The grand tour powerhouse is facing the prospect of a second-consecutive Tour of failing to score and being left flailing in the draft of a seemingly invincible Tadej Pogačar.
A Pyrénéan double-header Wednesday and Thursday marks Ineos Grenadiers’ last chances to rescue a Tour campaign cursed by crashes and worsened by its own inability to adjust to a freewheeling race favoring the brave.
Ineos Grenadiers heads into stage 16 without a trip to a stage winner’s podium and with team leader Richard Carapaz in the midst of a tightly coiled five-rider race for the positions beneath Pogačar on GC.
After seeing three members of its four-rider assault lose time in a disastrous opening 72 hours of the race, Ineos Grenadiers went all-in with the Ecuadorian. As a result, the super-squad has missed out on a Tour with more breakaway stage winners than any in recent memory. Jumbo Visma and Bora-Hansgrohe have both balanced their hands to land two stage wins apiece while keeping Jonas Vingegaard and Wilco Kelderman in range of a top-three.
Ineos Grenadiers’ scoresheet remains empty, its prize purse is stark, and Paris is not far on the horizon. If Carapaz and Co. don’t turn it on in the Pyrénées, the Team Sky / Ineos Grenadiers franchise will be facing its worst Tour performance since 2014.
A Tour turned sour
A Tour de France flop would see Ineos Grenadiers at a tipping point that could dictate its direction for years to come.
If this is a so-called “Pogačar era,” it’s still in its infancy as the Slovenian rides toward his 23rd birthday in September. And then there’s the untapped grand tour talents of Vingegaard, Remco Evenepoel, Mathieu van der Poel and so many more.
Also read: Gen-Z reshapes the Tour de France
How does Ineos Grenadiers return to the top of the grand tour pecking order in the face of a decade of Gen-Z superstars? The two summit finishes this week and a possible showdown between Pogačar and newly-crowned Giro d’Italia champ Egan Bernal at this summer’s Vuelta a España may offer clues.
Carapaz sits just one second off the podium Wednesday morning, the one positive note from a second successive Tour that hasn’t gone Ineos Grenadiers’ way.
Last year when Egan Bernal flamed out in the Alps with back problems, the super-squad was quick to pivot with an attacking final week that handed the team a one-two on stage 18 with Carapaz and stage-winner Michał Kwiatkowski. This year, Ineos Grenadiers has backed itself into a corner.
Reverting to a tried-and-tested suffocation strategy against a peerless Pogačar has seen Ineos Grenadiers fail to plunder a Tour that has been ripe for breakaway wins – all while watching grand tour rival Jumbo-Visma score huge wins with Sepp Kuss and Wout van Aert and somehow keep Vingegaard poised for the Paris podium.
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) July 11, 2021
Will Ineos Grenadiers continue bringing numbers to bang away at Pogačar’s unyielding door on the extra tough Portet mountaintop Wednesday, and again on Luz Ardiden on Thursday?
It might have no choice.
UAE-Team Emirates may not give Ineos Grenadiers the room to move into dangerous breakaways this late in the race and so Tao Geoghegan Hart, Richie Porte, Kwiatkowski, et al may not see a stage win. Instead, they could have no choice but to slot into the mountain train and hope it delivers after the carriages unsuccessfully rumbled through the Alps.
Hindsight is a fine thing, and it’s easy to criticize Dave Brailsford for not pivoting toward a more swashbuckling strategy as soon as Porte, Geoghegan Hart, and Geraint Thomas lost time and Pogačar blitzed the opening mountain stages not long after.
But nonetheless, with five stages remaining, Brailsford may come out of the Tour with next-to-nothing after resolutely going all-in with Carapaz for the podium.
While a second-place Tour de France finish will be a huge result for Carapaz, for Ineos Grenadiers, anything but a yellow jersey will taste like defeat. A swathe of stage wins would sweeten the sour.
Racing under the banner of Bernal
How would the race have played out with Bernal on board? We’ll never know. But it does seem that the 24-year-old is the future for Ineos Grenadiers.
Bernal has the explosivity to match Pogačar and fellow grand tour ace Primož Roglič, and he packs the attacking verve that Ineos Grenadiers aspires toward.
A future focused around the young Colombian and the similarly swashbuckling South American Carapaz could be Ineos Grenadiers’ answer to a generation of riders that have the power to blow a race apart at the flick of a switch.
There’s a high chance that Bernal, Pogačar, and Roglič will face off at this summer’s Vuelta a España. Adam Yates, Pavel Sivakov, and Dani Martinez are also likely to be on the Ineos bus.
How Brailsford’s boys race in Spain could prove a lot.
Jumbo-Visma and UAE-Team Emirates have shown with Roglič and Pogačar that playing all-for-one works. Will Ineos Grenadiers go all-in with Bernal or try to keep multiple cards in play like it had hoped to do at the Tour? Does it play offense or defense? And how does Brailsford handle team dynamics in a bench so deep that it’s almost a burden?
Ineos Grenadiers needs to find a way to quell the flames of a decade-long “Pogcineration” before it gains too much heat.
Only disaster seems to stand in the way of Pogačar and a second yellow jersey this week.
Bernal may be the rider to block a third, fourth, fifth … and maybe more.