The Dauphine Displayed Ineos' Leadership Issues & Launched a Potential New Star

The one-week French race lacked the usual lineup of Tour favorites but still showed us plenty about the upcoming grand tour

Richie Porte exorcised old Dauphine demons by winning the Criterium du Dauphine on Sunday’s stage 8 over Astana’s Alexey Lutsenko and his Ineos teammate Geraint Thomas. Porte, who was leading the race heading into the final stage, avoided a similar final stage meltdown that saw him lose the leader’s jersey on the final stage back in 2017, mainly due to support from his extremely strong Ineos squad.

While the fight for the GC lacked its usual final weekend spark with no contenders willing, or able, to attack off Ineos’ pace on the climbs on either Saturday or Sunday, Mark Padun, a 24-year-old Ukrainian on Bahrain-Victorious, breathed life into the race and emerged as one of the world’s best climbers over the weekend by laying down absolutely searing attacks that left even the Ineos train unable to respond, or even make a serious dent in his gap once he has gone. Padun won both weekend mountain stages with historic climbing performances and possibly even emerged as the story of the race over Porte’s GC victory. But, before we pencil him in for potential contention at the Tour, young riders who emerge at the Dauphine have almost universally struggled at the French grand tour just a few weeks later.

Porte’s overall victory might have been somewhat left in the shadows by Padun’s final weekend performances, but, after the dust had settled, he emerged from the weekend with one of the biggest victories of his career, and more importantly, has laid down a marker within his own Ineos squad and has made a case that he deserves a leadership position for the Tour.

Abridged Race Notebook:

Stage 7:

8km: Movistar has been setting pace on the front but burns out their domestiques way too early. With 8km until the finish on the final climb, their leaders, Enric Mas and Miguel Angel Lopez, fall back into the pack. Race leader Alexey Lutsenko is left on the front all alone. If Ineos had a defined leadership consolidated behind Porte, TGH and Thomas would have just gone to the front and set a hard pace to burn off Lutsenko and allowed Porte to attack with around 4km-to-go, win the stage and have a comfortable GC lead. But with so many leaders, Porte has to strike from a long way out to ensure he gets ahead of his own teammates and avoids getting stuck behind while Thomas attacks. Porte guys and there is a muted response behind, with only Kuss, Mas and Padun reacting.

7.5km: Porte and Mas are quickly dropped by Padun and Kuss, which, at first, looks concerning for Porte. But, just a few moments later, we see Kuss let out an exasperated breath that seems to be telling us Padun’s pace might be too fast to follow.

4.7km: And sure enough, Padun easily powers away from Kuss on a steep 11% part of the climb.

3.8km: Porte is in a bit of a difficult position here. He has been dropped by Padun and is now isolated. Making matters worse is that GC threats like Miguel Angel Lopez are attacking out of the Thomas group behind. Thomas is unable to respond, which means they are flying up to an exposed Porte.

Final km: Lopez bridges up to Porte, but Porte gets himself out of this jam by attacking and dropping him as they pass a dropping Kuss.

Note: This worked out for Porte and Ineos, but only because Porte was the strongest rider in the race. They took a big risk by allowing Porte to be isolated, and if Lopez was stronger, he could have dropped Porte and Ineos would have had three strong riders/leaders, TGH, Thomas, and Porte, all isolated at different parts of the climb and unable to consolidate their strength and help each other.

Stage 8:

20.5km: Movistar is attempting to set up a Lopez attack on the Joux Plane, but when we look at the race situation, Ineos is comfortably just sitting on the weel of their lone rider on the front. It is an admirable effort and plan, but they clearly don’t have the firepower to put Ineos under any serious pressure.

17.6km: Movistar runs out of riders to set pace way too early, and Lopez attacks with a few kilometers left on the brutal. However, as we can see below, Ineos just comes to the front and he gets almost nowhere. To put this into perspective, Ineos has TGH, who has won a GT before, setting pace to pull back Lopez, who is Movistar’s leader and doesn’t have a single GT win.

8km: Jack Haig, sitting 34-seconds behind Porte’s lead, attacks up and over the top of the climb in an attempt to catch Porte out on the descent. It kind of works and Porte is distanced on the technical descent. Oddly, Thomas actually leaves Porte to chase down Haig, which is a huge no-no, since now Porte is isolated and could start losing loads of time. This is exactly how he lost this race on this same stage in 2017.

7.7km: And soon after, the worst-case scenario almost happens for Ineos. Thomas, who is pushing it too much on this descent attempting to stay with the leaders, slips on a tight corner and nearly crashes out Porte who is coming up behind him. Thomas was taking a big risk descending faster than his abilities allow while also hurting his team leader’s chances of winning the race. This type of freelancing within the team has a bit of a theme all week.

