Ineos & Israel Start-Up Are Facing Premature Tour de France Leadership Battles
Richard Carapaz wastes no time throwing his hat in the ring for 2021 Tour leadership as Dan Martin's Vuelta result complicates things at ISN
With the 2021 Tour de France eight months away, you’d think there wouldn’t be much to talk about. How could any solid decisions on Tour de France squads be made months before the race actually occurs? Well, you clearly aren’t aware of the time-honored practice of calling “shotgun” on Tour leadership in the calendar year before the race. Just judging by how often it happens, you would assume that there is a clause in rider’s contracts dictating that the first rider to declare to the press that they will lead the team at next year’s grand tour.
Richard Carapaz, fresh off a great ride at the Vuelta a Espana, was the first Ineos rider to come out and say that he would love to lead Ineos at the 2021 Tour. Just as a reminder, this is the most stacked grand tour team in the world, with the 2018 (Geraint Thomas) and 2019 (Egan Bernal) Tour winners under contract, as well as being the favorites to sign the 2020 Giro d’Italia winner (Tao Geoghegan Hart) for 2021. This doesn’t even factor in Pavel Sivakov, who nearly won the fastest Dauphine mountain stages ever recorded, along with the new signings of Adam Yates, Richie Porte, and Daniel Martinez. Additionally, the young Russian star climber Aleksandr Vlasov is rumored to be heading over to Ineos in 2021.
Sidenote: This pursuit of Vlasov makes me wonder if they are balking at a new contract for Geoghegan Hart. Vlasov is rough around the edges but is potentially more talented than Geoghegan Hart. Both riders possess similar skills and it isn’t clear why Ineos would need both on the roster. Furthermore, the courtship of Vlasov could help explain why they haven’t yet resigned Geoghegan Hart. We will dig into this further with premium subscribers in the Sunday transfer newsletter.
Even with all of this talent, I don’t agree with the conventional wisdom that the Ineos team is stacked with great riders. They certainly have a load of talent and depth, but they are clearly lacking truly top-level GC riders who can go toe-to-toe with the best in the world and come out on top. Keep in mind, it isn’t like they barnstormed through 2020. They won a single grand tour and the team was so weak at the Vuelta that it possibly cost Carapaz the overall win. They might have talent, but they in need of consistent domestiques and extremely high-upside GC talent.
To judge if Carapaz really has a chance to lead the Ineos squad at the Tour, let’s take a look at their options.
Potential Ineos Tour de France Leaders
There might be three 21 stage Grand Tours in pro cycling, but the Tour de France is a different beast from the Giro and Vuelta. Due to its position as the biggest race on the calendar, it is raced by every squad’s A-Team at an extremely high pace. This turns every mountain stage into defacto FTP (functional threshold power) tests that make any time gains razor-thin and favor riders with strong time trial abilities. This means that even if the route has few kilometers of time trials, it almost always comes down to a time trialing ability. Accentuating this in 2021 is the unusually large amount of time trial kilometers (58km), meaning any contender for the overall winner will have to be an extremely strong time trialist.
Richard Carapaz: Taking all of this into account, I still believe Carapaz would be a worthy Tour leader on most rosters. I have doubts about his ability to compete at an FTP (functional threshold power) contest like the Tour and judging from past performances, he seems to thrive at herky-jerky races like the Giro and Vuelta, not steady-state races like the Tour. One thing to note is that he displayed a decent TT performance at the Vuelta. Even so, he will have to continue to improve this offseason if he wants to compete with the best at the 2021 Tour. After weighing his strengths and weaknesses, Carapaz is the best option Ineos currently has to lead a major grand tour like the Tour de France.
Geraint Thomas: He may be the team’s leader on paper, but he will be 35-years-old in 2021 and would become the oldest Tour winner in the modern era if he were to win. Not to mention the fact that he displayed no climbing form what so ever in 2020. He was dropped early and often at the Dauphine, booted from the Tour squad, was dropped by Simon Yates at Tirreno–Adriatico, and crashed out of the Giro before they hit any significant mountain stages. He was time trialing incredibly well, but you do have to climb to win grand tours and he simply didn’t display world-class climbing ability in 2020. If he didn’t have it in 2020, it would be foolish to assume he could improve year-to-year as he gets closer to 40. As we saw with Vincenzo Nibali this season, it becomes increasingly difficult to compete at grand tours as you enter your mid-30s (The Italian superstar finished in 7th place at the 2020 Giro, breaking a streak of podium finishes at that race going back to 2008).
