Analysis: Ineos Grenadiers finally wins Paris-Roubaix, the race that’s the antithesis of marginal gains
Dylan van Baarle delivers elusive victory in the 'Hell of the North' for the UK super-team.
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Paris-Roubaix was the one race that it seemed Ineos Grenadiers would never win.
On Sunday, after more than a decade of bashing its collective head against the Roubaix door, the British super-team found the right combination to unlock cycling’s most prestigious and elusive one-day monument.
Dylan van Baarle dusted the world’s best cobble-bashers and delivered cycling’s richest team its first granite trophy with an exclamation point.
It wasn’t a smooth ride.
Though not quite as prestigious as the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix ranks right up there alongside the yellow jersey and the rainbow jersey when it comes to oozing prestige within the ranks of professional racing.
Sunday’s victory comes after more than a decade of frustration, near-misses, setbacks, and dogged determination for everyone inside the team bus to prove to the larger peloton that Ineos Grenadiers is more than “just” a grand tour team.
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It was a matter of pride, but Paris-Roubaix didn’t fall easy.
The chaos, mayhem, and prerogatives of luck required to win the “Hell of the North” represent the antithesis of the team’s racing DNA and its sometimes controversial marginal gains approach to grand tour racing.
The team arrived unabashedly in the peloton in 2010 as Team Sky determined to play disruptor and rewrite the script about what it took to win the yellow jersey.
Under the tutelage of Dave Brailsford and the peloton’s biggest budget, the team’s coaches, sport directors, and trainers disassembled the Tour de France blueprint and then redrew the lines using its trademark alchemy of technology, nutrition, coaching, and perhaps a few old-school tricks along the way.
By 2012, the team emerged as the new gravitational center of grand tour racing. It won its first yellow jersey with Bradley Wiggins, four with Chris Froome in the span of five years, and two more with Geraint Thomas in 2018 and Egan Bernal in 2019.
With an unprecedented seven yellow jerseys in eight years, with four different winners, the newly branded Ineos Grenadiers end the decade as the uncontested master of the three-week grand tour universe.
Try as the team’s brass might, that numbers-driven approach simply doesn’t work in Paris-Roubaix.
The classics represent an all-in, win-or-lose, and a leave-it-all-on-the-road mentality. There’s no tomorrow, no rest day, and no final week to mount an offensive.
Everyone knows that luck is a decisive factor in every bike race, from the smallest local crit to the Tour de France.
Yet in the unforgiving trenches of Roubaix, luck simply becomes a mountain that is much harder to master than formulating the watts that it takes to climb fastest up Alpe d’Huez.
During three weeks of a Tour de France, luck can almost be calculated out of the race in spreadsheets, and across more than 3,000km of racing, power numbers will almost always prevail.
Paris-Roubaix, and the six-hour monument distance of the northern cobbles, exist as destroyers of spreadsheets.
A puncture can spoil months of training, and a crash or ill-timed pileup can derail weeks of meticulous planning.
Paris-Roubaix is a race that requires not only exquisite planning, tactics, training, and execution, but also the lone factor that no amount of preparation can ever overcome — luck.
And luck is a terrible, almost unacceptable reality for an organization largely built on eliminating it.
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Yet like every team and every rider starting each April in Compiègne, Team Sky and later Ineos Grenadiers kept trying to unravel the Roubaix puzzle.
Coming into Sunday, Ineos had never won Roubaix since its formation in 2010. It cracked the podium twice. In the team’s first year, Juan Antonio Flecha hit third behind winner Fabian Cancellara and Thor Hushovd. Ian Stannard was also third in 2016 behind Mat Hayman and Tom Boonen. Last year, Gianni Moscon came close with fourth at 44 seconds off the podium.
Bradley Wiggins even played shape-shifter late in his career and tried to apply the same lessons that worked in the Tour and on the boards of track racing to the mayhem and chaos at Roubaix. He went far, finishing ninth in 2014 and 18th in 2015.
The team is no slouch in one-day racing, and won more than its fair share of classics over the years, with victories at such major races as Milan-San Remo, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Strade Bianche, E3 Saxo Bank Classic, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and the Amstel Gold Race, among others.
Also read: Is Ineos suddenly the best classics team? It sure seems like it
Impressive by any measure, but rightly or wrongly, nearly everyone judged the team on its apparent fixation on the yellow jersey.
Yet it was the aging of its “founding father” riders of Wiggins, Froome, and Thomas that helped pave the way to the team’s tremendous spring classics season in 2022.
Going back five years ago, Brailsford knew that if he wanted to remain at the top of the peloton, he needed to start recruiting young, talented riders to replace his fleet of stars. He scooped up talents like Egan Bernal, Tao Geoghegan Hart, and Pavel Sivakov, but he also brought in and bought riders like Michal Kwiatkowski, van Baarle, and Filippo Ganna.
The dramatic rise of fresh recruits Ben Turner and Magnus Sheffield, both WorldTour rookies in 2022, only underscored the team’s tremendous recruiting efforts over the past few seasons.
All spring, Ineos Grenadiers is racing how Quick-Step used to, piling numbers deep into a race, and playing the strongest hand.
The team emerged as the most successful in the 2022 northern classics, with wins at Roubaix, Brabantse Pijl, and Amstel Gold Race, and podiums at Tour of Flanders with van Baarle taking second, and third at Dwars door Vlaanderen thanks to Tom Pidcock.
Ironically, Ineos Grenadiers’ spring successes will provide an important ballast to the team’s grand tour ambitions. With Bernal out for at least the 2022 Tour and some of the other GC captains struggling with health issues, some pundits are putting the team in an unfamiliar position below the rise and dominance of Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič.
These spring successes could help take the sting of any bites that might come at the Giro d’Italia or Tour.
Yet there was some of the team’s DNA on display in Sunday’s big win. The team raced aggressively from the gun, slotting in all seven of its starters into the early split under crosswinds. Everything in the team’s arsenal was applied to the classics, with its meticulous training, nutrition, coaching, and tactics. It was almost like “Fortress Froome,” but on the pavé.
And finally, the luck stayed on their side. Of course, when you’re strong, it’s easier to be lucky. Van Baarle made his own luck Sunday and left everyone choking on his dust.
Now that Ineos Grenadiers finally has its Roubaix trophy, the team is finally hitting that level of performance that Brailsford and Co. imagined more than a decade ago. The Tour was the singular goal, but the larger ambition was to perform across the entire calendar, across all disciplines, and in every scenario.
Paris-Roubaix was the last to fall.