Things change very quickly in cycling. In the week leading into the Tour of Flanders, Jumbo-Visma were widely understood to be the team in control of the spring Classics, with a formidable lineup that could challenge across the different races.
They had inherited this mantle from Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, who have been missing at key points this year. But then Wout van Aert got covid, missed Flanders, and as a result their star has waned a little.
Quick-Step had established themselves as the kings of the Classics for many years now, dominating the one-day races that pepper their home nation, but this year have appeared to falter. Remco Evenepoel's sixth place at Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday was their best result in a Belgian one-day race since fifth at Danilith Nokere Koerse a month ago, hardly the most prestigious race.
Quietly building steam have been Ineos Grenadiers, with the young squad coming from a slow start at Opening Weekend to two victories in their last two one-day races, including at Brabantse Pijl, second place at Flanders, third at Dwars door Vlaanderen, and sixth at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic.
As one of their stars Tom Pidcock put it after Brabantse Pijl: "Maybe we need to lose a few races so we don’t get too confident."
The team have certainly been confident this year, aggressive in their tactics in a way that Ineos have not been before in the Classics. They have raced like Quick-Step, with multiple options at any given time: Pidcock, Ben Turner, Wednesday's winner Magnus Sheffield, Jhonatan Narvaez, Amstel Gold Race winner Michał Kwiatkowski and Dylan van Baarle have all looked great this season.
Speaking after his win, ahead of Paris-Roubaix on Sunday, Sheffield said: "I think I can carry the momentum, also with Kwiato winning Amstel, and Dylan finishing second at Flanders… it’s incredible for the team. A very young team, you had an almost under-23 team in the breakaway. I think we can really have confidence going into Sunday."
Sheffield is 19, Pidcock and Turner are 22. Ineos have eight riders aged 23 and younger, and are looking good in the Classics like they almost have never done before, not since the days of Ian Stannard anyway.
Turner told Cycling Weekly last month: "I think the team is in an exciting point. There's so much young talent and I think you can see how we've raced this year so far, that it's different. It's motivating to be a part of it and every race we go to we're there to win. That's the atmosphere you want to be in."
Brabantse Pijl saw the fruits of Ineos' new aggressive tactics, with three riders ending up in the decisive break of seven. It meant that Turner, Sheffield and Pidcock could rotate the duty of attacking, while the other two in the move covered counter-attacks from behind. It meant when Sheffield made the crucial attack, no one could afford to follow without dragging the other Ineos riders back.
Speaking to the media after the race, Pidcock said: "Three guys in the front, yeah we couldn’t not win could we. I was feeling a bit like crap to be honest, but it didn’t matter, Magnus won.
"We were keeping it together as much as possible, so we could play where it’s games, not so much legs.
"We’ve got a young team, I’m not exactly experienced, these guys are not experienced. It’s good for morale, but perhaps maybe we need to lose a few races so we don’t get too confident."
Sheffield explained how the race was decided: "I felt really good. I had two other teammates in the breakaway. It was really bad weather with the rain, luckily it wasn’t too windy or cold. It just felt unbelievable when I found myself off the front in those last kilometres. I didn’t expect to be able to hold on. I really wanted to lead out my teammate Ben for the sprint. I was off the front and I was able to hold onto the finish.
"I followed a move with [Tim] Wellens, he swung off and I found myself alone. I knew I wanted to press it to make the other guys chase and allow my teammates to sit on. Everyone was looking at each other because it was the final kilometres. I just went full gas and put it in the biggest gear and tried to grind it to the finish."
Heading into Paris-Roubaix, and then La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, it looks like Ineos might have just got the recipe right in these races. With such a young team as well, there is so much to come from the British squad, with their exciting talents.
Sheffield attempted to downplay it: "By no means are we the favourites, but we have a really strong team."
However, the truth is that Ineos truly are among the favourites now, and they will have to learn to live with it.
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