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As the Tour began its southward approach to the Pyrenees, media and journalists have begun to ponder how this year’s squad, built around Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal, compares to the lineups that raced for Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins?
That question was highlighted during Saturday’s 200 kilometer eighth stage from Mâcon to Saint Etienne, when Thomas found himself adrift after being caught in a crash with 15 kilometers to go. Like clockwork, Thomas’s teammates—Jonathan Castroviejo, Wout Poels, and Dylan van Baarle—dropped back, assembled themselves into a team time trial, and pulled Thomas back to the peloton.
L’Equipe newspaper got the ball rolling on the subject in its daily item “La Question Du Jour” [The Question of the Day] by asking, ‘Ineos est-il moins fort que Sky’ [‘Ineos, Is it less strong than Sky?’]
So VeloNews weighed in before the start of Saturday’s stage by asking people what they thought; and the general consensus is that Team Ineos is still very much the team to beat, with or without Froome.
“This year it’s a little less deep with Froome out”
Jim Ochowicz, manager of CCC Team, believes Team Ineos’ leadership is as strong as it ever was when Froome or Wiggins raced in Sky colors. It was an era when his team, as Team BMC, were also vying for the overall classification with Australian Cadel Evans, who won in 2011 and then compatriot Richie Porte who placed fifth in 2016 to raise hopes of emulating Evans, but crashed out in 2017 and 2018.
Ochowicz’s one question regards the depth of the team. “They’ve always had individuals that were capable of winning besides the guys that won,” Ochowicz said. “This year I think it’s a little less deep with Froome out. Geraint Thomas seems to be coming into form. Bernal seems to be in form. I don’t know how deep they are on the other side of that this year, where they’ve been on the front, just killing it.”
Ochowicz has not read too much into Team Ineos not leading the chase of the main break in Thursday’s sixth stage to the summit of La Planche des Belles Filles in the Vosges. The stage was won by Belgian Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida) from Italian Giulo Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo), the latter taking the yellow jersey. Thomas rode brilliantly up the last seven-kilometer climb on which the last 100m was at 24 percent gradient to place fourth at 1 minute 44 seconds. Bernal was 12th at 1:53.
But Ineos chose not to ride to control the gap. Ochowicz says the move is not a sign that the team is weaker. “Nobody could close that gap,” he said. “So, it tells you something about the teams’ structure a bit, that not one team took control two days ago. At the end, they took shots, they each took a shot at it, you know Movistar [Mikel Landa] and then AG2R (Romain Bardet) and Ineos a little bit, but nobody was there long enough to close the gap. Or strong enough to close the gap.”
“This year they didn’t make a statement”
Swiss rider Michael Schar (CCC Team), who is riding in his ninth Tour and was a member of the Cadel Evans’ 2011 winning team, believes Ineos is just as strong as the old Sky squads. “They are the dominant team,” Schar said, referencing the team’s depth. “On the road, on the flat stages, on the mountains. Every domestique would be an actual leader in any other team.
“They still have the two options for the GC. If you have two options, it’s a big luxury. That has not changed. If it’s Froome and ‘G,’ or Bernal and ‘G,’ for us in a bunch it makes no difference.”
But Schar admitted that he was still a little perplexed that Team Ineos did not assert itself on Thursday’s sixth stage to La Planche des Belles Filles by driving the peloton to reel in the breakaway.
“We were also thinking about this because mostly on the first mountaintop stage, Sky makes a presence or a statement,” Schar concurred. “This year they didn’t do it. A different approach, maybe? “I don’t know. I sort of think [that with regards to the] GC that this [break was not considered by Team Ineos] in front, so they didn’t want to do it, or didn’t want to waste energy for nothing.
But Schar certainly admired how Thomas and Bernal raced the final climb: “They were impressive after 160 kms of really, really hard racing, the speed and manner, they went. This is impressive.”
