What a collapse.
I cannot recall such an established Tour de France team imploding as dramatically as Ineos Grenadiers did Sunday on the Grand Colombier.
This isn’t the case of an aging champion who hung around one Tour too many. This is Ineos, the wealthiest team in the peloton, imploding before everyone’s eyes with the rider whom many thought would win the next four yellow jerseys on the trot.
It was obvious that Egan Bernal wasn’t at his sharpest after the way he struggled up Puy Mary on Friday. Still, I don’t think anyone expected him to plummet so quickly out of contention.
The team started this Tour on the back foot, with Pavel Sivakov and Richard Carapaz crashing in the opening weekend. Bernal survived the Pyrénées tied on time with Primož Roglič, but got pummeled Friday. Sunday saw the cruel but definitive knockout blow.
Still, it is startling to see the team out of the top-10 on GC after dominating the Tour de France over most of the past decade. They won seven of the past eight editions of the Tour with four different riders, an unprecedented run in modern cycling.
So, what happened? It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on inside the Ineos Grenadiers compound.
Of all the WorldTour teams, they’ve been among the most challenging to get access to riders and staffers during this COVID-19 Tour. Normally, the team is quite open and accessible to the media. But under the strict health protocols during the race, Ineos has limited media opportunities to a few short questions in media mixed zones at starts and finishes. When you have TV journalists — who get first dibs because they’re paying rights-holders — focused on what happened that day, it’s been difficult to get any real insight or a more nuanced view of what might have gone wrong with Bernal.
There’s been a lot of speculation about what might might have happened: A sore back, not enough training, missing Nicolas Portal, and other explanations. But at some point it comes down to Bernal, who on Sunday after the stage didn’t look for excuses. He simply said other riders and teams are stronger than he is this year.
Now I am curious if the team will pivot and send Bernal to the Vuelta a España to try to win. There was some talk that he would already race the Vuelta, based on the assumption that he would be victorious at the Tour. Chris Froome, of course, is tapped to lead the Spanish grand tour in his final grand tour with Ineos Grenadiers.
Is this the end of the Ineos Grenadiers era? No way. Bernal is only 23, and Ineos Grenadiers is the peloton’s richest team, so they will be back.
There will definitely be some soul-searching and numbers-crunching behind the scenes at Ineos Grenadiers over the next several months.
One can imagine that team owner Jim Ratcliffe might be asking what those tens of millions of pounds are being spent on.
Time is running out for stage hunters
And just like that, there are only six days of racing left in the 2020 Tour.
Time is running out not only for the GC challengers but also for the teams who’ve come up short so far through two weeks of racing.
Going into Tuesday’s stage, only eight of the 22 starting teams had won a stage. Jumbo-Visma and UAE-Emirates lead the way with three stages each, with Deceuninck-Quick-Step, Lotto-Soudal and Sunweb winning two each. Astana, Ag2r-La Mondiale and EF Pro Cycling have won one stage apiece.
Teams are desperate to take something out of any Tour, but more so in this COVID-19 season. Be it a stage win, a run in a jersey, or even winning the team classification, teams want to show sponsors their money is being well-spent. Riders are also under pressure to show their worth. And with all the world paying attention to the Tour, the pressure is immense to do “something” every summer.
That anxiety is even higher this year, because there is a quiet fear that the Tour de France might be the last major stage race of this very bizarre season. Officials at both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España are signaling that their races will be held, but with rising cases of COVID-19 across Europe, there will be no guarantees.
Pierre Rolland’s stab for glory
Hats off to Pierre Rolland (B&B Hotels) for at least daring to attack Sunday in a breakaway. Before the stage, he predicted he would need at least five minutes to have a chance to hold off the pack on the Grand Colombier. He was right. The Frenchman hit the base with just under two minutes, and was duly reeled in by the Wout van Aert-led Jumbo-Visma train.
Rolland earned himself and his team a trip to the podium as the day’s most aggressive rider. That put him and his team in the newspapers and on the TV. So there’s at least that.
It’s rare for one of the second tier teams to win a stage anyway. More and more, Tour stages are dominated by WorldTour teams. That wasn’t always the case, and the invited teams like Rolland’s would more often be in the breaks and sometimes strike gold.
The last rider not on a WorldTour team to win a Tour stage was Julian Calmejane in stage 8 in the 2017 edition. In fact, typically only a handful of teams will win the lion’s share of stages. A team with a sprinter or a top GC contender can rack up three or more stages on the trot. So far, 2020 is following that tendency.
Tuesday’s stage 16 is Thomas De Gendt’s best shot
With Col de la Loze looming Wednesday, Tuesday’s 164km 16th stage has all the makings of a classic breakaway stage. It’s similar in profile to stage 6 in the Massif Central, so the GC riders will be content to let the attackers have their chance. The principal climb isn’t hard enough, and the finish comes after a false-flat and short kicker. And the GC riders will be saving their legs for the two very difficult stages waiting Wednesday and Thursday.
Expect a big group of stage-hunters to pull clear loaded with teams who still haven’t won a stage (see above). My pick? The obvious — Thomas De Gendt. He’s been pretty quiet so far in this Tour, so that means he’s been saving his matches. The route is almost just as he prefers them, with a relatively hard climb early (not as hard as he’d like it), with another hard climb near the end. That typically allows De Gendt to muscle out any faster finishers, and then have some transitional terrain for him to motor away solo.