It was like a time warp watching the mountaintop finale Thursday at the Volta a Catalunya.
Instead of 2021, it looked more like 2015.
Though the peloton has evolved in both racing style and generationally since a half-decade ago, it was throwback Thursday at the Spanish WorldTour race.
Off the front was Esteban Chaves, the spindly Colombian climber looking as trim and ambitious as he was when he blazed to podiums at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España and won Giro di Lombardia in 2016.
So good to see Esteban Chaves return to form, taking a summit finish alone at Volta Catalunya. In 2016, at age 26, he finished 2nd at Giro and 3rd at La Vuelta. Been a long road of health issues, injuries, and personal loss since. Best smile in pro cycling, back on the top step. pic.twitter.com/4uVdioYmOc
— Neal Rogers (@nealrogers) March 25, 2021
And then there was Ineos Grenadiers, snow-plowing the front of the peloton as if it Chris Froome was still in the frame. This wasn’t the new-look, aggressive style of racing that team boss Dave Brailsford has been touting in the media.
It was old-school, in-your-face Sky Train pulverization.
“It’s good to have it the old-school way and stamp our authority on the race,” said Geraint Thomas, also looking sharp. “A load has been said about how we’re racing and how we’re different and this and that. It’s been a great team performance, and it’s nice to ride like that.”
So what’s going on? Is Chaves back at his best. It’s sure looking that way.
After a few years in the cycling wilderness, beset with injuries and health issues, “Chavito” came through the other side to deliver the team’s first WorldTour victory under its new Team BikeExchange colors.
“There have been some difficult years,” said Chaves, whose last victory was a stage at the 2019 Giro d’Italia. “It’s a joy to win. It gives me a lot of confidence.”
Also read: Esteban Chaves says he’s not done yet
And has Ineos Grenadiers really been a closeted paceline all along, and this new aggressive attitude is just the latest PR spin?
More than anything, the race dynamics and the course profile added up to deliver Thursday’s time-warp flashback.
Chaves, who started the stage at 1:21 behind overnight leader Adam Yates, was clearly in stage-hunting mode. The 31-year-old Colombian cannot afford to wait for the final-kilometer kicks any more against speedier and more powerful rivals, so a longer distanced sortie was the correct tactical card to play.
Behind him, Ineos Grenadiers lined it up to keep him on a short leash. It was déjà vu all over again, with Richie Porte slotting back into his role as super domestique as if he had never left in a five-year odyssey as team leader at BMC Racing and Trek-Segafredo.
Chaves earned an emotional solo victory, and Ineos Grenadiers pounded its rivals into submission with disconcerting ease.
“We rode slightly old school,” said Thomas, now third overall. “We had a really strong tempo all the way up.”
Going into Friday’s fifth stage, Ineos Grenadiers is stacked up on the GC, with three of its riders hogging the top-3 podium spots with just three transition stages left.
That should come as no surprise looking at the depth of their Volta roster. With a former Tour winner, a Giro winner, a Tour podium finisher, and a world time trial champion doing the hard yards, what else could be the outcome?
It sure looked like the Sky Train was back on the rails.
Maybe the likes of Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič will be able to derail it later this season, but they will have their work cut out for them.
This week’s Volta could be a preview of what the team has in store for the Tour de France in July.
With an old-school course on tap for 2021, it will make sense for Ineos Grenadiers to stick with what works.