Who else had to do a double-take when Geraint Thomas darted out of the bunch and divebombed through a hairpin bend en route to victory Thursday?
Thomas scored a victory so uncharacteristic on stage 5 of the Critérium du Dauphiné that it had many hitting rewind to watch it afresh. Known for his big engine and steady head, the Welshman hopped on board Ineos Grenadiers’ new commitment to attacking racing with a surprise move that upturned the applecart.
Also read: RIP the Sky Train
“It wasn’t planned,” Thomas said Thursday. “I knew it was all lined out and the last bit was a bit twisty so I just thought ‘sod it, go for it.’ I went with a kilometer to go, the boys said on the radio that I had a gap, and I just went all in.”
The short-range solo handed Thomas his first stage win since sprinting to victory atop Alpe d’Huez at the 2018 Tour de France.
But can Ineos Grenadiers race to its eighth yellow jersey in 10 years off the back of its new commitment to aggression?
— Critérium du Dauphiné (@dauphine) June 3, 2021
Gambling for the biggest prize in cycling
Ineos Grenadiers has entered a new era while Thomas has been awaiting his opportunities in the past nine months.
When Thomas crashed out of last year’s Giro d’Italia, Tao Geoghegan Hart picked up the leadership baton and landed a GC victory forged on aggressive racing and unlikely opportunities. Just weeks later, Richard Carapaz nearly cracked Primož Roglič at the Vuelta a España with an onslaught of uphill attacks in the final week.
The trend continued last month when Egan Bernal forged his Giro title on a series of unmatchable moves that left the pack choking on his fumes.
Team boss Dave Brailsford praised his squad’s new style in light-headed elation when Bernal rolled into Milano last month, hinting that there’s plenty more “pure racing” to come.
Also read: Bernal lands Zoncolan slam at Giro d’Italia
“We’ve got our strategy for the tour, but we want to enjoy it. We said last year it was about enjoying racing and putting a smile back on people’s faces,” he said.
“We love racing and we’ve bought that back into our team this year. That effervescence of it all is paying dividends. We’re just loving it – loving life.”
Back to back #Giro victories 🏆🏆
We had fun. We rode hard. We did it together 🤝 pic.twitter.com/nag4EOJ7hQ
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) May 30, 2021
Bernal won the Giro free of pressure as he nursed an injury, and did it against a relatively lightweight field.
But Thomas will lead Ineos Grenadiers in what may be the sternest test of its Tour de France legacy this summer.
Tadej Pogačar has blitzed onto the scene as one of the most aggressive and uncontrollable riders of the peloton and has new heft in his UAE Emirates team. Roglič has a will of steel and a seven-man Jumb0-Visma steamroller that could be as strong as, if not stronger than, the seven sent in support of 2018 champ Thomas.
Racing according to the conditions, not the planning-room
What happened at the past two editions of the Giro cannot be taken as a portent of things to come.
Ineos had the room to stretch its wings when it sent Geoghegan Hart and then Bernal into pink. Roglič and Pogačar were elsewhere, and Jumbo-Visma didn’t even make it to the second half of the 2020 race. Then last month, the Dutch team limped through the Giro with a squad built on youthful vigor rather than race-winning heft.
With no Wout van Aert, Sepp Kuss and Steven Kruijswijk assembling carriages and throttling the race with their own train, the British squad could make hay at the past two corsa rosa.
When the Jumbo express returns to France in a month’s time, Ineos Grenadiers will have little option but to retaliate in kind – and with the likes of Richie Porte and Rohan Dennis there to do the pulling, it would be bonkers not to.
It’s hard to imagine a freewheeling, unbridled Ineos Grenadiers at the Tour this summer, particularly with Thomas at the helm. The pressure on Brailsford to deliver will be sky-high after Bernal buckled last year, ending the squad’s five-year streak of success.
And Thomas too has a lot riding on the race. After missing the Tour squad last year and with a contract to fight for, the 35-year-old isn’t going to be re-writing the script after riding to the podium at both the Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Romandie in the blanket of a team that trounced the field.
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) March 28, 2021
And the TT-heavy Tour this summer points toward the Team Sky style of old.
Although Thomas hasn’t looked his best on the TT bike so far this year, he will be eyeing the Tour’s 58 time trial kilometers as an opportunity to match up to, if not better, Roglič and Pogačar. And then when the road points uphill, the wheels of Dennis, Porte, and Carapaz will give him the armor to defend every second he gained against the clock.
What happens in the Dauphiné’s three mountain stages to come – particularly the long summit finish Saturday – will provide some hints at what Thomas and Brailsford plan for the Tour.
But with Roglič, Pogačar, and Ineos Grenadier’s co-leader Carapaz all sitting out the race, this weekend won’t serve up the complete picture.
Thomas made a daring gamble with his kick to victory Thursday. It was a promising sign of an attacking, explosive Tour to come.
But don’t go betting on any daring long-range moves like Bernal’s gung-ho attack over the Giau at the Giro last month. The stakes are too high and the opposition too stiff.
The Tour is what grabs the headlines and fills the coffers – and it’s not the place to gamble.
Brailsford has sent four riders to seven yellow jerseys off the back of his tried-and-trusted ‘Sky Train.’ Don’t expect him to be leaving it in the depot at the Tour de France next month.