Tour de France
Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Same as it ever was, Ineos slowly strangling the Tour

Despite a promising first week, hopes of a tightly bound GC battle have succumbed to the suffocating dominance of Team Ineos.

Pfffffft! That was the sound on stage 10 of the suspense going out of the 2019 Tour de France. Just when the fight for yellow seemed intriguing, a clutch of GC favorites lost 1:40 on a day when they weren’t expected to.

So much for the 2019 edition being the tightest Tour in years.

This Tour started with the anticipation that it could be a tightly bound race for yellow. With four-time winner Chris Froome sitting on the sidelines, many thought Ineos were ready to be truly challenged.

Going into Friday’s individual time trial, it’s become obvious that the Ineos squad is as strong as it’s ever been.

“It’s possible,” Jumbo-Visma’s George Bennett said of beating Ineos. “It’s not easy. It’s not probably likely, but it’s possible.”

Though the team is now racing under the new Ineos banner, the UK-registered super team is racing with the same suffocating dominance that’s delivered six yellow jerseys in the past seven years.

Even before Friday’s decisive individual time trial, Ineos was already in an enviable, if not untouchable, position.

Defending champion Geraint Thomas dodged two bullets to escape uninjured after a pair of crashes in the first week, just as he also revealed glimpses of winning form. Thomas might not be able to take back the 1:20 lead of Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) to claim yellow, but the defending champion is expected to take major gains against all of his direct GC rivals.

Ahead of the start on Friday in Pau, there were still seven riders within one minute of Thomas on GC. That number could dwindle dramatically if Thomas delivers against the clock. Thomas could take up to a minute and more against most of his GC rivals in the top-10.

“I expect Geraint Thomas to be in yellow after the TT,” Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White told Flo Bikes. “After that, the race will become a lot more stable with a really strong team taking control of the race. Those guys will have to attack.”

Even if Alaphilippe defends by a few seconds, Ineos will take control of the race heading into the Tour’s first major mountaintop finale this weekend in the Pyrenees. In fact, Ineos has stepped back from its responsibility throughout the first half of the Tour, and with Thomas and Egan Bernal, third at 1:16 back, the team has been racing as if it already had the maillot jaune.

“We are racing the same as if Froome was here,” said Ineos’s Michal Kwiatkowski. “Nothing changes. We are all working together to win the Tour.”

That’s been clear from the start of the Tour. A strong team time trial in stage 2, when Jumbo-Visma delivered the win to knock Ineos into second, and solid racing through the first week confirmed Ineos was not missing a step. Ineos pounced in stage 10 to twist the knife when arch-rivals Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First) were among a half-dozen marquee GC favorites caught out in echelons.

As the Tour transitions into the climb-heavy final half of the race, Ineos has the firepower to protect its GC leaders.

Other teams that have done well so far, including Jumbo-Visma, will likely suffer once the road tilts upward. Perhaps only Movistar has the depth of climbers to equal Ineos in the Pyrenees and Alps. The problem for Movistar is that Mikel Landa is languishing at more than four minutes back and two-time runner-up Nairo Quintana at 52 seconds behind Thomas. That difference is sure to widen Friday.

“My legs are good and I’ve never been this close after the first part of the Tour,” said Quintana, who was caught up in a crash this week. “I’m okay and the most important thing is that the legs are good.”

Even without Froome, Ineos is dominating the Tour.

At first glance, this Tour de France does appear balanced. So far through 12 stages, no rider has won more than one stage, a first since the early 1990s. Six teams have swept up those wins, including four victories for Jumbo-Visma and two by Mitchelton-Scott, Lotto-Soudal, and Deceuninck-Quick-Step.

For those hoping for a different ending, the script is quickly unfolding into a predictable sequel. Ineos will have the climbing firepower to support Thomas and Bernal in the looming mountain stages.

And if Thomas tumbles or has difficulty, Bernal is patiently waiting in the wings.

“The most important thing is not that I win or Geraint Thomas wins, but that Ineos wins,” Bernal said. “We have that very clear. There’s no jealousy. We have to win the Tour.”

If Thomas and Bernal stay upright, it’s going to take something spectacular to knock back Ineos this year.