While a lot of the pre-Tour attention has circled around the expected Ineos vs Jumbo Visma GC battle, a former employee of the British team will also be looking to unseat the squad he helped to multiple yellow jerseys.
Rod Ellingworth is back at the Tour de France, this time at the helm of Bahrain-McLaren, looking to steer Mikel Landa to his first-ever Grand Tour victory, supported by a talented squad that includes former Ineos rider Wout Poels.
Landa looked to have the legs at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné, as Primož Roglič and his Jumbo-Visma team-mates put the rest of the peloton to the sword. Many accused the Dutch team of peaking too early, which Ellingworth dismisses, saying the rise of the Dutch team inspires him to keep improving his own squad.
"You're not peaking too early by being on form when you're just two weeks out and you've got to be on it from the beginning of the Tour," Ellingworth explained to Cycling Weekly during the French warm-up race.
"I think there's plenty of evidence over the last few years that people can stay on really good form in this day and age now with the better resources, better coaching, and understanding."
Ellingworth also errs on the side of caution in terms of crowning Jumbo-Visma Tour champions before a kilometre has been raced, but seems excited about the prospect of another team being able to reach the level of the British squad. For if one team can rise up to challenge Brailsford et al., so can others.
"I don't think we should ever underestimate Ineos and their ability, and just the mental capacity they've got as a team. Jumbo-Visma, fair play. Brilliant, outstanding results," Ellingworth said. "I think it's great to see another team who you can see over the years building and that's what it's all about, it's competition and it inspires you. It certainly inspires me when I see teams like that to do a better job [myself]."
Just as Ineos were ruthless in leaving Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas at home, instead opting to take Giro d'Italia winner Richard Carapaz as back-up for defending champion Egan Bernal, Ellingworth also left sentimentality at the door. Having left Mark Cavendish out of the squad, the Manxman now missing his second consecutive French Grand Tour. Ellingworth also remained tight-lipped on whether the sprinter with 30 Tour stage wins to his name will be handed another contract for 2021.
Instead, everything is geared towards supporting Mikel Landa for a run at the GC, the Spaniard having finished fourth behind former Sky team-mate Chris Froome in 2017, before struggling to wrestle full leadership at Movistar in following editions.
Ellingworth says the 30-year-old has not only found his place atop the pecking order at Bahrain-McLaren, but also happiness.
"Mikel will always be quiet because he's a quiet person. That's his style and he's, from what I can see, is really enjoying the journey that we're on," Ellingworth said, after Landa had ridden himself up to fourth on GC at the Dauphiné without much fanfare before cramps thwarted him on the final stage five. "He feels supported, the team enjoy riding for him, he's a very loyal person within our team. He's doing an excellent job."
"Head-down, arse-up" bike racing, as Ellingworth describes it, is a welcome distraction amidst the financial turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The team were one of many to suffer wage cuts, and following this interview the Bahraini WorldTour squad announced McLaren would be leaving as co-title sponsor at the end of the season.
"We're settling down. We have made a wage cut across the team, which is obviously the last thing you ever want to do," Ellingworth said of the financial health of the team following the return to racing. "We never thought we'd be in this position five months ago, but we are where we are. I think the thing is we've been upfront and honest with people and telling them what the situation is. And I think the near future will tell us exactly where we're going with things."
Part of Ellingworth's plan when he took over the reins at the start of the year was to raise the performance level of all areas within the team. While this particular season has made this a harder task, the Brit is looking ahead to seasons without global pandemics to navigate, which speaks to his confidence that the absence of McLaren as a sponsor shouldn't affect his the long-term future of his squad.
"Mikel's on his game, the team are supporting well, and what I really like is we're not just about this year, we're about progressing, we've got our ambitions for the future," Ellingworth said. "I really feel confident we are moving in the right direction and that's all you can ask from everybody. That's not just riders that's our staff as well."
Ellingworth and his riders face a literal uphill battle against the GC talent of Ineos and Jumbo-Visma over the next three weeks, but the challenge is part of the fun.
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