By Jim Cotton
“But yeah, we race boring anyway, don’t we?” quipped Geraint Thomas with more than a glint in his eye after Team Ineos took the race by the scruff of the neck in a windy, chaotic finale to stage 10 of the 2019 Tour de France on Monday.
Though they’re renowned and feared for the stranglehold they can inflict with a fleet of world class climbers in the mountains strangling any potential opposition attacks, there’s much more to Sky/Ineos than eight walking watts per kilo machines.
On the scintillating finale to Monday’s stage, Ineos were among the key instigators of splits in the peloton as crosswinds ripped across the open plains outside of Albi.
While Ineos’ protected riders Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal safely finishing in the lead group, shepherded there by rouleurs Luke Rowe, Dylan van Baarle and Gianni Moscon, GC rivals Thibaut Pinot, Jakob Fuglsang and Rigoberto Uran rolled in with bowed heads several groups later, 1-40 behind Ineos’ leaders.
Just two years after they formed, Team Sky burst onto the GC scene with a bang posting Bradley Wiggins to victory in 2012. Wiggins’ success was rooted in the intimidating pace set on long climbs by their unmatchable roster depth, something that continued through the next years when Chris Froome decided to start his yellow jersey collection.
With climbers like Richie Porte, Pete Kennaugh and Wout Poels in their ranks, the early years of Team Sky were defined by a line of black jerseys at the front of the bunch on a mountain climb, with Froome or Wiggins sporting a yellow jersey somewhere in the middle. ‘Fortress Froome’ became reviled by fans for making the racing dull, and feared by the peloton, for making the pace suffocatingly high.
Every year, we all look ahead to the Tour and hope that the Sky/Ineos mountain dominance will crack, and that’s something race director has been actively trying to tackle through new and unusual stage parcours and formats (take 2018’s 65km stage for example).
However, the Team Sky of old, the team that we all associate with boring, controlling racing, are more a cliché than a reality. Though their mountain train has dominated the action in past Tours de France, they’ve extra strings to their bow that get overlooked. Sky/Ineos have an attacking instinct and ability to read situations that gain them chunks of time in Grand Tours that can be almost impossible to gain on a mountaintop finish.
Think back as far as 2016, where Froome jumped clear over the summit of the Col du Peyresourde, distancing a GC group that looked to have attacked itself into submission before launching into ‘that descent’ to win in Bagnères-de-Luchon. Think of that same year where he and Geraint Thomas attacked off the front with Peter Sagan and his Tinkoff team-mate Maciej Bodnar in the windy final throes of stage 11, gaining time on all his rivals in the process.
Ineos are willing to race aggressively on all terrain, and crucially, know they have the skills and strength to do it. As Monday’s stage showed they have the expertise to pull off all sorts of tricks. Stage two of Paris-Nice this year was like a warning sign to the peloton for what may come in July, as Luke Rowe and Michał Kwiatkowski shredded the race in crosswinds with just 5km to go, Egan Bernal safely on their wheel.
Sky/Ineos’ reputation for marginal gains and extensive planning helps of course – it’s not all down to a mystical ability of their riders to read the race. Team boss David Brailsford and DS Nicolas Portal do their homework. After yesterday’s stage, Portal explained how crucial understanding the conditions and terrain is.
“We say every day that we've got to understand the roads,” he said.
“So we had – like every morning – [a chance] to identify a few sections and then we look at how the wind is evolving, the wind direction, how the bunch goes.”
On Monday, Ineos knew exactly where the danger would come, and were ready. Other teams, namely EF Education First, Deceuninck-Quick-Step, and Bora-Hansgrohe were also ready, and although EF Education First tried to be the aggressors, being the first team to up the pace as the winds bit, they didn’t have the horsepower.
Just minutes after they tried the move, they were left trailing as they missed a vital split and watched the front group romp home. “We tried to be proactive and tried to get on the front foot and take advantage of the wind, but we moved up a touch too early and got overwhelmed,” Mike Woods admitted.
High mountains are rarely the opportunity to get a major time gap nowadays. With riders of all teams knowing exactly what watts per kilogram they need to ride at to be competitive when the road points skyward (pun intended), seconds are tough to gain – consider for example how Thomas snatching handfuls of seconds from all his rivals bar Pinot on La Planches des Belles Filles was considered a success for example.
The high mountains are beckoning with Saturday’s summit finish on the HC Col du Tourmalet. For sure, we can expect to see Poels and Kwiatkowski shepherding their leaders into the vital final kilometres. That’s what Ineos do, and that won’t change. But it may be less a case of them winning the race with a mountain stranglehold, but protecting a GC lead already won through initiative, planning and strength.
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