Ineos Gets a Strategic Facelift & Bernal Gets Snubbed

There is more to Ineos' new look than meets the eye & checking in on Etoile de Bessèges

Don’t Take Ineos' New Look at Face Value

The general manager of the Ineos team, Dave Brailsford, has been making the media rounds this week and is telling anyone who will listen that the team is turning over a new leaf. No longer will they be the stogey team that “ruins” cycling by controlling the race with an iron fist, but will be the team of spontaneity and aggression.

He is insistent that the past season has shown him the light and convinced him that the team must alter their style of racing from the “Fortress Froome” template, where they would put the strongest riders in the world on the front to keep the pace high enough to deter attacks and grind down the competition before launching Chris Froome away on the final climb, to the more open, exciting style that propelled them to victory in the 2020 Giro d’Italia with Tao Geoghegan Hart in order to save the sport and win over the hearts and minds of racing fans.

It is certainly true that Geoghegan Hart’s Giro victory, along with Bernal’s 2019 Tour de France win, was the product of less a less controlling style, but I don’t buy general manager’s Dave Brailsford rationale for this change.

In a recent press appearance, he seemed to suggest that it is driven by an attempt to win over the hearts of racing fans by redefining their team ethos.

We get a lot of data about the fans and how people see us, and there was a big change in people's attitudes, which was really interesting. We discussed it a lot over the winter, in terms of who we are as a team and how we can continue to develop a more open racing style this season.

This is a nice thought, but I don’t buy it. I believe this change is driven by the fact that Brailsford recognizes the team has no longer has the ability and strength to control races like they used to and most importantly, no longer possess the sport’s stronger rider that was the key to their former “grind-them-down” style.

While they were able to run wild at the 2020 Giro and win seven individual stages without choking the life out of the race, this was a unique situation where the field was diluted to the condensed schedule and overlapping grand tours and they weren’t even in contention for the overall win until Stage 15. This was very exciting to watch, but this won’t be a replicable scenario at races like the Tour where the field is much more competitive and the style of racing is less open.

Losing Their Edge

From 2012 to 2018, Sky/Ineos always had the strongest rider at the start of the Tour, which meant their asphyxiating pace hurt everyone less than their leader. But if you lack the strongest rider, this style no longer makes sense and only hurts your own chances (see: Bahrain on Stage 17 of the TdF).

Since Ineos no longer has the strongest GC riders in the world amongst their ranks, it makes sense that Brailsford wants to change the team’s strategy. However, it certainly isn’t driven by some sense of what is “good” for the sport or some attempt to win over the hearts of fans, but what will generate the best chance of Ineos having success in grand tours going forward.

Another factor in this decision is that the team has been regressing and struggling to implement their controlling style for a few seasons now. Their PCS team ranking in the last four seasons has been declining (2017: 2nd, 2018: 2nd, 2019: 4th, 2020: 5th), which supports this assertion that they are becoming less dominant.

But it isn’t just race wins or PCS points that are declining. As a unit, they were incredibly weak at the 2019 Tour de France, which Bernal won mostly on his own, and most noticeably at the 2020 Vuelta a Espana, where their lack of team strength cost Richard Carapaz a chance to ambush Primoz Roglic in the race’s final week.

Sidelining Bernal

An interesting blurb from Brailsford in the interview was that Ineos plans to send Egan Bernal to the Giro d’Italia while Geraint Thomas, Tao Geoghegan Hart, and Richard Carapaz will go to the Tour de France to share leadership. While he didn’t rule out sending Bernal to the Tour, if Bernal truly starts the Giro as the team’s leader, it would be difficult to imagine them also sending him to the Tour unless he crashes out extremely early in the Giro.

This is notable for a few reasons:

1) Egan Bernal, the most recent Ineos rider to win the Tour de France (2019) likely won’t even start the 2021 edition. It is shocking how fast he has gone from the next great Tour champion to not even starting the event.

2) Brailsford’s announcement didn’t mention Bernal’s back issue and only focused on the young rider’s mental state and how he needs to “get that smile back on his face.” This makes me wonder if last year’s back injury is completely resolved or if it was a smokescreen in the first place and Bernal was simply struggling with motivation throughout 2020.

3) Ineos has essentially turned into Movistar, whose infamous trident strategy has failed miserably and spectacularly year after year at the Tour de France. It is shocking that a team with a budget of $60 million a year, which is over double the budget of the second-best funded team, has essentially turned into a slightly better version of the team that is relentlessly mocked for their (lack of) strategy in grand tours.

Etoile de Bessèges Update

The third stage of Etoile de Bessèges took place this morning and my theory that these races are for the unknowns it is too early in the season for the stars was blown to pieces. Tim Wellens rode clear of the breakaway with 15km-to-go and would go on to win the stage solo and take a commanding lead in the overall classification.

With 94km remaining, a group of 17 riders formed the race-winning breakaway, and the group included stars such as Egan Bernal, Michal Kwiatkowski, Nils Politt, Greg van Anermaet, along with Tim Wellens and his two teammates Philippe Gilbert and Stefano Oldani.

The race leader at the start of the day, Christophe Laporte, and his Cofidis team, had no chance of controlling the gap to a move with two former World Champions, reigning Olympic Gold Medalist and a handful of extremely strong riders like Politt who want to ride as hard as possible to build fitness before the spring classics.

Wellens now holds a 44-second lead in the general classification with only two stages remaining, a difficult Stage 4 tomorrow with an uphill finish that suits him perfectly, followed by an 11km TT on Sunday. Baring a disaster or mechanical failure, he should take the overall win on Sunday.

Takeaways:

  • Egan Bernal was one of the main aggressors when the super-break got away. He seems to be back in shape and ready for the upcoming Giro, which he is set to lead for Ineos.

  • Greg van Avermaet has had a decent recovery from his broken back he suffered last October.

  • Philippe Gilbert is building great form as Milan-Sanremo, a race he desperately wants to win, approaches.

  • Michal Kwiatkowski was the first rider to attempt to get away towards the end and possibly could have bridged up to Wellens if not for riding off the road after hitting a patch of oil. But, you could argue that Wellens simply navigated this slick piece of pavement more deftly and it does seem like Wellens now seems to be the superior race winner of the two. This would have been difficult to imagine back in 2014 when Kwiatkowski was the wunderkind of the sport while Wellens was just getting his first professional race win (Stage 6 of the Eneco Tour).

  • Wellens’ looked and rode incredibly strong once he was clear of the chasing group. You can see in the screenshot below how aero he was able to get on his road bike. He should have no trouble defending his lead in the TT on Sunday and beyond that, he is proving that he could be a serious outside contender for a few of the spring one-day races like Strade-Bianche and/or Liège.

Overall GC Picture After Stage 3

Coming Up…

The first batch of the 2021 Rider Previews was cut from today’s newsletter for brevity’s sake but will be coming this weekend for premium subscribers along with details on the beta-version of the BTP Discord chat room.