. As a great climber, Hampsten helped LeMond immensely to win the Tour, and Hampsten placed fourth. And though Hampsten went on to win the Giro d’Italia two years later, after moving to the 7-Eleven team, he was more like an Andy Schleck-style climber, than a Chris Froome, and he was never a strong enough time trialist to even podium at the Tour.
Perhaps the closest similarity with the Wiggins-Froome relationship was that between Frenchmen Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon. There was a six-year difference (as opposed to five years) in their ages, and when they both raced for the Renault team in 1983, Hinault had already won four Tours de France. Fignon was being groomed to take over from the champion, and he went to the ’83 Vuelta a España (then held in April-May) to help Hinault win.
That goal was achieved, and it was expected that Fignon, only 22, would perform a similar support task at his debut Tour. Instead, a knee injury prevented Hinault defending his title, and after a roller-coaster Tour in which race leader Pascal Simon fractured his shoulder blade and dropped out, Fignon came though in the Alps to win. The end result was Fignon becoming the Renault team leader and Hinault moving to the new La Vie Claire squad—but the “comeback from injury” Hinault was beaten and even taunted by Fignon, who whitewashed the 1984 Tour.
Had Hinault not needed surgery after his Vuelta win, who knows what would have happened with their careers. Probably, Fignon would have worked at the ’83 Tour for Hinault, who would have won for the fifth time that year…and Fignon may never have won a Tour. Certainly, if Wiggins had been injured before this Tour, Froome would have had the backing of Team Sky and would now be batting for the win with Vincenzo Nibali and Cadel Evans.
Something similar happened in 1965 with the Italian team, Salvarani. The team leader was Vittorio Adorni, who won that year’s Giro d’Italia, with his newest recruit, Felice Gimondi, in third. Adorni was a top favorite to take the Tour too because five-time winner Jacques Anquetil did not start. Gimondi, 23 and in his rookie season, was drafted into the Tour team when another Salvarani rider was injured before the start. Both he and Adorni were reportedly exhausted after their successful Giro, and the older man did quit the Tour on the ninth stage. But his young teammate won that ’65 Tour and later displaced Adorni as the team leader.
Adorni never won another grand tour, while Gimondi went on to win the Giro three times and take five more podiums, while he scored one more podium at the Tour, placing second to Eddy Merckx in 1972. Gimondi’s instant rise to the top resembled that of Fausto Coppi, who started his first Giro in 1940 as Gino Bartali’s gregario and ended up winning the race. That was the start of what became a bitter rivalry following World War II, when the two Italian legends led different teams.
Coppi obtained that first Giro victory by marking a dangerous breakaway, which netted him the pink jersey. Should Froome find himself doing something similar for Wiggins in one of the upcoming Pyrenean stages, then the younger man could end up wearing the yellow jersey in Paris next Sunday and not Wiggins. But that’s unlikely. A more probable scenario is Froome, 27, staying with Sky and having a chance to win next year’s Tour, when climbers Contador and Andy Schleck will be back.
In the end, Froome will likely follow a path similar to that of one of his predecessors: Schleck, Klöden, Induráin, Hampsten, Fignon, Gimondi or Coppi. That’s lofty company, but right now not even Froome knows his limits as a Tour contender. We’ll have to wait a few days—or even a few years—before discovering the answer.