BEST & WORST OF TIMES
In 2021, the Ineos Grenadiers won seven stage races, including the Giro d’Italia and a clean sweep of the podium at the Volta a Catalunya. But they came up short at the Tour de France, with a distant third place for Richard Carapaz, and no stage wins. Procycling asks whether the team that dominated the Tour through the 2010s can see this season as a success
This year, Ineos Grenadiers won seven stage races, including a grand tour, with seven different riders. It sounds exceptional until you realise that in 2018 they also won seven stage races, including two grand tours, with six different riders.
Not so exceptional, then, but still impressive. The standout performance came at the Volta a Catalunya, where their riders occupied the three steps of the podium: Adam Yates first, Richie Porte second, Geraint Thomas third.
In the first half of the season Ineos were on fire. Their top rider, Egan Bernal, wasn’t even riding in Catalunya – the 2019 Tour winner was preparing for his first Giro d’Italia, which he would win.
So far, so good. But there is also an undeniable truth for a team that had won seven of the previous nine Tours, which is that even if they won 15 stage races with 15 different riders it wouldn’t matter if one of those races was not the Tour. They went into the Tour in late June without the clear favourite, which made it different to the previous nine. Instead they had four potential leaders, whose results suggested that they were all in good shape and poised to deliver on Dave Brailsford’s pledge to race in a less controlled and more aggressive way.
Thomas, the 2018 Tour winner, had won the Tour de Romandie. Richard Carapaz had won the Tour de Suisse. Porte, third at the 2020 Tour, had won the Critérium du Dauphiné. Tao Geoghegan Hart, the 2020 Giro winner, was second on a stage and 10th at the Dauphiné.
If there was a mood of quiet optimism, then it barely lasted a day at the Tour.
On the damp and technical roads of Brittany, from Brest to Landerneau,
crashes cost some teams dear, including Ineos. At the foot of the tough climb to the finish a leading group swept through with Thomas and Carapaz present, though Carapaz would lose a handful of seconds in the push for the line.
Two minutes later, Porte appeared, looking glum. Five and a half minutes after the leaders, Geoghagan Hart passed with Jonathan Castroviejo by his side, his personal ambitions destroyed within a few hours of his Tour debut.
At least Thomas, 10th on the stage, was unscathed. He lost 15 seconds to most of his rivals at Mûr-de-Bretagne the following day and finished in their company on stage 3, but the result of that stage comes nowhere near telling the story of what happened. Early in the stage he crashed after seemingly losing control on a speed bump, landing heavily and dislocating his shoulder.
Thomas was down for several minutes and, having forced his shoulder back in, endured a long and painful chase to get back on. His team-mate Luke Rowe was there to help but Rowe got increasingly irate at the length of time it was taking, believing, apparently mistakenly, that a ‘barrage’ had been ordered behind the peloton by the commissaires.
There were angry exchanges between Rowe and the car containing the president of the jury and route director, Thierry Gouvenou, with Rowe fined 300 Swiss francs for “assault, intimidation, insults, threats, improper conduct”. According to one witness he was fortunate not to be expelled from the race for his conduct towards the officials.
Although Thomas didn’t lose any time that day his chances of finishing high on GC were over. He suffered on through the pain, and was 41st in Paris.
At 35, the frustration of not being able to perform at his best must have been hard to accept, though Thomas remained characteristically pragmatic, with his dark humour intact.
With their four potential leaders reduced to one after just three days, Carapaz fought hard for the podium, finishing third in Paris behind Pogacčar and the revelatory Jonas Vingegaard.
There was much to admire in the Ecuadorian’s battling performance.
And yet it is difficult to escape the conclusion that for his team the result was close to failure – their worst since 2014, when Chris Froome crashed out. As in 2014, there were no stage wins, though Carapaz went close on stage 18 to Luz Ardiden by employing a combination of cunning, guile and bluff that might have worked against an opponent less formidable than Pogačcar.
The muted response to Carapaz’s podium finish at the Tour highlighted the problem with establishing such a record in the biggest race in the world. If Deceuninck-Quick Step went a few years without winning the Tour of Flanders (the biggest race in their world) they would be similarly judged – harshly, maybe, but judged nonetheless.
It also illustrates how change in sport can come unexpectedly and rapidly.
Two short years ago Ineos were a team whose domination of the Tour seemed set. They had dealt with the seemingly terminal blow of losing the sponsor that had made them the wealthiest in the sport’s history by replacing Sky with a sponsor with even deeper pockets and greater ambition in early 2019.
Then, with Froome crashing heavily at the Dauphiné in June, his successor, Bernal, emerged just a month later, becoming the team’s fourth Tour winner. Bernal was 22, the youngest winner in a century. His arrival meant his team’s domination was immutable – didn’t it?
There is an undeniable truth that even if Ineos had won 15 stage races with 15 riders, it wouldn’t matter if one of those races was not the Tour
This idea seemed like ancient history just 18 months later as the 2021 season got underway with Pogačcar having usurped Bernal as the youngest Tour winner. It wasn’t just Pogačcar. Roglicč, despite his disappointment at the 2020 Tour, was now another obstacle to grand tour success with his team, Jumbo-Visma, looking even stronger and better balanced than Ineos.
As the 2021 season got underway, Bernal, whose back injury forced his withdrawal from the 2020 Tour, was felt by some to be the one rider capable of challenging Pogačcar and Roglicč at the Tour, even if the Colombian opted for the Giro in 2021 instead.
The reason, Brailsford said, was for Bernal to try and rediscover the joy of racing: “When he arrived in Europe and our team he had a big smile every time he raced,” said Brailsford. “That was the first thing you noticed: his smile. He was very aggressive and very charismatic. It’s important that he finds that joy again.”
Bernal started the Giro as favourite and he quickly confirmed that status as other rivals fell away. João Almeida lost almost five minutes on stage 4, Mikel Landa crashed out on stage 5, and, in hindsight, the Giro was probably not the place to make a return to racing – and a grand tour debut – for Remco Evenepoel.
Simon Yates wasn’t at his best in the early stages, and it was the unexpected figure of Damiano Caruso who emerged as Bernal’s closest rival. Bernal won two stages, at Campo Felice and more spectacularly and decisively at Cortina d’Ampezzo, and he was magnificent on the strade bianche of stage 11 to Montalcino, taking time on all his rivals.
But there were wobbles, too. On stage 17, a day after his win in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Bernal struggled and Yates clawed back almost a minute. Caruso then escaped to win the final mountain stage on the penultimate day but Bernal was safe. In Milan he won with 1:29 over Caruso and 4:15 over Yates.
It seems churlish to talk of wobbles or a lack of decisiveness in Bernal’s Giro win. In the history of the sport there aren’t many under-25s who have won two grand tours, though a significant problem for Ineos Grenadiers is that one of the others is Pogačcar.