The Sky Train. An almost taboo term in the world of pro cycling. For opposition riders it means attacks are fruitless, and for fans it means an increased chance of boring bike races.
But Sky are gone. Along with the Ineos Grenadiers rebrand, the British team have supposedly altered their racing style to be offensive, give riders freedom and attack when already ahead.
Or at least, that narrative has evolved from commentators looking on, bolstered by Dave Brailsford comments at the Giro in recent days. "We’ve changed our philosophy a little bit and rather than defensively we try to ride off the front," he said, "We’ve got the guys to do it and they are up for it, they enjoy it, they enjoy bike racing".
But has the Ineos style actually shifted? And if they have, how has it made a difference at the Giro d’Italia? Has it helped Egan Bernal’s chances of winning the maglia rosa?
Egan Bernal entered the 2021 Giro as a Grand Tour winner. En route to Tour de France victory in 2019, Bernal and the Ineos Grenadiers played the long game. After the stage 13 time trial in Pau, Bernal was almost three minutes down and fifth overall. The team also had reigning champ Geraint Thomas in second, but Julian Alaphilippe had stolen the show to that point.
The Frenchman had been on the offensive practically from the first flag drop and it had earned him two stage wins and almost a 90 second lead in the maillot jaune. The big mountains were supposed to be too much for Alaphilippe, particularly as he’d expended so much energy over the first two weeks. But to everyone’s surprise, Alaphilippe fought valiantly on the Col du Tourmalet and actually expanded his advantage on everyone bar Thibaut Pinot.
The race went on, however, and Bernal launched his first major attack on stage 18’s Col du Galibier before gaining the yellow jersey on the neutralised stage 19. Bernal’s third week surge meant he was a Grand Tour winner at the age of 22, whilst the hyperactive Alaphilippe faded to fifth.
Image credit: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com
Team Ineos’ 2019 Tour de France was actually atypical when compared to how they gained a Tour de France monopoly over the last decade. The team’s hitherto goal was to gain the leader’s jersey early in the race. This would then enable them to ride defensively, protecting their leader all the way to the final stage. In the 2013, 2015 and 2016 editions of the Tour de France, Chris Froome made his way into yellow by the end of the first week and would never relinquish the jersey on any of those occasions.
Coming with gaining the jersey early brings added pressure to control the race, but Ineos possess more than enough strength in depth to cope. Historically, the team would lump their super-domestiques on the front of the peloton where they'd set a difficult but not infernal tempo. The style was low risk, it set a pace high enough to make attacks difficult, but also meant that their leader had team support close to the finish. Any opposition riders brave enough to attack were caught more often than not.
So, how are the same team trying to win the Giro d’Italia in 2021? Entering the first rest day, Bernal already held the maglia rosa, although he did so by a slim margin. The first checkpoint of Ineos' plan was complete.
The question was, how would Bernal ride after gaining the leader's jersey? Would he remain aggressive to both put on a show and gain time on his rivals, or would Ineos revert back to their old style based upon defensive cycling?
Well, the Ineos Grenadiers attacked the strade bianche stage 11 early. Here, Filippo Ganna launched Bernal to the front of the race on the first section of gravel, blowing some of their GC rivals away. The early acceleration wasn’t decisive, but set the precedent for the rest of the day. Ultimately, Bernal capped the stage with a wonderful acceleration on the Passo del Lume Spento, and the GC was blown wide open as Giulio Ciccone and Remco Evenepoel fell down the leaderboard.
“We expected some big gaps and actually there were a lot of GC riders who lost a lot of time. I’m happy to arrive at the front and we need to stay focused for the next days. We should be happy with this day,” professed Bernal at the finish in Montalcino. A great day's work for Ineos, and an equally thrilling spectacle for those watching on.
However, Bernal’s best performance came prior to the second rest day when he obliterated the opposition with a searing attack on Passo Giau. The TV images, or lack of them, couldn’t hide the fact that Bernal’s attack in the maglia rosa was something to behold. The Colombian knew it as well, and calmly removed his rain jacket in the final few hundred metres to reveal the pink jersey before unleashing an emphatic celebration as he crossed the line.
Egan Bernal celebrates winning stage 16 of the Giro in Cortina d’Ampezzo (Image credit: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
Bernal didn’t need to attack, he could have been forgiven for following his closest rival Damiano Caruso, but he chose to make his move. That said, was Bernal’s fine ride down to Ineos’ new philosophy?
After the stage, Dave Brailsford commented on Bernal’s win: “Dream day for us, quite frankly. It’s interesting you know, in days gone by, maybe in a similar position that Egan had found himself, in the past we’d have played it very efficiently, been quite defensive and safe and maybe not the most exciting. But I thought today Egan saw his opportunity, and in the pink jersey took the opportunity to go on the attack."
Looking back to the beginning of stage 16 which began in biblical weather conditions, Ineos were tasked with controlling a potentially dangerous breakaway which featured João Almeida and Vincenzo Nibali. Filippo Ganna and long-term servant Salvatore Puccio were used on the run into the decisive Passo Giau. However, it was EF Education-Nippo who send their troops to the front. Tejay van Garderen, Alberto Bettiol and Simon Carr accelerated in the service of Hugh Carthy. As soon as this happened, the breakaway’s lead crumbled and so did the peloton. Just a kilometre into the Passo Giau, the number of riders present in the favourites group could be counted on two hands.
Don’t be mistaken, Egan Bernal’s performance remains phenomenal, but Ineos can thank EF Education-Nippo for opening up the race which ensured that the breakaway were caught, therefore providing Bernal with the chance to win the stage in pink.
Dave Brailsford has repeatedly said the team are given more opportunities to ride aggressively and freely, and Bernal has looked to do so at the Giro thus far. However, should Ineos lose the jersey in the third week to a rampant Simon Yates or a crafty Damiano Caruso, they might be tempted to turn back to their old tricks ahead of the Tour de France.
Before then, though, they have a race to win. Egan Bernal has his two stage wins which will be more than enough so long as it is coupled with the top step in Milan. With two key mountain stages left, it will be intriguing to see how aggressive the Grenadiers are in the days that remain.
The Ineos Grenadiers are perhaps in a state of transition. They are looking to take more opportunities, but also have one hand tied behind their back when riding to protect the lead of the race. Have Ineos truly revolutionised their style, or do they simply have a leader in Egan Bernal who is desperate to show the world that he is back?
Whether they press the throttle further, or return to their old, defensive ways to protect their lead as the Giro d’Italia reaches its climax, finishing in the maglia rosa remains the number one priority. And at the end of the day, can you blame them?
Cover image: CorVos/SWPix