3.1km: Thomas is chasing behind after getting up after his crash and Porte is isolated as the GC favorites start the final climb. Ion Izagirre, teammate of 2nd place overall rider Lutsenko attacks to take advantage of this situation, and for a brief moment, is under pressure due to multiple attacks.

2.7km: Porte weathers the initial flurry, and then oddly, the group stops attacking while Thomas paces back on. After he makes contact and gets to the front for Porte, Ben O’Connor, who is a minute down in 8th place, attacks, but is kept close by Thomas. It isn’t clear why O’Connor waited until Thomas made contact to launch this move.

Final km: Thomas is setting such a hard pace that nobody in the group is unable to attack, while Padun, so far up the road due to his absurdly strong climbing performance, is able to sit up and really celebrate his victory.

Note: The contrast of Ineos working incredibly hard to set a pace that the lone leader was able to easily surpass himself is really striking and underlines that while Ineos won this race, there is still another level of rider out there (Roglic, Pogacar) that can still outclimb them.

Final Top-10 GC

Main Takeaways:

The Good

  • Porte has finished 2nd at this race twice in his career, so coming back here and winning at the age of 36 is hugely impressive. Also, doing this two weeks before the Tour shows he is on good form and shows his Ineos team that he at least deserves consideration for leadership at the Tour.

  • In the past, his lack of team support has seen him ambushed on the final stage and cost him the overall victory, but now that he is back at Ineos, all he had to do was sit behind the train for the majority of the stage while they set a pace that was nearly impossible to attack off it.

  • Porte is in the odd position of just having won the biggest Tour de France preparation race but being 4th on his team’s leadership hierarchy for the Tour behind Thomas, Carapaz, and Geoghegan Hart. This is obviously completely insane since he has proven that he is likely the team’s best GC rider behind Egan Bernal, but, it could actually help his odds at the Tour de France. Porte has never ridden well at the Tour as an outright leader but has shined when he has gone into races without that burden.

  • While he is unlikely to beat Primoz Roglic and Tadej Pogacar, he proved last year that he is better than the rest. So, if he can ride well and avoid crashes/flats, he could very well find himself leading Ineos in the Tour’s final week.

  • Geraint Thomas struggled in the time trial on stage 4, but showed over the weekend, particularly on Sunday’s stage 8, that he is coming into great form at just the right time. His performance to ride back to the lead group on the final climb after crashing coming off the Joux Plane was absurdly impressive.

  • Alexey Lutsenko, whose biggest stage race result before this week was twice winning the Tour of Oman, gets a massive 2nd place overall and really impressed me with his ability to hang on the high mountains over the weekend. His only slip-up was not being able to respond to Porte’s attack on the summit finish on stage 7. Other than this, he rode nearly a perfect race and got a well-earned career GC result. It is interesting to wonder if this could be extended into a three-week performance.

  • I had certainly not considered Mark Padun a big talent before Saturday, but the young Ukrainian came back from being dropped multiple times in the early stages to absolutely light it up in the high mountains. He was head-and-shoulders the strongest climber at this race. He is out-of-contract at the end of the season but has certainly increased his value considerably in a single weekend. It will be interesting to see which teams start to line up to sign him at this upcoming Tour.

The Bad

  • If last year’s Dauphine was the year of the breakout superstar, Dani Martinez, Tadej Pogacar, Lennard Kamna, this year was the year of the career also-rans, Wilco Kelderman, Miguel Ángel López, Enric Mas, and the racing certainly reflected this. The non-stop explosive attacking from 2020 was replaced by highly considered, downside-minimization passive riding styles in 2021.

  • Despite five riders being within a minute of Porte heading into the final stage, we saw no change in the top 9 in the overall standings on Sunday. What is particularly disappointing was the lack of aggressiveness and willingness to risk their current placings in an attempt to move up.

  • Outside of Jack Haig, who attacked over the top of the Joux-Plane, there were no serious attacks, and Wilco Kelderman, who finished in 4th and only four seconds behind Thomas, refused to increase, or even set, pace after Thomas crashed and was chasing behind.

  • And when they finally did have Porte outnumbered and under pressure on the final climb, they simply sat up and waited for Thomas to catch back on.

  • Oddly, Ben O’Connor attacked after Thomas caught back on. If he had gone before, he potentially could have taken advantage of the willingness to chase in the lead GC group and increased his gap enough to jump onto the podium.

  • Setting aside Kelderman’s confusing decision, if we step back, this lack of action makes at least some sense:

  • Firstly, Movistar clearly wanted to attack but simply didn’t have the strength. They attempted to set up Miguel Angel Lopez for an attack on the Joux-Plane, but neither he, Mas, or Valverde were strong enough to put Ineos under any sort of pressure.