Egan Bernal: Ineos’ most-recent Tour winner has recently disclosed a serious back issue due to one of his legs being longer than the other. In an interview in October, Bernal said he had recently developed scoliosis along with suffering a severed nerve in his spine due to a slipped disc. It is unclear why the team sent him to the Tour knowing he was battling these health issues, as they were likely exacerbated as he continued to race through the issue. This has gone a bit under the radar, but these are incredibly serious issues that throw Bernal’s ability to ever ride at his former level into doubt. I think it would be foolish to assume he will be able to recover and then rebuild his form in time for the 2021 Tour de France. This means Ineos has to proceed with other leaders in mind.
Tao Geoghegan Hart: The only Ineos rider to win a grand tour in 2020 with his Giro d’Italia win. He displayed fantastic ability in the third week of that race but he lost a huge chunk of time in the first two weeks of that race. He was lucky that the start list lacked the firepower to take advantage of those lapses.
If we squint, Adam Yates, Pavel Sivakov, Richie Porte, and Daniel Martinez could be considered leaders. But, if we put on some glasses, warts begin to appear. Yates has never emerged as a serious Tour contender, Sivakov has the talent but hasn’t proved he is reliable in a race of this caliber, Porte will be 36 and lacks the upside necessary for the overall win, and Martinez lacks a single three-week GC result. A premier squad like Ineos can’t lean on any of these riders to lead their squad at a race with so much on the line for the team.
Filippo Ganna isn’t currently under contract for 2021, but assuming he is resigned, both he and Rohan Dennis present interesting moon-shot options for Ineos. The 2021 Tour route is light on mountains, heavy on time trials, and could favor one of the team’s TT-specialists who can also hold their own on climbs. I actually think one of these two would be their best bets to win the overall. I don’t think any of the other riders listed above have the raw sustained power to beat the best at the Tour. However, at this point, neither of them are anywhere near proven contenders and either should only be taken as under-the-table options in case the public-facing leaders falter.
Carapaz or Geoghegan Hart
It might seem crazy but Ineos's best two options for the Tour de France leadership are Richard Carapaz and Tao Geoghegan Hart. These are two fine riders, with both having a grand tour win on their Palmeres (2019 & 2020 Giro d’Italia), but neither have any track record of GC success at the Tour de France and it is wild that Ineos, with the biggest budget in the sport and a dominating record a the Tour, don’t have an A-level contender on their roster. Of course, there is every possibility Geoghegan Hart doesn’t come back next season at Ineos and Carapaz is the hands-down favorite to lead the team.
The argument for Carapaz being Ineos’s best bet of producing a 2021 Tour de France win stems from the Ecuadorian’s racecraft and proven consistency over three weeks. The argument against him is that the 2021 Tour de France is light on mountain stages that suit his style and heavy on time trials where he will certainly lose time.
The argument for Geoghegan Hart is that he was the only rider on the Ineos roster to win a grand tour in 2020 and looked incredibly strong in the third week on both the climbs and the final time trial. The argument against him is that he was lucky to win the overall after gifting an absurd amount throughout the first 14 stages of the Giro and hasn’t proven he can perform at a high level for three consecutive weeks.
The 2020 Giro was an incredibly strange race and Geoghegan Hart is unlikely to ever have the opportunity to win a grand tour after losing so much time through two-time trials and a hard summit finish. I was incredibly impressive in Geoghegan Hart’s Giro win, especially his performance in the final time trial. It is hard to discern if massive his time losses in the first two TTs were a result of a lack of ability or if he simply wasn’t focused on overall success at the time. Considering he was the backup GC option, it is hard to imagine him not putting some emphasis on those time trials, which does make me concerned about his ability to consistently throw down world-class TT results in a three-week grand tour.
