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How Ineos Grenadiers plans to win the Tour de France without Egan Bernal

Team boss Dave Brailsford is intrigued by the combo of the explosive potential of Richard Carapaz and the ever-steady presence of Geraint Thomas.

Ineos Grenadiers is so deep in talent it can go to this summer’s Tour de France without Egan Bernal, and still be a front-line favorite to win the yellow jersey.

Most teams can afford perhaps one marquee GC rider and build a unified train to support for one grand tour, maybe two if the same rider doubles up. Not Ineos Grenadiers. The peloton’s richest team has so many GC stars that it can fill out rosters capable of winning all three grand tours with a mix of different riders with a depth unequaled in the bunch.

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The talent is so abundant in 2021 that team boss Dave Brailsford can ship Bernal off to the Giro d’Italia in a bid the 2019 Tour winner can rediscover “the joy of racing,” and the team won’t miss a beat. There’s still a chance Bernal might race the Tour, but for right now, Brailsford is plotting a new approach to the yellow jersey.

“It is very much about looking forward, and building on what we did last year, rather than any sort of judgment on the past,” Brailsford said during a media call. “And there is no diminishing of ambition here. We are here to perform, there is no doubt about that.”

Victory in Paris remains the goal even without Bernal. And Brailsford will bring cycling’s version of the full-court press to the Tour.

Right now, Geraint Thomas might be designated as team leader for the Tour, but there’s also 2019 Giro d’Italia winner Richard Carapaz and Richie Porte, third overall last year. Giro d’Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart will also see his first Tour. Add Laurens De Plus and Michal Kwiatkowski, plus a few key workers such as Luke Rowe and Jonathan Castroviejo, and Ineos Grenadiers will be able to confidently stride up to the line against Jumbo-Visma and UAE-Team Emirates.

Managing multiple GC options in quest for yellow jersey

GC riders with chops against the clock such as Thomas could have the upper hand. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The danger? Too many cooks in the kitchen. The upside is that if one tumbles or falters, another can step into the void. The team’s played that card before, with Thomas winning the 2018 Tour ahead of Chris Froome, while Geoghegan Hart stepped up to fill in for Thomas at the Giro last year.

After missing a beat in 2020, Brailsford seems anxious to reclaim the team’s Tour crown.

Brailsford has already spelled out how Ineos Grenadiers plans to pivot its tactics to stay abreast of cycling’s new aggressive style of racing. The departure of longtime anchor Froome adds another wrinkle.

Now comes the interesting part: how will the team manage its bevy of stars?

Brailsford didn’t give too much away about tactics during a recent media call, but with the look of the 2021 course, the 2018 winner Thomas could have the best chance to handle the Tour’s longer time trials. Second in 2019 to Bernal, Thomas missed the 2020 Tour and then crashed out of the Giro on the first road stage.

Brailsford wouldn’t say this could be the 34-year-old’s last chance to win another yellow jersey, but he agreed it could be the Welshman’s best shot for a second title.

“I wouldn’t say it’s his last Tour,” Brailsford said of Thomas. “He’s very excited about this year. When you get into your 30s, it’s how hungry you are. He was super-excited to start at Bessèges, he couldn’t wait to start again. He was like a junior again.”

Thomas is in a contract year, so the motivation will be there for a strong Tour. He’s hoping luck can stay on his side, and he can have a similar approach as he did in his near-flawless 2018 Tour.

Richard Caparaz will have room to move

Richard Carapaz was at the forefront of the new-style Ineos Grenadiers in 2020. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

It’s Carapaz’s fearless attitude and attacking style that has intrigued Brailsford. If he’s serious about changing Ineos Grenadiers’ style of racing, it will be by backing the daring Ecuadorian. Brailsford was impressed by how Carapaz lit up the Tour last year in the wake of Bernal’s collapse, and then followed it up with a searing, close-call second overall at the Vuelta a España.

Reading between the lines, it’s obvious that Carapaz will have the freedom to move. Porte has already downplayed his GC future, though the course also favors him. Geoghegan Hart is expected to play a joker role in what will be his Tour of discovery. So the team’s second-best card to play — or perhaps first — will be Carapaz.

“I think he can do well in this Tour even with the way the course is,” Brailsford said of Carapaz. “The great thing about Richie, he’s aggressive, and not scared of taking his opportunity. And he races really well in the third week.”

Even without Bernal, Brailsford will still have an advantage in numbers against the team’s direct rivals. UAE-Team Emirates will remain a one-trick pony, while Jumbo-Visma will likely be racing without Tom Dumoulin. The Emirati squad is fully backing a repeat for Tadej Pogačar, and though the team will be bolstered by the addition of Marc Hirschi, Pogačar will try to see a repeat of his 2020 success, and come over the top of stronger teams Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers.

Jumbo-Visma will return with Primož Roglič and Steve Kruijswijk, third in 2019, with Sepp Kuss as super-domestique. The Dutch powerhouse will still try to shred the field as it did in 2020, and hope it can change the final ending with Roglič on top.

So how will Brailsford play his aces?

One idea: Ineos Grenadiers will let Thomas take the gravity of the race, allowing Carapaz to attack unfettered. That would be a repeat of a similar strategy to how Bernal won the 2019 Tour.

With only three major uphill finales during the entire three weeks, however, Brailsford said the team will be forced to improvise.

“If Carapaz wins the Tour, then how would he win it? He would not sit back, so he will have to take opportunities in other areas,” Brailsford said. “It makes it very exciting, and very motivating to look forward to. You have to adapt and change, you have to think about racing differently against your opponents. I think Richie can really be an important part of that strategy of how we might go out and try to win the race.”

Brailsford has already won seven yellow jerseys with four different riders. So why not make eight with five?