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The UK super-team roars into Friday’s finish at La Super Planche des Belles Filles with four riders stacked into the top-10.
Can four be enough to take on one very strong Tadej Pogačar?
The road up the twisting Vosges summit will provide the first major clue.
“Pogačar and Wout van Aert are just a level above everyone at the minute,” said 2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas. “But you never know what’s around the corner.”
Joining Thomas near the top of the leaderboard is Adams Yates in fourth at 39 seconds behind Pogačar, the Tour’s new race leader. Tour rookie Thomas Pidcock is fifth at 40 seconds back, and Thomas is sixth at 46 seconds back. Daniel Martinez rounds out the Fab Four in eighth at 1 minute back.
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No team brings as much depth and firepower this deep into the Tour.
One of the big questions is how the team will manage its collective forces against the singular might of Pogačar.
Martínez insists there are no rivals inside the team bus, and the objective is to try to wrestle away yellow from Pogačar.
“Tomorrow is the first contact with the mountains. We have four there in the first 10, so we are very motivated,” Martínez said. “Tomorrow won’t decide the leadership of the team. The most important thing is the race, and whoever it might be, the idea to win it.”
‘Tomorrow is a big test’
Many expect Pidcock to fade in the major mountains looming in the Alps and Pyrénées, but Yates hinted that the Tour rookie will play a big factor in the coming days as Ineos Grenadiers tries to unlock the Pogačar puzzle.
“Maybe we’ll let him off the leash and let him take some time,” Yates said of Pidcock. “We have four guys on GC, and tomorrow is a big test. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
Super Planche is the Tour’s first mountaintop finale, and should provide the best test yet to see where Pogačar, Ineos Grenadiers and the other GC favorites truly stack up.
Ineos Grenadiers made it through the first treacherous first week in superb position. While rivals such as Primož Roglič, Ben O’Connor, and Aleksandr Vlasov have crashed or lost time, Ineos Grenadiers is leaning on its experience and grand tour know-how to avoid first-week traps.
On Thursday, Pidcock surged to fourth on the uphill kicker, with Pogačar winning the stage and staking his claim in yellow.
Thomas admitted he was suffering on the explosive finale, and he lost the wheel to American Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost) by an amount that was just big enough for the race jury to call a time gap. That meant Thomas lost five seconds to the front group.
“In the final it was just a case of trying to hold the wheel out of the corner and then Powless slowly creeping away from me,” Thomas said. “I think it was a good day for the team, really. Tom did a good ride and we were all up there.”
So far in its public statesman the team is sticking to the script of “one day at a time,” and the riders are not trying to stoke the flames of the hype machine.
With Pogačar looking unbeatable across the cobblestones Wednesday and then riding off everyone’s wheel Thursday to beat the pure puncheurs at their own game, all eyes will be on Ineos Grenadiers to see if they can stay close.
‘The climbs will put everyone in their place’
Team boss Rod Ellingworth said the rise of Pogačar the past two seasons is like a jolt of urgency through the entire organization, and everyone’s been working hard behind the scene to prepare for the 2022 Tour.
“Pogačar is a phenomenal bike rider. He’s one of the best we’ve ever seen, and it’s great to have some great competition,” Ellingworth said this week. “To be honest, it makes us to want it even more.”
Ellingworth won’t reveal the team tactics, but the team is hoping to carry its numerical advantage into Friday’s first touch with the mountains and again Sunday high in the French Alps with a first-category climb in the Portes du Soleil.
Both are just precursors of week’s two and three, and the real battle for yellow.
“You have to be there in the key moments, and thanks to the help from the teammates, we are there,” Martínez said. “The sensations are good, but we won’t know until the bigger mountains who good they are.”
Ineos Grenadiers is right where it wants to be as the Tour pedals into the first major climbs. The team will soon discover if its gang of four can challenge the peloton’s new ruler.