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Tour de France

Tour de France daily digest: Last gasp of the Sky Train at the Tour de France

Ineos Grenadiers tried to resurrect the Sky Train on Wednesday's battle up Mont Ventoux. Fred Dreier examines the historic moment.

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Stop your watches at 5:35 p.m. Central European Time.

The fearsome Sky Train — the most dominant Tour de France strategy of the last decade — has finally pulled into the station, and to be honest, I’m not sure if it will ever roar to its old crushing speeds again in the world’s biggest bike race. Call me crazy, but I think that the era of Sky/Ineos Grenadiers stomping the peloton into mush on long and grinding ascents like Mont Ventoux is officially over.

During Wednesday’s stage 11, the race tackled Ventoux, twice, and on the final ascent, we saw Ineos Grenadiers try to do what it has done countless times before on long, grinding Tour de France climbs.

Ventoux, with its long and steady slopes, has been the ideal track for the Sky/Ineos train to control the peloton, and in 2013 and 2016 the team used its ramps to wring the necks of its rivals.

Sky dominates the peloton in 2016
In years past Team Sky bossed around the peloton with its controlling tactics. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

In 2016 it was Wout Poels and Sergio Henao who did the damage. In 2013 Peter Kennaugh and Richie Porte crushed the group of favorites. So successful was the team, that we came to call it “Fortress Froome,” if you recall.

This year, nearly the entire Ineos Grenadiers squad seized the front on the final climb of Ventoux, again tapping out that fearsome tempo that, in years past, would have whittled down the group of favorites to just two or three riders. Jonathan Castroviejo went first. Then, Geraint Thomas powered things along, his trademark white Oakley sunglasses cutting through the TV cameras. Then, Porte took over, stomping on his pedals as he’s done oh so many times before.

Finally, it was Michał Kwiatkowski’s turn, and the Polish super-talent churned out a big gear, raising the speed to set up Richard Carapaz to attack. Kwiatkowski pulled off the front, and as we’ve seen in previous Tours de France, he nearly came to a standstill after his superhuman effort.

Only this time, when the Ineos Grenadiers train finally pulled off, there was still plenty of road remaining to the summit. And the damage done by the train wasn’t particularly damaging.

For nearly a decade Team Sky controlled the pace at the Tour de France. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Sure, Ben O’Connor, Mike Woods, Guillaume Martin, Poels, and Enric Mas were left gasping by the side of the road. But Jonas Vingegaard, Alexey Lutsenko, Rigoberto Urán, Tadej Pogačar, and even Wilco flippin’ Kelderman remained.

It’s worth examining the riders who survived Wednesday’s Ineos Grenadiers onslaught. Urán, over the years, was a regular victim of the Sky Train, as was Kelderman, who just last year was ground into paste on the slopes of the Passo Stelvio by Ineos Grenadiers’ bully tactics. On Wednesday, both appeared fresh as daisies after Ineos Grenadiers flexed its muscles and then fizzled.

Why? It’s pretty obvious that Ineos Grenadiers of 2021 isn’t the Sky of 2016. And it’s pretty obvious that the team’s controlling tactics simply do not work anymore.

We should not understate the seismic shift this one moment represents in Tour de France history, nor should we forget the era in which today’s battle on Ventoux bookends. How many millions of pixels and gallons of newspaper ink were spilled on the Sky Train, and how it was snuffing the life out of the Tour de France? How many think pieces (written by this author and others) were birthed by the Sky Train?

Over the past years, we read columns about the need for cycling to create a salary cap — and this attitude was a direct result of the Sky Train. We heard commentators discuss the need for other teams in the Tour de France to band together to try and break the Sky stranglehold. We heard grumpy Tour de France old-timers lament the loss of the race’s freewheeling spirit. The culprit? You guessed it — “Fortress Froome.”

Ineos tries to control the pace
Ineos Grenadiers did what it could to control the pace, but it couldn’t shake all of the contenders. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

We elevated Sir David Brailsford up as pro cycling’s mysterious Svengali, a true disruptor who had solved the century-old mystery of pro cycling through budget, smart hiring, and marginal gains. We secretly hoped for someone — anyone, really — to have the chutzpah and the leg strength to attack. And they rarely did.

Over the past few seasons, we’ve seen cracks in the Ineos Grenadiers train, and the 2020 Tour de France gave us a glaring view that the team’s controlling tactics didn’t really work anymore. Still, you could point to plenty of X-factors last year for why Ineos Grenadiers failed to control the race. Egan Bernal’s injured back, Jumbo-Visma’s stacked roster, and the shakeup caused by the COVID-19 shutdown were all to blame.

Today, however, was the first real sign that the Sky Train is derailed and dead at the Tour de France. There was no Jumbo-Visma to rival the team’s strength. Pogačar’s UAE-Team Emirates squad wasn’t up to the challenge. The stage was set for Ineos Grenadiers to do what it’s done oh so many times before. And it didn’t work.

Eras of dominance come and go in pro sports, and every few decades we see dynasties rise and fall for a variety of reasons. Here in the U.S.A., we’ve recently watched the New England Patriots of the NFL and Golden State Warriors of the NBA both go from untouchable and unbeatable, to pack-fill, over the course of two seasons.

And now, less than five years after Sky obliterated the field on Mont Ventoux, the Train left the station, accelerated to cruising speed, and powered up the hill. And when it finally stopped — there were plenty of passengers still on board. And everyone kind of looked around, and thought: “Wow, is that it?”

Stage 11 in social media

Whenever Wout van Aert wins a bike race, Twitter explodes with plenty of memes, jokes, and cheeky play-on-words-style tweets using the word “Wout.”

As you can imagine, Wednesday’s stage 11 was no different. Here are a few highlights from the WOW-t fest that took place on social media.

Wout van Aert gave us some inspirational words in his post-stage presser.

Cycling Memes analyzed van Aert’s strengths and lack of weaknesses with this handy approval matrix.

Journalist Sophie Smith calls out the bizarre and amazing stat from the past two stages.

Oh, Sadhbh is at it again

Boy Wout tweets never get old

Hey Wout!

Oh wow, Bradley Wiggins is wearing lycra denim, or is that denim lycra?