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Portal reveals how Ineos keeps everyone happy

Sky/Ineos able to ride to repeat grand tour victories with a number of leaders through a 'road decides who's strongest' approach to leadership.

It won’t be easy for Team Ineos to live up to its legacy from the past 10 years.

The UK powerhouse enters a new decade in 2020 with an impressive track record to match. It’s won seven of the past eight editions of the Tour de France, a remarkable achievement by any measure. What makes the team especially unique compared to other cycling dynasties is that they’ve earned those yellow jerseys with four different riders.

The Sky/Ineos approach is all about winning the Tour. No sprints, no breakaways, no individual pursuits. And at times it appears that it doesn’t matter who wins, so long as the team brings home the yellow jersey. That depth-in-numbers advantage will only be heightened in the team’s next decade as its bench is unmatched in the peloton when it comes to grand tour contenders. In 2020, former Tour-winners Chris Froome, Egan Bernal, and Geraint Thomas are joined by 2019 Giro champion Richard Carapaz.

How does Ineos balance the interests of its ambitious riders and keep the team united? Nicolas Portal, a former rider who’s emerged as one of the team’s go-to directors in the grand tours, says what might appear complicated is relatively simple.

“The road is the one that ultimately chooses,” Portal told VeloNews. “At a certain point, the race decides, the legs decide. Until now, we have always followed this tactic.”

In other words, the team rallies around the strongest rider.

That’s as basic as it gets in grand tour racing. It’s a tactic that’s been deployed since the emergence of modern grand tour captains. One superior rider, be it Eddy Merckx or Miguel Indurain, sees support from the entire team.

Ineos has put a new twist on that tried-and-true concept. It’s so rich and so deep that it can now bring multiple candidates to any grand tour it starts. Similar to how Quick-Step brings multiple options to swarm the classics, Ineos can deploy the same strength-in-numbers playbook at the grand tours.

So instead of going to grand tours with a singular leader — similar to how Banesto was built around Indurain in the 1990s — Ineos now brings two to three GC leaders capable of winning the overall.

It’s only once they’re on the road and the race is unfolding that the team decides who to back.

2018 saw Bernal and Froome pulling for Thomas at the Tour when the race revealed the Welshman was the strongest. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

“The plan is to support the leaders as long as you can and keep them in position on GC,” Portal explained. “That tactic gives you more cards to play for the win. In the end, you go with the strongest rider.”

That multi-dimensional tactic can create complications, especially now with grand tour rosters reduced from nine to eight riders. If there are too many cooks in the kitchen, there’s no one around to prepare the main courses. Look no further than to the recent lineups at Movistar to see how a multi-captain strategy can backfire if there’s no cohesion among the ranks.

Portal said Ineos makes it work through strong communication, professionalism and a singular dedication toward victory.

“The riders are professional. They know the job is to win,” he said in a recent interview. “The riders see that someone is climbing better than you, or someone is better than you in the time trial, it’s an easy decision.”

Ineos has the luxury of being able to let conditions on the road ultimately decide who the GC leader will be. If a pre-ordained GC leader has a crash or falls ill — such as what happened with Thibaut Pinot at this year’s Tour — a team can be left with nothing. Ineos is so deep that even if one of its riders has a hiccup, then there will be someone else there to step into the void.

Even in the one year that Ineos/Sky did not win the Tour, in 2014 when Chris Froome crashed out with a broken bone, the team still had Richie Porte in position to take over for the win. The Tasmanian later struggled, opening the door for Vincenzo Nibali to become the only non-Sky/Ineos rider to win the Tour since Cadel Evans in 2011.

The team’s tactic can also be measured in double-podiums. Of the team’s seven Tour victories, Sky/Ineos has put two riders on the final podium in Paris on three occasions.

“We have a way that works,” Portal said. “When you see more than one rider on the same team on the podium, that says a lot.”

2019 was the third time Sky/Ineos has placed two riders on the Tour de France podium. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Other teams also bring multiple contenders to grand tours, following a larger trend across the WorldTour of more depth and more pressure to win. Mitchelton-Scott can bring the Yates brothers and Esteban Chaves, while Jumbo-Visma has an Ineos-rich depth chart that will include Primoz Roglic, George Bennett, Tom Dumoulin and Steven Kruijswijk for 2020.

Portal admitted the team is feeling the pressure.

“We have to keep improving,” he said. “Other teams are stepping up. We have to keep working, because we cannot sleep on our success.”

Here’s the team’s yellow jersey trophy count since 2012: Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas, and Egan Bernal all won one apiece, and Froome owns four. Froome was second in 2012 and third in 2017, and Thomas second in 2019.

Portal just laughed when asked how the team will handle its deep roster and competing ambitions for 2020. The team signed Giro d’Italia winner Richard Carapaz and Pavel Sivakov is quickly emerging as a GC threat as well.

“We have a Froomey who clearly wants to win a fifth Tour,” Portal said, counting off the team’s bounty. “‘G’ realizes after this year he wants to win another. And Egan, he will now have this fever for the yellow jersey. And now Carapaz, well, it’s not going to be easy!”

The puzzle might be a touch more complicated in 2020 for Ineos, but it’s not a bad problem to have.