  • Secondly, outside of Ineos, no riders in the top 10 overall have ever won a grand tour. This is because while they are strong riders, they simply lack the killer instinct to win major races and frankly, were likely happy with their results. A rider like Lutsenko isn’t going to risk losing his best-ever career GC finish for a slim chance of dropping Porte.

  • Nairo Quintana continues to struggle to find any semblance of his past form. The Colombian is coming off knee surgery and struggled to hold pace on the climbs.

For Further Consideration:

  • It was slightly strange that Padun was up the road on Sunday in the breakaway riding for the stage win while his teammate, Jack Haig, was behind alone and only a few seconds off the podium. If Padun had been in Haig’s group, he potentially could have helped Haig get up and over the Joux Plane with a gap and increase it enough to win the overall.

  • Sepp Kuss, who has finally been given a leadership position at Jumbo-Visma this season, once again failed to climb well enough to challenge for the overall win or even a stage win.

  • Steven Kruijswijk, who was considered a Tour contender as recently as 2020, once again failed to show any signs of life after a so-far dismal 2021 season.

  • The upside for Jumbo if these disappointments are that with both these riders’ GC contender status fading, they will be heading into the Tour fully behind working Roglic’s GC campaign and won’t have much leverage if they suddenly decide they want to ride for themselves.

Ineos’ Potential Issues

  • Speaking of Padun, he exposed a major issue for Ineos. While they won the race with Porte while also getting Thomas on the podium, they beat a very mediocre field of GC riders (to put this into perspective, no other contenders outside of the Ineos team had ever won a grand tour in their careers). Meanwhile, Padun produced incredible climbing performances on both Saturday and Sunday, but he wasn’t climbing at speeds any greater than Roglic and Pogacar will be at this upcoming Tour de France, and Ineos simply couldn’t keep up. There isn’t an obvious answer to this problem, since Porte, Geoghegan Hart, and Thomas are the team’s main riders for the Tour. 

  • Thomas’s crashing habit struck again. He fell on the descent of the Joux Plane and combined with his finish-line crash at the Tour of Romandie, means he’s come down in two of the last two races he’s done. This is very concerning for Ineos, especially considering he has more grand tours DNFs than finishes.

  • The worst thing about the crash was that Thomas had actually left Porte to chase Lutsenko on the descent. This is one of the major no-nos of bike racing and meant Porte, a weak descender, could easily have lost enough time to lose the race while his teammate who has gone up the road crashes out of the move, leaving the team in a horrible position.

  • This incident exposes two major issues facing Ineos:

    • The first is that two of their best riders, Thomas and Porte, are extremely weak descenders. This is pertinent due to the fact that they are heading into a Tour battle against a rider, Tadej Pogacar, who is an extremely skilled descender and won’t hesitate to attack them on any and all downhill sections. 

    • Another major issue facing Ineos is their incredibly undefined team leadership. They came to this race with three leaders, and are going to the Tour with at least four potential leaders. Having four riders with overall aspirations in a team of eight riders in a recipe for disaster, and outside of the Joux-Plane descent disaster, having too many leaders at this Dauphine caused problems on the final climb on stage 6, and even somewhat on stage 7, when Porte was forced to attack from 8km from the finish line to get out in front of his own teammates. If Thomas and Geoghegan Hart were completely dedicated to working for Porte at that point, they could have simply driven up the pace and launched Porte from around 4km-to-go, which would potentially have seen him win the stage and drive a bigger lead between himself and Lutsenko.

    • As things happened, Porte was dropped by Padun, isolated with Movistar’s Mas, and forced to get himself out of a jam by counter-attacking his group and soloing to the finish line. Meanwhile, Thomas couldn’t respond to attacks in the group behind, which meant potential GC contenders were riding up to an exposed Porte.

Looking Ahead

  • Froome finished 10-minutes back on Sunday’s stage 8 mountain stage. While this shows he is a long way from able to compete for any type of wins at the Tour, he showed that he is at least fit enough to make the Tour team and complete the race.

  • As the Dauphine wrapped up, the Tour de Suisse was just starting across the Alps. This meant the long-awaited return of Tom Dumoulin after his abrupt break from racing back in January. The Dutchman finished a respectable 16th place in the short time trial before finishing over 10-minutes back on today’s opening road stage. I’m sure Jumbo management will be watching him closely all week. With Jumbo appearing to lack depth with the Tour quickly approaching and Dumoulin potentially needing racing miles before the Olympic games, I wouldn’t be shocked if he makes a surprise appearance in the squad’s Tour lineup.

I will be breaking down the key moments from the first few stages of the Tour du Suisse for premium subscribers throughout the week…