Ineos Grenadiers road captain Luke Rowe has been a part of five Tour de France-winning teams but has never competed in an edition as physically demanding as this year’s race.
Speaking after stage 20 on Saturday, the Welshman, who supported Geraint Thomas to third overall behind runner-up Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and winner Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma), said it was personally his best but also the toughest of his career eight participations.
“We’ve had 20 days where we’ve kicked the shit out of each other from kilometre zero to the end,” Rowe said.
“The way it was raced was pretty incredible. It was day in, day out. It was like a series of one-day races. We were saying on the bus, like, today was Scheldeprijs, today was Flanders. It was the toughest Tour I’ve done.”
The attacking style of racing hasn’t been witnessed at the Tour for many years, in part because Ineos Grenadiers and its former incarnation as Sky, reigned for almost a decade with a controlled approach where the best offense was riding defensively, at the front, shutting down anything that threatened to derail its ominous train.
Thomas partly attributed the change in racing style to Pogačar and Vingegaard, who the 36-year-old veteran described as generational talents.
“I would have loved to have been able to attack and try something as well, but I didn’t have the legs to do that,” Thomas said.
“Pogačar and Vingegaard are one-in-a-generation. They’re unbelievable.”
Prodigies, the route, advancements in the sport, and the fact sprinters have had few opportunities at this Tour means their teams have controlled less and results have been more unpredictable than predictable.
Thomas and the likes of Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco), the versatile sprinter who in the most impressive ride of his career celebrated a solo victory on stage 14 from a breakaway, adapted. Others may have to.
“There’s a lot less control which means it’s tougher. You race more at the start and throughout the day,” said Thomas.
“And also, the way Pogačar and Jumbo raced this year, they started racing so far out, it’s not, this is my 12th Tour, and I can’t remember a Tour before where we’ve been in ones and twos going over the penultimate climb of a day in the Alps. It’s just been full gas racing from a lot earlier.”
Thomas said nothing was harder than his first Tour in 2007, for different reasons, but the 109th edition was one of the 2018 title champion’s most difficult.
“It’s been enjoyable. Mainly because I’ve had decent legs,” he said.
That sprinters have raced more to survive time cuts than vie for stage wins has also influenced the competition.
Fabio Jakobsen (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) made the time cut on stage 17 to Peyragudes with 15 seconds to spare, which took a toll two days later on the road to Cahors, which the Dutchman hinted he’d be up for.
Australian fast man Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) was dejected at the end of stage 19 when Christophe Laporte (Jumbo-Visma) spoiled their party, attacking the breakaway with about 1km remaining to steal victory from the sprinters who were out of men to pull him back.
“That was supposed to be a pretty simple sprint stage, but it was actually super hard,” Ewan said.
Rowe partly attributed the lack of control to accumulative fatigue in what is on course to be the fastest Tour on record.
“I think everyone is absolutely fucked,” he said.
“And also, the sprinters themselves are on their knees, so they’re kind of going, ‘Oh, you know, I’ll sprint if it comes together, but don’t put it all in for me boys.’”
Rowe again referred to stage 19 as an example when Jakobsen’s teammate Mikkel Honore was in the escape, not with his team leader.
“That’s strange. And that’s because Jakobsen is absolutely buckled. It’s a mix of the way it was raced and mass fatigue across the peloton,” he said.
The 2022 Tour will surely be remembered as a vintage edition for the way it was raced, which teams put down to improvements in technology, equipment, more effective training, increased knowledge in and implementation of sports science, psychology, and nutrition.
Jumbo-Visma’s domination was multifaceted but the threat of two-time and defending champion Pogačar was omnipresent until the end, contributing to the ‘oooohhs’ and ‘aaawwws’ that regularly emanated from the press room.
How the Dutch squad competed, executing meticulously planned strategy, which in the Alps accounted for Pogačar, with precision, also signified a change in Grand Tour racing. Where Ineos Grenadiers and Sky typically would forsake stage victories to win yellow, with one, outright leader, Jumbo-Visma did not.
Vingegaard entered as co-leader alongside Primoz Roglic and once he assumed the maillot jaune, in some respects did ride defensively, outside of his two stage wins, following Pogačar's multitude of attacks.
However, his team also won the green jersey with van Aert, who claimed three stage wins himself to add to a six-stage haul, with the finale in Paris – which van Aert took last year – remaining.
“The level is higher,” said Rowe.
“We were conservative. This dull robotic style we’ve spoken about, which looking back was dull and robotic but I still standby it was the most efficient way to defend the jersey and any team would do the same if they had the same strength, as we did then.”
Rowe figures that Egan Bernal is currently the only rider in the Ineos Grenadiers stable who could challenge Vingegaard and Pogačar in winning the Tour. Bernal’s title victory in 2019 was the last time the British squad took to the top step of the podium.
Bernal was set to spearhead the team this year but a career-threatening training accident in February derailed the Colombian’s season.
“If I’m optimistic I think the only guy we’ve got in our ranks at the moment who can compete with them guys, if he’s at his best, is Egan, who obviously remains a big question mark at the moment,” Rowe said.
“He was going to be the go-to man and I think we could have challenged them. Could we have beaten them? I don’t know. These guys are flying. ‘G’ [Thomas] was third and I think it’s no shame in saying he was the third best in the race.”
Pogačar won three stages, marked a stint in yellow, and claimed the white jersey, but such is his talent that questions in the final press conferences of the Tour on Saturday, pertained to reflections on mistakes he’d potentially made.
The 23-year-old will finish with only four teammates in Paris, having lost some of his key aids to COVID-19 positive tests, illness and injury, which played a part in his performance.
The popular Slovenian did not make excuses and plans to analyse his performance at a later time. But he’s already put Vingegaard on notice.
“I think this year’s Tour is going to make me more hungry and eager to win more. I like challenges in life, and I see a real big challenge this year in Jonas, which I couldn’t beat. I’m really committed for the next Tour de France to be better and beat that obstacle and get over this challenge,” Pogačar said.