The Ecuadoran climber was the only rider who had the legs to repeatedly attack the otherwise imperial rule of Tadej Pogačar in the high mountains, yet his third place is seen both as a personal success and a moment of reckoning for the mighty Ineos Grenadiers machine.
“I’m very happy with what’s a great result for me,” said Carapaz, the first Ecuadoran rider to land on the Tour podium. “We will celebrate as a team in Paris. It’s true we came here with a team to win the Tour, but there is only one winner. That’s sport.”
Ineos Grenadiers swaggered into the 2021 Tour three weeks ago with a “four-pronged” attack that soon deflated into the singular Carapaz option.
The team’s promise of aggressive racing and a new blueprint for Tour success quickly collapsed under the weight of crashes and the seemingly unstoppable force of Pogačar.
Geraint Thomas, the 2018 champion, looked to be on form, but crashed heavily in the first week. Richie Porte, third in 2020, also faded early and Tao Geoghegan Hart, winner of the 2020 Giro, was never truly a factor.
“It’s certainly been an up and down race,” Thomas said. “It’s probably the toughest Tour I’ve done mentally.”
Ineos Grenadiers facing new kind of rival in Pogačar
Ineos Grenadiers came into the 2021 Tour intent on reclaiming its Tour de France crown.
The team won seven yellow jerseys in eight years with four different riders from 2012 to 2019, unprecedented in modern cycling.
Last year, Jumbo-Visma drilled the pace so hard that then-defending champion Egan Bernal was gone by the second week. Carapaz finished 13th overall, the team’s worst result since Chris Froome crashed out in 2014.
After that drubbing in 2020, the team promised more attacks and a tactical flourish to outmaneuver Pogačar and its other rivals.
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) July 17, 2021
Yet the emergence of Pogačar presents a new kind of puzzle for Ineos Grenadiers.
What happens when you have the richest and perhaps deepest team that doesn’t have the strongest rider? During the Chris Froome era, “Fortress Froome” would throttle opponents into submission.
After 2021, it’s obvious that the walls have been breached.
After nearly a decade dominating the Tour and controlling the pace of the race, the team is now playing catch-up to a superior rider. All month, the team raced on the back foot against the Slovenian sledgehammer.
“It’s a different style of racing for us,” Spain’s Jonathan Castroviejo told AS last week. “We are used to being at the front. Now we are reacting off of another. To be honest, we are not used to it.”
Also read: Wout van Aert says Pogačar ‘not unbeatable’
Ineos Grenadiers managers and sport directors were not available for comment to the media in the closing days of the race, but there have been hints and rumors of frustration and rancor behind the scenes inside the team bus.
The tragic loss of Nicolas Portal continues to haunt the team, and ex-Sky rider Bradley Wiggins, now working as a Eurosport commentator, said he’s noticed the sense of mission and discipline slip inside the rank and file.
The team can shrug off the 2021 Tour to a bit of bad luck due to crashes, and Carapaz did an admirable job to try to take it to Pogačar, but the once-feared Ineos Grenadiers train seems to have lost some of its teeth.
Thomas, who is in a contract season, tried to be philosophical about a Tour that promised more, yet delivered a hard-fought third-place podium spot.
“I came here to fight for the win or at least a podium,” Thomas said. “So for that to just disappear on stage eight, and to be back there – that’s not where I wanted to be and what I’d trained all year for. To get through all that I can be proud of that.”
Yet for a team that boasts a team budget of nearly $60 million, anything but outright victory can only be seen as a disappointment.
Carapaz hits third career grand tour podium
No one is criticizing Carapaz.
Nicknamed “Billy,” the 2019 Giro d’Italia champion held up his end of the bargain. He avoided crashes and mishaps, but Pogačar and Tour sensation Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) were superior in both the mountains and the time trials.
On Saturday, Carapaz lost more time against his podium rivals, but had enough cushion to secure third at 7:03 back.
Barring disaster, Carapaz confirms his grand tour credentials, with his third podium in four grand tour starts on Sunday in Paris with third place overall at the 2021 Tour.
With a pink jersey and second at the 2020 Vuelta, Carapaz is emerging as a top grand tour rider, and vows to return to the Tour to try to step up higher on the podium.
“We did all we could all the way to the end of the Tour,” Carapaz said. “Tadej Pogačar was at a higher level on the race, and we have to admit it. We will come back next year and try again. The result might be the same, but it might be different. We will keep fighting.”
Ineos Grenadiers is now hoping Bernal can return to full strength by 2022. If not, racing for the podium might be as good as it gets in what’s quickly becoming the Pogačar era.