It could be the name of a Hollywood sci-fi thriller — “The Tour de France and the Rise of the Super-teams.”
Here’s the elevator pitch: A band of rich guys buy up all the top talent and split the spoils of cycling’s biggest race among themselves, but a lone superhero dares to defy the odds.
Well, the first part rings true. The 2021 Tour de France and the fight for the yellow jersey will all but certainly be dominated by three well-funded, well-organized teams.
Will an outsider buck the favorites? Sorry fans of Hollywood endings, but probably not.
The 2021 Tour starts next week in northwest France with the odds stacked in the favor of just a handful of teams, and against just about everyone else.
Since its inception in 2005, the WorldTour teams have long held a stranglehold on professional cycling’s most important races. So much so, that only a handful of non-WorldTour teams have won a grand tour or monument in the past two decades.
Also read: Six stages to watch in the Tour de France
In what’s a reflection of the limitless boundaries of the WorldTour, with no type of salary caps or spending restrictions, professional racing is now a race to the top.
Though there are a few exceptions, with some teams still producing top results thanks to exceptional teamwork or the presence of a standout talent — think Peter Sagan or Rigoberto Urán — the top of the WorldTour, and, in effect, professional cycling, is dominated today by three teams.
The Tour’s “Big Three” — Ineos Grenadiers, UAE Emirates, and Jumbo-Visma — are unquestionably at the top of the WorldTour hierarchy going into the season’s most important race.
It’s a classic tale of haves and have-nots, and in some ways reflects what’s happening across larger society, with the mega-rich getting richer, and everyone else feeling the squeeze.
Thanks in part to unlimited budgets — Ineos Grenadiers’ annual outlay is north of $45 million — and strong planning and execution, these three teams are gapping the rest of the field.
So far in 2021, the three “super-teams” have won all but one of the WorldTour stage races on the calendar. Egan Bernal won the Giro d’Italia, and the trio split the rest of the riches between them.
Only Max Schachmann of Bora-Hansgrohe, a winner at Paris-Nice, broke the tightening vice-grip on the top.
An ever-tightening grip on yellow
Will a rider beyond the “Big Three” end up in yellow in Paris?
The odds say no.
Ineos Grenadiers — which won seven of eight yellow jerseys from 2012 to 2019 — reloaded with even more firepower following its 2020 hiccup.
The team brings four potential winners to Brest with Geraint Thomas, Richard Carapaz, Tao Geoghegan Hart, and Richie Porte. Three are former grand tour winners, and Porte is hot off third in last year’s Tour and victory at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Nipping at their toes are the Slovenian superstars Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar. Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates have steadily built up their programs to take it straight to Ineos Grenadiers, and thanks to the Slovenian duo, they broke the UK team’s hegemony on the Tour in 2020.
Though it backfired for Jumbo-Visma in 2020 on the penultimate stage, the Dutch-backed team will bring an equally deep squad to Brest to try to push Roglič — arguably the best stage-racer in the peloton over the past 48 months — one step higher on the podium in Paris.
And UAE-Team Emirates, which boasts the most aggressive and youthful lineup in the WorldTour, brings a much stronger and deeper squad to help Pogačar in the Tour for 2021.
Pogačar, 22, is poised to emerge as the next generation-defining rider, and this year’s Tour is an important confirmation not only for him, but his team as well.
No limits on spending creates opportunities and disparities
As the saying goes, money doesn’t buy everything, but money buys everything.
The financial brawn that these three teams bring to the Tour de France will play out in a variety of ways in the coming weeks.
On the frontline, endless budgets allow teams like Ineos Grenadiers to sign the absolute very best in the peloton. The British team is so deep in talent that it’s won all five of the stage races it entered in 2021 — including the Giro — with different riders.
All four of its Tour captains would be outright leaders on other teams, yet Dave Brailsford can open his checkbook to bring them under the Ineos Grenadiers umbrella.
If Ineos Grenadiers ends up in Paris back in yellow, the team could be poised to sweep all three grand tours in one season, something unprecedented in professional cycling.
Other teams are not sitting idle, and that’s the upside of what’s happening right now in the peloton.
This year’s Tour should be one of the most competitive in years, and it will be in large part to the UCI’s “laissez-faire,” free-market policies — no budget restraints, no salary caps — that the sport arrived at this point.
Some will argue that limitless spending is not healthy for the long-term future of the sport. Having a large chunk of the wealth and bounty — in this case, the victories — massed in the hands of a few is never sustainable or appealing.
Yet teams like UAE-Team Emirates and Jumbo-Visma both deserve credit for venturing into the marketplace, and building up their respective race programs, recruiting young riders and developing them, and designing the team infrastructure to take it straight to the Ineos Grenadiers.
Without them, this Tour could be a one-horse race, instead of what should be a relatively wide-open affair.
