Tour de France 2020

Commentary: Will a stage win and polka dots salvage Ineos Grenadiers’ Tour de France?

A stage win and the Tour de France polka dots are huge accomplishments for the riders at Team Ineos Grenadiers. But these prizes won't suffice for the history books, the crusty press corps, or team management, writes Fred Dreier.

Team Ineos Grenadiers won’t go home empty-handed from the 2020 Tour de France.

Whether or not the squad’s success will be viewed as such, however, is open for debate.

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On Thursday the British team finally had a reason to smile, as Michał Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz stretched a daylong breakaway into a true Kodak moment during the Tour’s mountainous 18th stage from Méribel to La Roche-sur-Foron. Cameras snapped as the two men slowly pedaled to the finish line to celebrate the stage victory together, with Kwiatkowski becoming the official winner as his front wheel crossed the line just ahead of his teammate’s.

The sight of two teammates crossing the line together isn’t a regular sight at the Tour de France. Nobody seemed more taken by the moment than Kwiatkowski, who has gotten few opportunities to ride for himself during his seven Tours de France.

“You know, I get some nice moments in cycling, but that was [a] new experience,” Kiwatikowski said at the finish. “I [had] like goosebumps for the last kilometer because I know the gap is so big we’re going to make it. Both of us really enjoyed the last kilometers. That’s incredible”

As an added bonus, Carapaz took control of the race’s polka-dot jersey, awarded to the top climber in the race. Over the past three stages, Carapaz has been a man for the breakaways, and his relentless aggression in the mountains boosted him ahead of Tadej Pogačar in the Mountains Classification.

Ineos Grenadiers got a one-two on the stage and the polka-dot jersey/
Ineos Grenadiers got a one-two on the stage and the polka-dot jersey/ Photo: Stephane Mahe – Pool/Getty Images

If the race were to end today, Ineos Grenadiers would go home with a stage win, the KOM jersey, and a top-15 finish on GC for Tour debutante Carapaz (13th place, 17:48 down). For most teams in the WorldTour, such a haul at the Tour de France would be reason to book a charter flight to Ibiza and bathe in champagne for a few days.

But Ineos Grenadiers isn’t just some WorldTour team. This is the most successful squad in Tour de France history, and a squad with an annual budget that is double that of many of its rivals. Ineos Grenadiers came into the 2020 Tour de France as the Lycra-clad 300-pound gorilla, with a squad of all-star domestiques riding ahead of the defending champion, Egan Bernal.

As such, the pressing question now is how to view the team’s successes through this lens.

Before I continue, I’ll just say that it’s my sincere hope that the riders on Team Ineos Grenadiers view this Tour de France as a rousing triumph. Go party, guys, you did it. Simply finishing the brutal race is an amazing accolade for any pro rider, and to win a stage and take a jersey is, to quote Borat, “GREAT SUCCESS!” 

Again, Kwiatkowski has the right attitude: “I think we’re going to celebrate big time tonight because we all deserve it after so many stages,” Kwiatkowski said. “I believe we put on a show today and for sure we have to celebrate that.”

And, let’s not underestimate the emotional boost that these prizes will have for this group of riders. Just months ago Ineos Grenadiers lost its head DS, Nico Portal, to a heart attack. Those riders who knew Portal well have undoubtedly been racing this Tour with a wide range of emotions. So, to finally taste victory after two weeks of setbacks must be seen as a major win. On his social media pages, Kwiatkowski dedicated the win to Portal.

Heck yeah.

OK, it isn’t all hugs and feel-good stories for Ineos Grenadiers, of course.

The the question of success is a trickier subject to parse for we curmudgeonly journalists in the Tour press corps, for the history books, and for those well-paid capos who manage Ineos Grenadiers. Success raises expectations, and historical success pushes those expectations even higher. A bloated budget and roster teeming with talent places those expectations to nearly unreachable heights altogether.

And unfortunately, a KOM jersey and a stage win is nowhere near the achievements that Ineos Grenadiers should have had at this year’s Tour de France.

You see, Egan Bernal got crushed in the battle for the yellow jersey, and Ineos Grenadiers was absolutely power-slammed by Jumbo-Visma whenever the road went uphill. It wasn’t even close. To put his in football terms, this was a five-time defending Super Bowl champion going 3-13. In baseball terms, this was the Mickey Mantle New York Yankees losing 100 games.

Critics (of mine) will point out that Ineos has flailed at the Tour before. In 2014, then Team Sky went winless when it was then the two-time defending champ. I think this is a bad comp. During that year the team’s GC star, Chris Froome, crashed out early, which threw the team’s entire game plan out the window. After that, the squad had nobody to lead a GC chase.

Throughout this year’s Tour, by contrast, Ineos Grenadiers has been honestly and legitimately trying to win. Bernal fought for every centimeter of the race until he was blasted into oblivion on the Grand Colombier. Ineos Grenadiers occasionally rode the front in an effort to dethrone Jumbo-Visma, often with hilarious, if kind-of depressing, outcomes.

The disappointing finishes opened the squad up to plenty of criticism, namely whether leaving Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome off of the Tour team for newbies Carapaz and Pavel Sivakov was the correct personnel move.

Had Ineos-Grenadiers mounted a real challenge to Jumbo-Visma, and had Bernal fought for the overall, only to finish second, third, fourth, or even fifth, now that would equate to a hard-fought boxing match in which the defending champion simply suffered a punch too many. In my opinion, that would be a better outcome than a stage win and polka-dot jersey.

But alas, during the 2020 Tour de France, Ineos-Grenadiers, the biggest, baddest, and richest boxer in the fight never really threw a punch. As such, the team had better be thinking of ways to return in 2021 with a plan to hit back in a big way.

I have no doubt that such a plan is already in the works.