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Chris Froome vs. Geraint Thomas and the history of team mutiny at the Tour de France

Team divisions have a long and oh-so-colorful history at the Tour. Could Chris Froome vs. Geraint Thomas be next?

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After the madness: LeMond makes nice for the public with Hinault
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Geraint Thomas’ back-to-back Tour de France stage wins have put him and Team Sky in an unusual position: The person wearing the yellow jersey is not the rider they expected to win the whole thing.

Thomas was supposed to be a Plan B to Chris Froome, who is riding to become one of five riders to ever win the Tour de France five times. Instead, Thomas has flexed his climbing muscles all the way to the race lead, showing he can be much more than a nice hedge against Froome, who lost 50 seconds on the opening stage in a crash and sits 1’ 39” behind his teammate.

For cycling fans, this the ultimate Tour de France dream: The bubbles of in-fighting and mutiny.

Cycling fans love controversy, especially at the Tour. The race goes on for three weeks, and watching it is like watching a road trip buddy movie. Just as Midnight Run doesn’t work if Charles Grodin and Robert DeNiro are simply old friends on vacation together, so too does the Tour benefit from intra-personal conflict. All the better if that conflict centers on the Maillot Jaune.

At the Tour, teams are supposed to follow a set hierarchy, but things change over the course of the race. There’s a long history of lieutenants indulging their dreams of being the captain, and though Thomas has spent the past two days disavowing any ambition to win, cycling fans can’t help but let their minds wander.

Is this one of those years? Are Team Sky about to throw Froome overboard and sail on under Thomas’ leadership? Stranger things have happened before.

Chris Froome stalks Bradley Wiggins in 2012
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In 2013, the very same Team Sky nudged out defending winner Bradley Wiggins

The first Brit to win the Tour de France — and get knighted in the process — was pushed out of his leadership role thanks to shenanigans that unfolded during Wiggins’ historic ride the year before. At the watered-down 2012 Tour, Froome mounted the only close challenge to Wiggins, who had already time-trialed himself into yellow by the first rest day.

Froome, three minutes behind, briefly accelerated on a relatively mundane Stage 11 to La Toussuire, putting his teammate Wiggins in trouble, only to ease off so they could finish together. This was a rather British version of internal strife, one where a stiff upper lip glosses over any outward appearance of a problem … that is, until their partners took to Twitter.

After the stage, Froome’s girlfriend Michelle, who he later married, complained that Froome was being held back from attacking by Sky. Wiggins’ wife Catherine tweeted back something about loyalty. Michelle clapped back, and pretty much everyone assumed that they were speaking for their husbands about what really happened that day.

As it turns out, they were: Froome wanted to be let all the way off the leash to attack without limitations, and Wiggins felt back-stabbed, threatening to quit the race before the team smoothed things out that night.

Everyone seemed to get along from then on … until Mrs. Wiggins called Froome a “slithering reptile” just last year.

Lance wishing Contador would just go away
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Words can hurt, but on the road is where mutiny is at its best.

In 2009, Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong joined forces at Astana with the idea of creating a superteam, only to smash it to pieces over the course of the Tour. Both had won their most recent Tours, Armstrong in 2005 before retiring, and Contador in 2007 before jumping to Astana.

On Stage 7 in ‘09, Contador ditched the “co-leader” pretense and seized initiative in the Pyrenees, taking the stage and 21 seconds over Armstrong. Then the war of words began.

The Spaniard had supposedly “defied team orders” by attacking, however successfully, because team loyalty is blah blah blah. Armstrong sounded a lot like a fading champion trying to downplay his own relative weakness, and his long-time enabler, team manager Johan Bruyneel, wasn’t about to stop him.

Being kind of an asshole, Lance took to calling Contador “Pistolero” and bad-mouthing him to teammates even while Contador was in earshot. (Note: Contador can understand English). The team — stocked with Lance cronies — largely turned against their own Maillot Jaune, and even left him behind at the hotel on the morning of the final time trial, underscoring the pettiness of the situation. Contador won the time trial and the Tour, essentially on his own, and probably still doesn’t get enough credit for the character he showed to this day.

Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond starred in perhaps cycling’s most famous beef

Over the 13 months spanning the 1985 and 1986 Tours, few riders could stop the pair from dividing cycling’s spoils while they rode for the powerful La Vie Claire team.

In ‘85, with Hinault on track to win the Tour a record fifth time and LeMond acting as his eager understudy, Hinault crashed and finished Stage 14 with a broken nose and assorted bruises. Physically compromised, Hinault rode conservatively and did his best to hang on through the Pyrenean stages, while LeMond kept a close eye on Stephen Roche, a future Tour winner who was sitting third overall, six minutes down.

LeMond with Hinault, 1985
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Roche attacked early on Stage 17 to Luz Ardiden, and LeMond followed but didn’t help, allowing Hinault to stay in control. But LeMond was furious after the stage, saying words that Froome would echo years later about wanting a chance to win. Team orders prevailed once again, and Hinault finished first in Paris, with LeMond runner-up.

Things got 2009 Astana-ugly the next year, when LeMond was supposed to be the team leader and Hinault his right-hand man. Hinault famously attacked LeMond repeatedly, forcing the American to earn his victory every day. LeMond felt betrayed and, as an American on a French team, he began to see danger all around him, becoming paranoid that his food was being tainted, or that team mechanics were sabotaging his bike.

Hinault tried to gaslight LeMond, continually pledging his support of hist teammate despite attacking him constantly. LeMond leaned heavily on La Vie Claire’s only other American, Andy Hampsten, to not only survive the race, but win it.

Team division doesn’t always have to be so dramatic, though.

In 1997, defending winner Bjarne Riis more or less conceded control of the team to Jan Ullrich with only the briefest moment of tension. Thankfully that tension was caught on TV, and remains one of the most beloved moments in cycling history:

In truth, Riis by then was sinking to seventh overall and had already told the ascendant Ullrich to ride for himself. All of this was connected to the 1996 Tour, where a super-strong (cough) Ullrich rode faithfully by Riis’ side as the Dane scored his only Tour win, pointedly not pulling a LeMond and asking to attack when his team captain was in a compromised position.

Another version of the Mutiny That Isn’t happened in 2008, when Team Saxo Bank went after Tour favorite Cadel Evans with brothers Andy and Fränk Schleck and a Spaniard, Carlos Sastre, who was the team’s presumptive favorite. Fränk Schleck obtained the yellow jersey midway through the Tour, and Andy seemed to have ambitions of taking yellow himself in the mountains. Turns out, the pair was just softening up Evans for Sastre’s winning attack on Alpe d’Huez.

Sometimes promises are being kept, even when it looks like they aren’t.

Promises kept: Sastre on the loose
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The prospects of a Thomas vs. Froome showdown aren’t great.

The overall talent is weighted heavily in favor of the status quo — Froome has won this race four times, after all, and Thomas has never been in serious contention for a Grand Tour victory. The two are also longtime teammates and friends.

But the possibility of mutiny does exist, because the long history of the Tour has taught us that the bridesmaid can become the bride if he takes the lead.

Young Froome and ‘85 LeMond were told to stand down for the simple reason that, despite how good they were, they weren’t in the lead; their teammate was. Not so this time. If Thomas wants the yellow jersey, he won’t have to ask.

Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images