In a year where reality has been turned on its head, it makes sense that Ineos’ dominance at the Tour de France would also come to an end.
Since their first win with Bradley Wiggins in 2012, a Sky/Ineos team leader has never arrived in Paris without the yellow jersey on his shoulders. Apart from this year.
Egan Bernal should make it to Paris despite his persistent back issues, but they in part cost him the defence of his title. Perplexed, the young Colombian struggled to immediately come to terms with why he had felt so empty on the Grand Colombier. But 24 hours later, on the second rest day, Bernal showed the humility and resolve of a true champion, explaining his failure and promising to come back stronger.
For nearly 48 hours, it was only the defending champion’s words that reverberated around the cycling world, and with no further explanation from anyone else employed by the most successful team of the past decade, the media was free to take their shots and declare the dynasty dead.
If it was a football match, the opposition fans would have been roused into many choruses of ‘you’re not singing anymore’. Eventually, Ineos’ manager stepped out from the sanctity of the team bus parking area, which has been off-limits to the general public and media thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, to face the inquest of what’s gone wrong this year.
“Obviously we are out of the race for the overall. It’s not what we were hoping for but on the other hand, when we had the rest day and took stock of the situation, there’s nobody looking in the mirror more than us,” said team principal Dave Brailsford, after being asked to perform the autopsy on his 2020 Tour squad. “But it’s a bit of a test of pride, passion, and character now, to come back from this for the rest of the week.”
What could Ineos possibly settle for, apart from the yellow jersey?
“We figured that next year’s Tour starts now,” their place in the overall standings may have changed but the management-speak remains the same. The big boss upstairs, Jim Ratcliffe, is said to be accepting of the slim returns on his investment compared to last year.
“He knows it’s part of the sport,” Brailsford said of Britain’s richest man. “Look, he won it last year at the first time of asking, so I think he understands.
“As far as we are concerned this is the first day of trying to win the Tour next year. That’s the way we are looking at it. It’s not often you can go to the third week of a Grand Tour and experiment, so we are going to use the rest of this week to try and get something out of the race but also to learn and maybe do a few things that we normally wouldn’t risk doing. “
In summation – we’re not getting an explanation of what’s gone wrong for the British team at this year’s French Grand Tour. At least, not yet.
One thing that wasn’t a mistake was deciding not to bring Geraint Thomas. The 2018 winner finished second overall at Tirreno-Adriatico and looks to be riding himself into form in time for the Giro d’Italia.
People have been quick to draw the conclusion that this means the Welshman should have been taken to the Tour, but there was no guarantee Thomas would have put in a similar performance against a stronger field with a week less of training and rest. Brailsford maintains he made the best decision with the information he had at the time and that not taking Thomas or Chris Froome to the Tour wasn’t a gamble.
“I don’t gamble. People are entitled to their opinions, but I didn’t gamble with selection. They were big decisions. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. I’m sure that people have a lot to say but they’re not privy to the facts that I’ve got,” Brailsford argued.
“I’m actually very pleased to see Geraint doing so well at Tirreno-Adriatico and looking so good going into the Giro.
“It was a good decision [on Geraint], regardless of what anybody else may think, and Chris is where Chris is at. He’s just not ready yet for this level of competition and I think he knows that himself. He’s doing a fantastic job of getting back to where he needs to be but on both of those fronts, we will go back and see what we can learn.”
The 56-year-old says he’s more “battle-hardened” to face the disappointment of this year compared to 2014, when Chris Froome crashed out, and that chasing big highs inevitably risks “having some big lows”.
On balance, they’ve had more good times than bad times, Brailsford correctly estimates, and in Bernal, Ineos looked to be in possession of a rider of whom the only question was how many Tours he could win.
“He can 100 per cent come back from this and I’ve seen it a lot with big Olympic champions when they first win at the Olympics and in sport sometimes you need to lose and then you can go again,” Brailsford said.
Whether or not Jumbo-Visma win the Tour with Primož Roglič this year, they have announced themselves as the dominant team in the peloton in these three weeks of racing in France.
Now, Brailsford says he’ll go back to the drawing board to figure out how to beat them.
“Jumbo have been building that team for three or four seasons and it’s great to see it. I admire what they have done and they’ve got my utmost respect. Have we got to go back to the drawing board? Totally — and that’s quite exciting in some respects. We’ve got to put together a team and a coaching staff that can deliver and try and win the race again.”