After Tao Geoghegan Hart won the 2020 Giro d’Italia, the Ineos Grenadiers team principal Dave Brailsford said this: “We’ve done the train. We’ve done the defensive style of riding and we’ve won a lot doing that. But it’s not much fun, really, compared to this. What we’ve done here, the two Giros we’ve won. First with Froomey’s win on stage 19 [in the 2018 Giro] and the way all of the guys raced here, well, at the end of the day, the sport is about racing. It’s about emotion and the exhilaration of racing. And that’s what we want to be now.”
It is time, Sir Dave, for the Ineos Grenadiers to live up to this promise.
The situation in the 2022 Tour de France as we go into the final week, of which the main events are three Pyrenean stages and a time trial, is that Jonas Vingegaard is the strongest rider in the race and is in first place. Tadej Pogačar is the second strongest rider in the race and is in second place, 2:22 behind.
Pogačar is a bit of a free radical as regards his tactics and strategy, and while he’s been nipping away at Vingegaard at all the hard finishes except the Col du Granon, where Vingegaard put almost three minutes into him, he’s also got previous form in going for long-range attacks. Everybody with eyes knows that Pogačar is going to continue harrying Vingegaard, but the Danish rider does still have a strong team to chase, plus Pogačar has not been able to drop him on a climb yet in this race.
The third strongest rider has been Geraint Thomas, and he is in third place, another 21 seconds behind Pogačar. If the Tour remains a physical contest, in which the strongest riders fight it out on the final climbs and in the time trial, then the likely podium is Vingegaard, then Pogačar, then Thomas.
However, cycling is at its best and most meaningful when it becomes something more than a physical contest. In a way, Vingegaard and Jumbo-Visma have already proven this. They took the previously invincible-looking Pogačar apart on stage 11 to the Col du Granon, using smart tactics, excellent rider deployment and a healthy dose of psychological warfare. (Interestingly, before this stage, Pogačar looked the strongest; since then, Vingegaard has looked the better rider.)
Pogačar may yet sow chaos in the top order of the GC. But the more interesting and varied opportunities belong to the Ineos Grenadiers, who have three riders in the top 10 of the race. As well as Thomas, Adam Yates is in fifth overall at 4:06 and Tom Pidcock is in ninth at 8:49.
Maybe a top-10 finish for Pidcock is worth defending, although he’s already won the most prestigious mountain stage of the Tour at L’Alpe d’Huez, which will ultimately be more memorable than eighth or 10th or seventh on GC. And is a fifth place, or maybe fourth at a stretch, going to change anything for Adam Yates, who has been one of the quietest riders in the top 10? He came fourth in 2016 and won the white jersey. There’s not a huge amount of value in repeating that, impressive as it may look.
The question for Ineos Grenadiers is, are they willing to risk third, fifth and ninth for a possible win? Even if it means the final result could be ending the race with nothing?
The team has won the Tour seven times. They have had two runner-up spots and two third places as well. Can you list these? The reason the third places were the most difficult part of that question to answer is that they didn’t really, in the grand scheme of the team’s Grand Tour dominance, compare to many of their better results.
The 2022 Tour has thrived on its chaotic racing and unpredictability. Teams and riders have been willing to take risks. Jumbo-Visma didn’t know they would be able to crack Pogačar on the Granon with their Galibier attacks, but they tried. However, until now, apart from Pidcock’s stage win, Ineos have largely coasted through, riding extremely consistently and a little defensively, and the result is three riders in the top 10.
Ineos must be willing to sacrifice at least two of these positions. And if they are to live up to the promise Dave Brailsford made in 2020, maybe the best thing to do is to be willing to sacrifice all three for the outside possibility of winning. This will take early attacks, stacking the break like Jumbo-Visma did on stage 11, putting pressure on the Dutch team (who still have Van Aert and Kuss in imperious form but are starting to creak at the edges with Roglič and Kruijswijk both out), and being willing to lose in order to win. There’s territory in the next three days for Hail Marys, and especially on the Peyragudes and Hautacam stages, multiple mountain passes where Jumbo and Pogačar’s UAE team can be put first under pressure, and then out of the game.
(Image: James Startt)
Dave Brailsford also said this, in 2012: “I hate losing. The emotion of winning is not as great as the disappointment of losing… I hate losing, it tears me apart.”
Third place, fifth place in the Tour de France are losing, for the Ineos Grenadiers.
Wout van Aert, Tadej Pogačar, Bob Jungels, Magnus Cort, Jonas Vingegaard, Tom Pidcock, Michael Matthews and Mads Pedersen are just a few of the riders who have set this Tour alight with aggressive, exciting and risky tactics in its first two weeks, and they have been rewarded with victories.
Ineos Grenadiers have the strength to do the same in the general classification, but are they willing to try? It’s time to choose emotion and exhilaration over defence.Cover image by Getty