GUERLÉDAN, France (VN) — The buzz Sunday in the press corps was, what’s happening with Ineos Grenadiers?
The 2021 Tour de France is hardly off to the rollicking start the UK powerhouse would have imagined. The team was beat up in Saturday’s pair of crashes, and then it was sliding backwards Sunday on the Mur de Bretagne.
Or so it seems.
A gap opened up between the chasing groups on the top of the Mur, meaning that Geraint Thomas lost 15 seconds to his direct rivals. Richard Carapaz, who ceded 5 seconds to GC rivals Saturday, was in the front group Sunday.
On both days, the time gap was taken at Carapaz or Thomas. So that means that a gap opened up in front of them that was big enough that the race jury ruled against them.
That can mean a few things: Either that someone else in front of them lost the wheel, and they could not chase back to close it down. Or they lost the wheel, and they could not chase it down.
Whatever the reason, the time splits count.
Both are still in the top-20, and it’s very early days in the Tour, but the little differences haven’t gone unnoticed by their rivals.
— Geraint Thomas (@GeraintThomas86) June 27, 2021
Seeing Ineos Grenadiers on the wrong side of splits is interesting, especially considering that during Chris Froome’s heyday with Team Sky, the team would always try to drive Froome to the front on days when it was possible that gaps could fracture the bunch.
The team was becoming so adept at driving gaps that the UCI decided to “widen” the distance between gapped riders — from 1 second to 3 seconds — in order to try reduce the stress in the front group, especially on punchy finales that were not ruled as mountaintop finishes but were steep enough to stretch out the bunch.
This weekend’s “walls” were far from ideal for either Carapaz or Thomas, who both bring more diesel-like engines and thrive on the longer, more grinding climbs. If they lose time in Alps, well, then there’s reason to be worried.
It’s worse still for Tao Geoghegan Hart and Richie Porte, who both started as protected riders. Both bled time over the weekend to all but forfeit GC chances.
— Richard Carapaz M (@RichardCarapazM) June 27, 2021
Is something more serious amiss? No one’s quite sure. The team were not immediately available to the media Sunday, and a handful of British media at the race are not too happy about it.
With limited media access, it’s often just a pithy comments to TV commentators before disappearing into the bus. Media is blocked from the paddock area under COVID-19 health rules, and limited to a small media mixed where riders are not required to stop.
Ineos Grenadiers will need a strong time trial Wednesday before pedaling into the Alps to put things back in their favor.
Battle for the time bonuses heats up early
A few years ago, the Tour de France was looking for the “pure” time of the overall winner.
It’s an interesting concept. A bike race, at its essence, is about going from point A to point B in the least amount of time. Or, at least, faster than everyone else.
The inclusion of time bonuses, or primes, dates back to the earliest days of racing. The idea is to entice and reward riders to attack and liven up the race. Some, however, believe time bonuses somehow corrupt or artificially tweak the outcome.
The reasoning is this: why give someone several seconds — sometimes minutes in the old days — just because they could dart across the line a bit faster than everyone else? It particularly stings on mountaintop finishes, when riders might be equal except in their ability to finish it off.
Another third place for @primozroglic after a vicious final ⛰
📸 Tour de Tietema pic.twitter.com/dNLpCwA374
— Team Jumbo-Visma cycling (@JumboVismaRoad) June 27, 2021
So a few years ago, the Tour eliminated all time bonuses, and what did we see? A flat race with everything knotted up. Sure, the times might be close, but the race lacked spark.
Organizers quickly brought them back, with finish-line bonuses for the top-3. They’ve even gone one better, adding mid-race bonuses on key climbs sprinkled across select stages on the Tour route.
As a result, the race for the yellow jersey is already heating up among the pre-race favorites.
Also read: Van der Poel masters the Mur
The presence of time bonuses on the line twice in Sunday’s stage — awarded to the top-3 on each of two passages over the Mur de Bretagne — immediately saw the emergence of a growing rivalry between Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič.
Roglič hit out first, taking third Saturday ahead of Pogačar to earn four bonus seconds. On Sunday, the pair were at it again, with Pogačar nipping Roglič twice. First up the first passage on the Mur, taking second to Roglič’s third, and again at the line.
Add it up, and Pogačar now holds a one-second advantage to Roglič, and leads the “virtual” GC standings.
Who says bonus seconds don’t spice up a race? The Tour de France is better off with them.
Rik Verbrugghe remains a Chris Froome believer
Chris Froome made it through Sunday’s stage. Though he was banged up and bruised, the four-time Tour de France winner is still in the game.
Froome’s return to the Tour this year for his first start since finishing third in 2018 could not have started off in a worse way Saturday. Froome hit the deck hard, and sat there for a long time before re-entering the race. Froome ended up in a hospital bed overnight, but managed to get through Sunday’s stage.
Also read: Race for survival for Chris Froome
For sport director Rik Verbrugghe, that’s a reflection of Froome’s fighting character.
“Chris will not give up,” Verbrugghe said Sunday morning. “He will finish this Tour if he can. I have never seen anyone so professional and so dedicated.”
— Chris Froome (@chrisfroome) June 27, 2021
Verbrugghe’s been alongside Froome all spring, and though the team and Froome long admitted that he would not be racing for yellow this year, Verbrugghe said he’s a believer.
“Chris needs this Tour for the Vuelta a España later this year,” Verbrugghe told me at the start Sunday. “I believe Chris Froome can return to the form that he had when he won four yellow jerseys. Whether that’s enough to beat this new young generation, that’s another question.”
Unfortunately for Israel Start-Up Nation, Michael Woods also lost nearly nine minutes Saturday, meaning his GC ambitions are over on the first day.