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Tour de Hoody: Like it or not, Ineos Grenadiers is ready to steamroll the grand tours

This week, we look at the growing financial clout of Ineos Grenadiers, why Paris-Roubaix is on the rocks, and where Australia's "Remco" might land. Plus, we stand in awe of Marianne Vos. 

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With racing back in full flight, we revive Andrew Hood’s “Tour de Hoody,” a weekly digest that takes you inside the sport’s biggest storylines, and provides fresh insight into what’s really going on inside the peloton. 

This week, we look at the growing financial clout of Ineos Grenadiers, why Paris-Roubaix is on the rocks, and where Australia’s budding “Remco” might land. Plus, we stand in awe of Marianne Vos’s Gent-Wevelgem win, and Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s masterpiece at E3 Saxo Classic. 

Is Ineos Grenadiers laying down a marker, or something else?

Lost a bit in the buzz after the Harelbeke-Gent-Wevelgem weekend was how Ineos Grenadiers steamrolled the peloton at the Volta a Catalunya.

Sure, neither Primož Roglič nor Tadej Pogačar were there, but Ineos Grenadiers couldn’t have sent a louder message to its rivals than how it dominated Catalunya. Jumbo-Visma and UAE-Team Emirates should be quivering in their cycling shoes.

Also read: Ineos Grenadiers warns its rivals with podium sweep

The team was so strong it was almost as if the “Sky Train” of the Chris Froome era had been reborn.

And with the roster the team brought, what else should anyone have expected? Among its ranks was a former Tour de France winner, a former Giro d’Italia winner, a former ITT world champion, and a Tour podium finisher from last year. Add diesel workhorses Luke Rowe and Jonathan Castroviejo, and, oh yeah, that fella who won the race, and you get the idea.

Ineos Grenadiers is cycling’s version of the galáticos, soccer’s super team at Real Madrid in the early 2000s.

What’s even scarier is that IGD’s lineup at Catalunya represented only a portion of its overall firepower. Consider who they didn’t bring: Egan Bernal, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Michał Kwiatkowski, Filippo Ganna, Andrey Amador, Laurens De Plus, Pavel Sivakov, and … the list goes on.

There’s been a lot of moaning over the years about the have’s and the have-not’s in the elite men’s peloton, but after watching how IGD snowplowed the peloton in Spain’s oldest stage race, the team’s growing financial advantage rightfully should raise alarm bells.

Also read: How agents are driving up salaries

Cycling’s seen plenty of eccentric and deep-pocketed bike team owners over the decades, but no team has had so much money at its disposal as Ineos Grenadiers. Backed with the open checkbook from billionaire owner Jim Ratcliffe – the UK’s richest person — and nothing in the rule book to stop him, Ineos Grenadiers’ Dave Brailsford can just keep buying the best riders in the peloton.

Of course, it takes more than money to win races, but the peloton is quickly becoming a reflection of society-at-large: the very wealthy, and everyone else.

How much financial wherewithal does the team have? Just mull over the Catalunya lineup. Now these are rough guesses, but it’s a measuring stick of how the salaries stack up:

Geraint Thomas – £3M

Richard Carapaz – £2M

Richie Porte — £2M

Adam Yates, Rohan Dennis — £3M

Luke Rowe, Jonathan Castroviejo — £1M

That means the team’s Catalunya roster alone adds up to about 10-11 million pounds, or about $13 million to $15 million, a number that’s equal to the annual budget for a low to middle-range WorldTour team.

How do smaller teams compete against that? The short answer is, they cannot. Like it or not, the WorldTour is headed the same way as the Champions League in European soccer, when a handful of well-funded, well-managed teams will win nearly all the major races.

Whether that’s good or bad for cycling can be debated until the beer runs out, but what is sure is that there is nothing in the UCI’s rulebook to stop it from happening.

Meet the new Vos, same as the old Vos

Who wasn’t left in awe of Marianne Vos and her stunning sprint victory Sunday at Gent-Wevelgem?

Vos is class personified off and on the bike, and her victory was a sublime reminder of how good she is.

It’s sometimes hard to remember how influential of a force for women’s cycling she’s been throughout her 16-year career. Younger riders wanted to be Vos, and a generation of riders from Annemiek van Vleuten to Anna van der Breggen wanted to beat her.

Also read: Why Dutch riders are dominating women’s peloton

At 33, Vos isn’t the dominator she once was, but there’s no better reflection of how deep the women’s peloton is these days than saying it’s no guarantee Vos will win.

It’s going to be exciting to watch her all season long. In four races so far in 2021, she’s won once, finished on the podium two other times, and was seventh in the other. Those stats are the Vos of old.

Will Chris Froome ever zoom again?

It’s almost April, and where is Chris Froome?

A lot of virtual ink has already been spilled about whether or not Froome will ever be a factor again. Fred Dreier, my hard-working boss at VeloNews, broke it down in this well-crafted analysis.

So far, I’ve been holding judgment, but after watching his performances at the Volta a Catalunya, one must seriously question if Froome’s best days are indeed behind him. I get the idea that he’s rebuilding volume and depth following his 2019 crash. And I get it that he’s on a slow boil for the Tour de France.

But the Tour isn’t that far away — less than 90 days to be precise — and so far Froome has been pack-fill in every race he’s started.

First off, Froome deserves all the respect becoming of a seven-time grand tour champion. He remains the most successful grand tour rider in the bunch. Yet his last grand tour victory — the 2018 Giro d’Italia — seems almost from another era.

I don’t know if Froome is playing the best bluff in decades, or if he really knows what he’s doing in terms of a slow boil toward the Tour. Insiders at Israel Start-Up Nation remain staunchly optimistic (do they have a choice?).