Perhaps this is also what the Ineos brass is thinking and is the reason for them hunting for talent elsewhere instead of locking up Geoghegan Hart with a high-dollar, long-term deal.
An easy answer to this dilemma is for Ineos to show up to the Tour de France with Thomas, Geoghegan Hart, and Carapaz while publically touting the dreaded Movistar “Trident” strategy, which is infamous for producing speculator poor performances for the Spanish squad. Even though it will most likely fail, it would at least it would give Ineos a chance. Like a venture capitalist spreading their bets out on long shots, hoping one pays off, Ineos could keep everyone happy while increasing their chances of overall success. The hard truth of the Movistar trident strategy is that they knew their riders lacked the ability to win those races with a traditional strategy. The trident failed, but they were never going to win those races anyway and it at least gave them a chance of a long-shot victory.
Since Ineos will lack an obvious favorite, they won’t be under pressure to pick a leader and consolidate behind them and burn the rest of the squad controlling the race from Stage 1. They can simply sit back and let opportunities come to them. And with such a traditional first week on tap, at least one of those riders is likely to be caught up in a crash or suffer a flat that puts them out of overall contention before the race even hits the mountains.
But what if they also bring Filippo Ganna and/or Rohan Dennis and they take the lead following the Stage 5 TT? That would leave Ineos with four, or perhaps even five, potential leaders on an eight-rider squad. This is getting into absurd territory and could lead to a complete implosion. On the other hand, they could simply refuse to defend the jersey and gift it away until later in the race when they have a hierarchy set in stone. The downside to this philosophy is that with time margins in grand tours getting slimmer and smaller, it is harder for teams to simply rely on the road deciding their leadership positions. By attempting to ride to horses for too long, a team can end up like Sunweb at the Giro d’Italia. Wilco Kelderman was never going to be able to win that race, but the compressed time gaps created a mirage where it appeared he could. This kept the team from consolidating behind their stronger rider, Jai Hindley, earlier in the race when they could have pushed his gap out and held off eventual winner Tao Geoghegan Hart in the final few stages.
The bottom line for Ineos is that they currently lack a grand tour rider on their roster who can go toe-to-toe with Roglic and Pogacar in a TT-heavy Tour and win and they will have to head to the Tour with multiple underdog options and wait for opportunities to present themselves.
Just a few seasons ago, most of the riders above looked like they could dominate for years to come. But, then a few young superstars emerged from the woodwork and Ineos’s once-vaunted roster already looks out-of-date. This shows why aggressive future-planning and continuous recruitment is so important in sports team management and shows that by being slightly complacent, Ineos is now facing a massive problem for a team that has built their fame on success at the sport’s biggest race.
Israel Start-Up Nation Leadership Issues
Ineos isn’t the only team already having riders jockey for leadership positions at next year’s Tour de France. ISN’s General Manager Kjell Carlström signaled this week that the team’s £25 million man, Chris Froome, would be the undisputed leader at next year’s Tour de France, but that Dan Martin’s impressive 4th place overall at the recent Vuelta a Espana would give him the freedom to race as a co-leader.
On the surface, this is a little surprising. Martin might not be a Grade-A GC contender, but the guy is coming off a fantastic Vuelta performance and should be the team’s number 1 option hands down. At no point in the recent Vuelta could Froome keep up with Martin when the pace was on and it is clear that Martin will be the far stronger rider in 2021.
However, if we look deeper, Carlström is simply being savvy with this messaging. His boss just spent a small fortune to bring in Froome, so he has to support him as a team leader. Also, Martin, while a solid rider, is 34 years old and doesn’t stand a chance to win a Tour de France with 58-kilometers of time trials.
He might as well declare both as leaders and let the road decide from there. They certainly won’t win the Tour overall anyway, so he has little to lose by doing so. If Martin wins a stage and finishes in the top ten while they appear to back Froome’s commendable comeback attempt, everyone will leave the race happy. This includes fans, as we are sure to get plenty of entertaining passive-aggressive jabbing between the two as the race draws closer and closer.