Can money buy success in pro racing?

Israel Start-Up Nation has rocked the transfer market this year with some big-budget, big-name signings. But can it buy victories?

Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

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The radical reinvention of Israel Start-Up Nation is a story that has been dominating the headlines ever since the team scooped the signature of Chris Froome this summer. After making some big-name signings through the fall, the Israeli outfit is all-in for a Tour de France bid with their newly acquired grand tour talisman.

But can team co-owner Sylvan Adams and Co. simply open the checkbook and buy a yellow jersey?

Team Sky/Ineos has long dominated the grand tour scene, partly a product of having the biggest budget of the bunch. But it’s not always that straightforward.

European editors Andrew Hood and Jim Cotton tackle either side of the argument: Can money buy success?

Andrew Hood (@eurohoody): No, money can not buy success:

Israel Start-Up Nation has the budget to buy the riders and the resources. Is that enough? Photo: Israel Start-Up Nation / Facebook

Money can buy a lot of things in professional cycling; star names, access, coaching, nutrition, the best equipment, and cutting-edge training. What it cannot buy is guaranteed success. The 2020 season proved that in spades.

The Sky/Ineos train finally went off the rails this summer. Why? It wasn’t because the money ran out. Instead, it was something more banal; a back injury for Egan Bernal.

A Tour de France rookie won. Why? Because he’s a freak of nature, not the highest-paid rider in the bunch. And winning any bike race still requires a relatively large degree of luck. A flat, a crash, or one wrong turn can foil millions in expenditures in an instant. Well-funded teams have been trying for decades to squeeze that part of it out of the equation.

What money does buy is a huge head start. And buckets of money coupled with a well-defined plan can deliver an almost impossible-to-beat winning formula. That’s why Sky/Ineos had won every Tour de France between 2012 and 2019, except one. And what caused that one-off? A bobble that led to a crash in 2014 in week one for Chris Froome.

Going into 2021, we’re going to see Israel Start-Up Nation’s owners open up the checkbook to try to take it directly to Ineos Grenadiers, a team that still boasts the largest payroll in cycling by a long shot. Israel Start-Up Nation boss Adams is throwing cash at Chris Froome and a host of other top signings that comes packed with a mix of anticipation and pressure. With that money, the team gains access, world-class coaching, the best equipment, and the star names. And along with it, the pressure to win.

Adams seems willing to spend money on Froome that the Ineos Grenadiers brain trust didn’t want to. Can it buy Adams instant Tour success? Anything less than a yellow jersey will indicate no.

Though it’s a money game, pro bike racing at its essence remains a game of skill, bravado, watts, and execution. You can put a price on the yellow jersey, but you cannot guarantee you’ll win it.

Jim Cotton (@jim_c_1985): Oh yes it can!

Sky/Ineos won the Tour in successive years with Froome, Thomas, and Bernal.
Team Sky’s long dominance at the Tour illustrates that big budgets convert into big wins. Photo: Marco Bertorello / Getty Images

Team Sky/Ineos’ long dominance at the Tour de France has been a product of having one of the best riders backed by a host of big-dog domestiques that can steamroller most other riders into submission. Froome, Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas, and Egan Bernal have all proven supremely strong in their rides into the yellow jersey, but have they been the single strongest man in the race?

Would Wiggins have won his Tour if he didn’t have Froome and Richie Porte at the heart of the mountain train he so relied on? Doubt it. Heck, Froome’s controversial acceleration on La Toussuire suggested Wiggins wasn’t even the strongest man on his team.

Geraint Thomas profited from the work of Froome and Bernal in his Tour success in 2018, and a year later, Thomas returned the favor as Bernal rode to victory. In both of their yellow jersey campaigns, Thomas and Bernal were far from being the strongest man in the race, but they got to the top by having the strongest team.

Add to that the huge resource behind the scenes.

All the number-crunchers and physicians employed by Team Sky helped Wiggins shed kilos from his trackies’ frame to become a spindly climber. Chris Froome’s Giro d’Italia-winning raid over the Finsestre in 2018 was supported by his team having a small army of staffers on hand to pass him nutrition along the way.

Fast forward to the present. No discredit to Dan Martin, but was Israel Start-Up Nation a pre-race favorite for a grand tour in 2020? Arguably not. Will they be in 2021? After bringing in the reinforcements – Michael Woods, Daryl Impey, Carl Fredrik Hagen, the list goes on – they could be.

Ok, so pesky Tadej Pogačar does put the handbrake on my argument somewhat.

Jumbo-Visma for sure had the strongest team at this year’s Tour, but the irrepressible youngster turned out to be the strongest rider over the three weeks. Plus, as Hoody points out, bad luck can derail even the most expensive of grand tour campaigns.

But if a team doesn’t have the cash to start off with, it doesn’t have the resources to be in the position to win in the first place. Israel Start-Up Nation has the squad to deliver in 2021, and it’s down to Froome to convert potential into prizes.

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