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Tour de France

Tour de Hoody: Ineos Grenadiers up against a new kind of puzzle

British super-team on its heels after uneven start to 2021 Tour de France.

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CHATEAUROUX, France (VN) — Gabriel Rasch made the rounds Thursday ahead of the start of stage 6 the morning after the Tadej Pogačar time trial tornado ripped through the peloton.

It’s obvious the ex-pro is a natural-born optimist. Despite the team’s rocky start to the 2021 Tour de France, Rasch told me that all things considered, the team can be grateful that it is still in the game.

“To be honest, we are in a good place still considering ‘G’ went down, and got his shoulder out,” Rasch said. “It is still a long way to Paris, and I think we are a good place.”

OK, well, what else is a sport director going to say?

Also read: Tour de Hoody: Chris Froome stubbornly refuses to give up on Tour de France dream

It’s rare for a sport director or team manager to cry over spilt milk for too long at the Tour de France. Racing is all about managing expectations, overcoming setbacks, and pivoting toward the next stage.

The key, always, is to stay in the race.

That’s not how Ineos Grenadiers is used to racing. Of all the favorites coming into the 2021 Tour, Ineos Grenadiers is among the worse-off.

The team came bounding into the Tour intent on reclaiming its crown as the king of the Tour. Less than a week into the race, however, the team is reeling. There is no type of PR who can spin that any other way.

Two of its “Fab Four” — Tao Geoghegan Hart and Richie Porte — lost all hope of GC on the very first day.

Geraint Thomas, the 2018 winner who came into the race on great form, was on the ground two days later with a separated shoulder. Richard Carapaz, the team’s climbing ace in the hole, gave up more time than what they were hoping for in Wednesday’s TT.

Experience-bred optimism

So why so chirpy?

Well, if Ineos Grenadiers knows anything about the Tour, it’s how to race with the leader’s jersey and protect it. A team doesn’t win seven yellow jerseys with four different riders without understanding the race.

And that’s where Ineos Grenadiers and the other rivals are hoping they can exploit.

In 2020, Pogačar rode the slipstream of Jumbo-Visma, and then finished it off with the coup-de-grace on the final time trial.

The tables are now turned. With Primož Roglič also languishing out of the gate early, the pressure is going to be piling on UAE-Team Emirates, a pressure that the team — and Pogačar — didn’t have last year.

“His team has a big job to do yet,” Rasch said. “They’re not as experienced as a rider or as a team at defending a jersey, so, yes, let’s see.”

Let’s see, indeed.

Race leader Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) said he hopes to defend the yellow jersey in Friday’s hilly and longest stage of the 2021 Tour in order to be able to ride it into the Alps. He’s certainly under no impression that he will carry it out of the Alps this weekend.

So that means that UAE-Team Emirates is already carrying the weight of the “virtual” lead. Pogačar could end up in yellow at the end of Friday’s stage, and almost certainly by Saturday.

Finding and exploiting weaknesses

FOUGERES, FRANCE - JUNE 29: Tadej Pogačar of Slovenia and UAE-Team Emirates white best young jersey during the 108th Tour de France 2021, Stage 4 a 150,4km stage from Redon to Fougères / @LeTour / #TDF2021 / on June 29, 2021 in Fougeres, France. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Tadej Pogačar rides protected by his teammates in stage 4 at the 2021 Tour de France. Photo: Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

Could UAE be Pogačar’s weak underbelly?

Ineos Grenadiers is at least going to try.

“We need to wait for the right moment, and attack them when the team is vulnerable,” Rasch said. “We have to look for the possibility. It depends on the stage.”

When will that come? Rasch doesn’t know when or where, but he also knows the team needs to be ready to pounce if Pogačar is isolated.

Many look to Itzulia Basque Country in April, when attacks coming down a first-category climb caught out Pogačar, and opened the door for Roglič to attack to victory. The big difference there was that Brandon McNulty, the American Tour rookie, was holding the race leader’s jersey, not Pogačar.

Pogačar held back to try to pace McNulty back to the front, and finally attacked on the final climb to finish third overall. It was the only blot on Pogačar’s otherwise stellar spring.

The big question mark in this Tour remains how Pogačar will react to the pressure and to the responsibility of being in the lead.

Insiders at UAE-Team Emirates say Pogačar shows no sign of cracking under pressure that might come with early leadership at the Tour. He’s led and won nearly every race on the WorldTour calendar, and seems to have the type of personality and character to handle it with calm and ease.

For years, Ineos Grenadiers set the tempo and pace at the Tour.

It might be them who have to adapt.

With Pogačar, they’ve finally come up against a rider who isn’t rattled and who races with unfiltered panache.

Right now, Ineos Grenadiers is hoping that time is on their side.

“We still have not yet started the mountains yet,” Rasch said. “OK, Pogačar is ahead of everybody else, but behind him, it is quite open still.”

Let’s check back with him in a few days, and see how optimistic he sounds.