Though Jumbo-Visma doesn’t have the backing of a billionaire on par with Jim Ratcliffe, team management has adroitly built out the team’s financial support system with diverse and stable backers. What’s even more remarkable is that team was on its knees less than a decade ago, and now is right at the top of the WorldTour hierarchy.
The financial power behind UAE-Team Emirates remains opaque, but the long-term backing of the Middle East emirate gives it an advantage over many of its WorldTour rivals often living on short-term deals that don’t last more than a few years.
Proponents of an open, market-driven sport point to the rise of UAE and Jumbo-Visma as examples of how other teams can do it.
And there’s more to winning than just signing a few top riders. Behind these big budgets are a fleet of coaches, trainers, nutritional experts, chefs, and other staffers.
Big budgets allow more money for training camps, wind-tunnel testing, and materials. Plusher buses and better-equipped mechanic trucks also add up, and that’s where some of the behind-the-scenes differences really play out on the road.
The set-up of the bike, the aerodynamics of the helmet, or the ideal position on a bike, winning is in the details. Frequent test days in our windtunnel gives @JumboVismaRoad the insights they are looking for. #GlobalWindDay 🌎🌬️https://t.co/qWS42wAoMD
— TU Eindhoven (@TUeindhoven) June 15, 2021
Every “poor” team laments their disadvantages under the current system, and rightly so. There’s no ceiling, and certainly no bailouts or safety net to help teams when they hit turbulent waters.
What’s another unique wrinkle in this era of the rise of the “super-teams” is that it seems devoid of the personality conflicts and clashes that so often ripped apart similar scenarios in cycling’s past. Look no further than La Vie Claire and the backroom battles between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in the 1980s.
In contrast, most of today’s teams — both rich and poor — have done a good job at selling the “all-for-one, one-for-all” ethos. By putting the team first, everyone stands to gain. Deceuninck-Quick-Step led the way in this working model during the one-day races and the top GC teams are following suit.
Of course, today’s more generous salaries, from the stars down to the worker-bee/domestique roles, means that riders are less prone to break team policy in exchange for a short-term financial gain.
Riders are paid to help the team win, and today that is more explicit than ever in the sport’s history.
And this new era of “super-teams” is also seeing a diminishing the role of the “super-capo.”
With the exit of Chris Froome, Ineos Grenadiers quickly pivoted to a multi-bet, flood-the-zone offensive strategy. Even without Tom Dumoulin, Jumbo-Visma will see Steven Kruijswijk and perhaps even Sepp Kuss as backup options for Roglič.
Only UAE-Team Emirates, thanks to Pogačar’s singular talent, retains the more traditional model of backing a solo GC leader.
Can anyone break the stranglehold?
Every Tour starts with a dozen hopefuls, yet after a week or so of racing, every Tour is effectively reduced to a handful of realistic, legitimate contenders.
The big question coming into the 2021 Tour is which teams and riders will punch above their (financial) weight?
EF Education-Nippo consistently delivers surprises, and Urán looks in fine shape coming off a solid Tour de Suisse to take one more run for the podium.
The French look taken-out at the knees yet again even before the race begins, with Julian Alaphilippe downplaying his GC chances. Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet not even racing, leaving only David Gaudu and Guillaume Martin to try to ride into the top-10.
Perhaps the likes of Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic), Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation), Miguel Ángel López and Enric Mas (Movistar), or Wout Poels (Bahrain-Victorious) can deliver miracle rides, but if they did, that would be a bigger surprise than if they don’t.
Like it or not, this year’s Tour de France — much like most of the WorldTour calendar — will be dominated by a few very deep, well-funded teams.
Many will not like it, but it’s more likely that the winner of this year’s Tour will come from one of the “Big Three” than not.
Despite the hierarchy, anyone with short memories should be reminded that this year’s Tour will be more wide-open and exciting than what fans saw in a large swath of the 1990s and 2000s.
Seeing three teams with several legitimate potential winners is a lot more exciting than some of the Tours of the previous 20 years or so, when the winner almost seemed pre-ordained, and it was only bad luck that was going to stop a streak.
Also read: How Jumbo-Visma rose from the ashes
There are no easy answers for anyone trying to impose “parity” or “equality” on a sport as divergent and disparate as elite men’s professional bike racing.
Those without the money will protest, and cry that the cards are stacked against them. Those with money will counter that the same rules apply to everyone. Any would-be team manager with a glint in their eye is only one “unicorn” away from building a WorldTour team.
There’s one thing that is certain — this year’s Tour de France will be marked by the rise of the “super-teams.”
It should make for spectacular racing, even if you’re not a fan of the top teams and how they got there.
Will an outsider from another team rewrite the ending?
Perhaps, but those fairytale endings are best left to Hollywood, not the hard roads of France.