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RIP the Sky Train: Ineos Grenadiers firmly embraces ‘new style’ of racing

Team boss Dave Brailsford isn't resting on his laurels and is committed to stay at the forefront of the peloton’s tactical innovation.

Last year’s Tour de France saw a sea change both within the peloton and Ineos Grenadiers.

The long-dominant UK squad was starting its first Tour since 2011 without Chris Froome, and the race ended just as differently, with no Ineos Grenadiers rider within a mile of the podium.

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When Egan Bernal flamed out on the Grand Colombier under pressure from Jumbo-Visma, it marked an end of an era, and the start of a new one. Add the unstoppable force of Tadej Pogačar, and Ineos Grenadiers — the team that modernized the concept of the marginal gain — was itself in danger of being marginalized.

In the span of little more than three weeks, the Tour hierarchy was completely turned upside down. Jumbo-Visma was the boss, and Pogačar the new king.

Under pressure from all sides, Ineos Grenadiers was forced to reconsider everything, including the way that it races. For years, it bulldozed across France every summer with the unstoppable mass of “Fortress Froome,” winning seven Tours in an eight-year span with four different riders.

In 2020, Ineos Grenadiers faced an existential crisis. Its star riders were not delivering, and its grip on power was being challenged on all fronts.

It didn’t take long to pivot. Searing attacks and breakaways marked the team’s final week of the Tour, capped by a stage win in stage 18. The Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España unfolded in even more exciting fashion, and fans saw Ineos Grenadiers racing in a more aggressive and looser style unseen in franchise history, and ended up winning the Giro and finishing second in the Vuelta.

Something changed in the 2020 Tour, and team boss Dave Brailsford said there’s no going back.

“We did enjoy the last week of the Tour and how the guys got on,” Brailsford said in a media call. “It’s been interesting for us. The second half of last season, we saw the data from fans, and how people see the team, and there was a marked change in terms of people’s attitude and opinion of the Grenadiers. We raced in a different style and we raced more openly, and the guys really enjoyed it.”

The dismantling of ‘Fortress Froome’

Froome’s fortress was unconquerable through the middle of the last decade. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

For years, Brailsford was the conductor of cycling’s most powerful team. Now with Froome gone, and a new fleet of young, ambitious riders elbowing their way to the top of the hierarchy, Brailsford is changing with the times.

That doesn’t mean that Brailsford is turning his back on the team’s successful past. Instead, he realizes the peloton is changing, and he wants his team to keep up with the times.

“We are very proud of our results and our achievements. We put together an incredible run of performances together,” he said. “It’s not a judgment for the past. It’s a recognition that the sport is changing, and how the races are being raced.

“There are a lot of tools in the tactical toolbox, and the ‘train’ is still relevant,” he said. “But we’ve also seen a shift in the nature of the racing, and we want to be at the forefront of that.”

How this new tactical urgency plays out on the roads remains to be seen. The first indication that the team is on a new trajectory was confirmed this week with how Brailsford and the staff decided to fill out the rosters across the major grand tours.

Bernal is heading to the Giro, with Geraint Thomas and Richard Carapaz leading at the Tour. Adam Yates will see leadership at the Vuelta. It’s an ambitious plan, with the audacious possibility of winning all three grand tours in one season.

Behind those leaders are riders like Pavel Sivakov, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Dani Martínez, Richie Porte, Laurens De Plus, Rohan Dennis, and Filippo Ganna, all capable of working or leading in the right situation.

With such bounty coupled with a turn-over among its back row of veterans, Brailsford realized what might have worked in 2014 won’t work now.

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

Cycling’s full-court press

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

With the “Sky Train” and “Fortress Froome” now part of the history books, one can imagine how the new Ineos Grenadiers tactics might look.

The team won’t bring one rider as a designated captain, like it did during Froome’s successful run, but rather several. That tactic already worked well in 2018 and 2019 at the Tour. With the team’s deep pockets, they have the roster strong enough to swarm every grand tour with multiple GC options.

“We discussed it a lot over the winter, and coming into the season, how we could develop a more racing style,” Brailsford said. “The sport is changing, the way the races are being races.”

Brailsford and his team of sport directors will be altering the team’s tactics. Rather than solely trying to bludgeon the peloton, it can play off the dominance of Jumbo-Visma and the rising ambitions of UAE-Emirates. Rather than race defensively, it promises to attack.

“People in the sport have asked me, are you going to revert back to how you used to race? We want to race more openly,” he said. “We want to be part of this new exciting chapter of this new racing style.

“We are going to take an exciting, and very positive and passionate mindset into the season, and rekindle everything about the joy of racing,” he continued. “Taking an opportunity, and really not holding back, that’s what we intend to continue very much in that style and mentality with the Grenadiers this year.”

Whether that adds up to grand tour victories remains to be seen. What’s obvious is that Brailsford and Co. seem to grasp that doing things the old way isn’t always the best way.