“Serious high-quality cyclists doing teamwork”
EF Education First director Charly Wegelius believes that Team Ineos still has plenty of depth.
If you remove Chris Froome from the mix, that’s a pretty big a knock on the head for the sort the total, but I think that strength in depth hasn’t been dramatically altered,” Wegelius said.
“I mean you’ve got a guy like tough [Michal] Kwiatkowski who is a seriously high-quality cyclist doing basically teamwork a lot of the times. So, there is a lot to be said for that.”
Wegelius believes Team Ineos is as strong with Thomas and Bernal as its two leaders as it was with any combination before. “I think so,” he said. “Chris obviously had masses of experience in racing, and also in leading in defending these races. But I think they’ve got a pretty solid team anyway.”
However, Wegelius admits he was surprised by Thomas’s aggressive ride on the climb up La Planche des Belles Filles. “On such a steep road that was impressive for a rider like him, but he had a great cadence and I think that’s a good sign of his shape,” Wegelius said. “He’s like, pretty much on it. “
Also paying dividends, Wegelius agrees, in his track experience in the team pursuit in which he was a three times World Champion (2007, 2008, 2012) and a two times Olympic gold medallist (2008, 2012. It has given him an ability to maintain threshold pace and power for a 4,000m race, or over four or five minutes. It has also honed his ability to handle the pressure of a discipline which requires total composure in the mind and in the body when on the bike at full speed is paramount to success.
“Having a good idea of what sort of effort you can make over any given time gap, or time span; having that rationality in the middle of the race,” Wegelius said. “Even experienced riders look up and they see the finish line and they get a rush of blood to the head then they go and then they realize afterwards it was 420 meters. But with him it is unlikely to happen.”
“He can also be confident”
Luke Roberts, a sport director for Team Sunweb, also believes Thomas’ track experience is invaluable.
Roberts should know. He was a member of the Australian team pursuit that won gold at the 2004 Olympics Games and has helped steer the likes of Dutchman Tom Dumoulin in his grand tour career.
“He knows how to pace a four kilometer pursuit,” Roberts said of Thomas. “He is also a good [road] time triallist. He knows how to pace himself. And some of those climbs, if he knows them well, he will know where the steepest section is. He will know where his limit can be on the whole climb”.
Roberts believes Thomas’ confidence, knowing that he can win the Tour is a boost for him and the team. “He’s in a team that’s all full of confidence and why wouldn’t it be?” he said.
“He won the Tour last year. He can also be confident. He can see on his computer what figures he’s pushing and if he comes into the race confident he has every right to be confident in the bunch.”
“You don’t win Olympic gold medals without self-belief”
Mitchelton-Scott director Matt White has said all along that Team Ineos “are the favorites,” and sees Thomas is in “very good form.”
White says has seen nothing to indicate otherwise. “The difference is last year coming into the Tour we knew he was good. He won the Dauphiné. He was flying. Everyone knew he was good.
“This year we haven’t seen it because of his injuries and his slow build-up to the Tour.
“But you don’t win the Tour by luck and he, for me, is still the number one favorite. With Bernal, everyone knows he is an incredible climbing talent, but it’s his second Tour and he is young. He is going into unchartered territories where ‘G’ has been there before on both sides of the fence.”
White also believes Thomas has grown as a Tour champion, with obvious added assuredness.
“You don’t win Olympic gold medals without a very high degree of self-belief,” he said.
“He handles pressure. He’s been handling it for 15 years. Having won the Tour last year would have changed [things] in his head. He said, ‘I can do it. I can do it.’ He is one of the most incredible athletes in that sport over the last decade really. People talking about what he’s done on the road.
“They forget he’s also a two-time Olympic champion, multiple world champion [on the track]. He’s no stranger to pressure and the Olympic games is probably the biggest pressure cooker in world sport.
“Here [at the Tour], you can make little mistakes and still get away with it in, in track cycling especially, you make a mistake. It’s all over. “