Cast an eye back over cycling’s recent history and the Ineos Grenadiers (previously Team Sky) seem an unlikely choice for a rider like Tom Pidcock. The team’s traditional style of tapping metronomically up mountains, steadily stringing out the bunch behind them during the Grand Tours doesn’t match up with the racing instinct of this 22-year-old from Leeds. Canny on the cross bike, viciously competitive with an attacking style, it’s hard to imagine Pidcock sitting pretty in the Team Sky of old, patiently waiting until each of his rivals is dropped before making a move.
Pidcock isn’t an anomaly in the new breed of rider who strives for fiery battles in races, though. In fact, it’s becoming a growing trend in the men’s peloton. Gone are the days of predictable breakaways being given 10-minute leads until the big teams head to the front of the bunch and gradually pull things back together. In Strade Bianche, Tadej Pogačar launched his winning move with 49km to go. In Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, the race was split into groups all over the road following Alpecin-Fenix’s assault on the front with 91km remaining. Professional cycling is changing, and the snappy, punchy riders are loving it.
In turn, teams who may have previously favoured a more controlled race have had to evolve too, and none more so than the Ineos Grenadiers. Their shift in focus has been glaringly obvious over the last two years as their Classics contingent has been significantly bolstered. The jerseys of the British team have been ever-present at some of the big one-day races, with Tom Pidcock leading the charge.
But though headlines have focused on the multi-discipline wunderkind, he hasn’t been the only rider exhibiting Ineos’ new attacking style of racing. 22-year-old Ben Turner has proven himself to be an asset on the cobbles, finishing eighth place in Dwars door Vlaanderen after helping Pidcock to a podium position earlier in the race. American Magnus Sheffield was just a few places behind after a valiant display of strength in his first year out of the juniors.
The team’s Ecuadorian talent, Jhonatan Narváez, shouldn’t be forgotten either, securing a top 10 in both E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Strade Bianche already this season after animating the early stages of both events. “I’m very excited about the young lads we have here,” explains Ineos director sportif Servais Knaven. “They're performing really well, they like to race. They are racers. I think that is really important to see, really good to see.
“That's also why we can race like we have been. In the last few races we've been active, been on the front foot and taking the initiative. I think that is great to do. I really believe that's the way to do it in these races at the right moment. We haven't won yet but one day the wins will come.”
Ineos bring their new generation to the Tour of Flanders this weekend, with Pidcock as the protected rider in the young squad, seemingly fully recovered from the stomach problems that plagued him at Milan-San Remo. Following his third place at Dwars door Vlaanderen, the British rider is coming to De Ronde with fast legs and fighting talk.
“Nowadays there's no place for caution," he says. "If the race goes early, you need to be there or you're not going to be there.” With the potential absence of Wout van Aert, the British rider is expecting the race dynamic to significantly alter.
“It will probably change the number of people in the final and also the strength of Jumbo,” he says. His performances earlier in the week have given Pidcock added certainty over his form, too, and he speaks with conviction as cold as the weather that’s ravaging across Flanders this weekend. “I don't really think about question marks over myself. I gained a lot of confidence. It was a hard race and we took it on.”
It’s clear that under the direction of Knaven to race aggressively and with the support he has from his teammates, Pidcock is pleased with his team's progress.
“Now you see with the signing of quite a few young guys, I think we're kind of building the next wave of riders. I think if I can lead that, we can create our own bubble and group,” he says. “I think we can be really successful, Ben and Magnus are showing themselves already in the first Classics, punching above their pay grade. I think that's really special to be a part of.”
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As race day is rapidly approaching, the anticipation is growing in Flanders. Barriers are being put up, flags are being strewn, rumours are spreading about the pre-race favourites and speculation about the race winner is the main topic of conversation among local fans. Pidcock understands the gravity of the race on Sunday. “Winning Flanders, it's a Monument, it’s probably, in Belgium's eyes, the biggest race of the year, I think. I spend a lot of time here, so it kind of rubs off on me,” he says.
But this is a rider who has not once crumbled under the pressure, or struggled with the gravity of expectation placed upon him. In a team with high morale and a refreshed approach, Pidcock’s focus on taking the victory on Sunday remains: “I think I have a chance,” he says.