So far, it’s obvious he’s not willing to go into the red to try to stay with the accelerations. Is it because he knows he cannot? Or perhaps doesn’t want to risk going too deep and not being able to recover. Or is he posting huge watts in training sessions, and just trying to keep it under his hat?

It sure seems more like the former than the latter.

Even more telling, however, are the time trials. There should be no reason why he would hold back in a relatively short, but intense effort of a TT. Froome lost about 180 seconds in 18.5km to eventual winner Adam Yates last week. As far as I know, there were no mechanicals or other issues slowing him down. That is bucketloads of time, especially for a rider who used to eat the climbers for lunch against the clock.

Froome admitted Catalunya was a “tough race,” and heads to another altitude camp before racing at the end of April at the Tour of the Alps.

What really counts is July, and everyone close to Chris Froome says pity the fool who underestimates him. We shall see soon enough.

When masterclass designation is deserved

Kasper Asgreen took on the Kwaremont climb solo. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Like a lot of people, I was in awe of Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s tactical masterpiece Friday at E3 Saxo Bank Classic.

After all the hype around Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert — by the way, I still haven’t seen a good nickname for those two: the best so far “VanderWout” (send suggestions) — it had to be one of the most delicious victories for cobblestone kaiser Patrick Lefevere.

The way DQS flooded the zone, and sent Kasper Asgreen on a solo flier not once but twice for victory was majestic in all its forms.

Also read: Inside the Wolfpack’s masterclass at E3

Though the Wolfpack was outflanked Sunday at Gent-Wevelgem — kudos to Sam Bennett for a gutsy try (apologies) — expect them to be back on the prowl at De Ronde.

No race better than E3 Harelbeke portends success at Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix — read my statistical breakdown here  — so based on historical data, Jasper Asgreen has a 70 percent chance of hitting the podium at one of those two.

Paris-Roubaix on the rocks

Paris-Roubaix remains on the rocks, and will likely be postponed until October. By early afternoon on Tuesday in Europe, French media were saying a postponement is all but certain.

Why? Well, COVID cases are spiking across France, and local politicians are pulling down the hatches to try to tamp down numbers. Sources told VeloNews’ James Startt that ASO was caught off guard by the imminent decision, but isn’t expected to push back.

Paris-Roubaix, despite its historical significance, isn’t a money-maker for ASO. The Tour de France is where ASO butters its bread, so insiders said ASO won’t try to use its political clout to try to “save” Roubaix, and instead save its chips for any possible political battles later this summer to keep the Tour on is scheduled dates.

Unfortunately, Paris-Roubaix in October is looking likely unless there is some backpedaling from politicians and a rapid improvement in infection numbers.

Sources: Luke Plapp linked to Ineos Grenadiers

And speaking of IGD, sources are telling me that Luke Plapp, one of Australia’s most promising talents, is poised to join Ineos Grenadiers.

Multiple sources confirmed to VeloNews that Ineos Grenadiers is in pole position to win a bidding war for the young Australian’s services.

Ineos Grenadiers officials did not comment when contacted by VeloNews, and it’s unclear if a contract has yet been signed, but a deal is all but done, sources said.

Dubbed the “Australian Remco,” Plapp made headlines over the winter after winning the elite men’s national time trial title in Australia, beating such WorldTour pros as Luke Durbridge, Chris Harper, and Lucas Hamilton in January.

The Melbourne product, second to Remco Evenepoel in the 2018 junior world time trial championships, made an even bigger splash throughout a pro-am event at the Santos Festival of Cycling when he matched pedal strokes with a fleet of WorldTour pros.

Luke Plapp causing problems!!

Luke Plapp pushes ahead to claim Shimano-Road KOM!

Posted by Santos Tour Down Under on Thursday, January 21, 2021

Those results put Plapp firmly on the radar among a half dozen WorldTour teams that were keen to put his signature to a contract.

Sources confirmed that several teams were interested in Plapp, opening a bidding war between some of the peloton’s richest teams.

At the top of the list was Team BikeExchange, which has a long history of nurturing young Australian talent. UAE-Team Emirates and Jumbo-Visma were also trying to court the Australian prospect.

In the short term, Plapp will focus on the Tokyo Games, and will be part of Australia’s rotation at the men’s team pursuit, where they will be battling Italy, New Zealand, Great Britain, and Denmark for the medals.

It’s unclear if Plapp would join the WorldTour after the Olympics, or wait until next season.

Coming up: Dwars, De Ronde and GP Big Mig

There’s not a ton of racing this week in what’s full-on “Flanders Week”. Click here for a full breakdown of what’s on tap.

Dwars door Vlaanderen and Tour of Flanders dominate the week. Kudos to Flanders Classics for committing to women’s racing, and this year, the company behind De Ronde will now have men’s and women’s races across its quiver of events.

Usually this week, the VeloNews crew is holed up in some AirBnB apartment in Gent, our favorite home base for the northern classics. Fingers are crossed that the races go off without any final-hour COVID hiccups.

After tipping Asgreen to win E3 and Matteo Trentin for Gent-Wevelgem (he was third), I should probably just give up right now. For Dwars, how can you not pick van der Poel? I’ll also tip Lorena Wiebes, who seems a bit undercooked so far in 2021 but is overdue for a win. At the Ronde, I will only say that “VanderWout” will not win, and Anna ver der Breggen will blast away for another solo victory.

In Spain, the GP Miguel Indurain is one for the explosive climbers heading to Itzulia Basque Country starting Monday. A few big names are missing, but you gotta go with the form, and the man with the form right now is Adam Yates.

Tweets that rock

Here are a few Tweets that stood out over the weekend:

https://twitter.com/Laura_Meseguer/status/1375487794517311488