In the late summer of 2017, defending Tour de France champion Chris Froome took aim at the red jersey of the Vuelta a España. Spectators weren’t to know it at the time, but they were watching the final peak for the British rider on his British team.
Froome had won his fourth Tour, with Team Sky wearing yellow on all but two days, and he was on his way to becoming the first rider to double up at the Vuelta since it moved to its late summer slot on the calendar. For a couple of months the following spring, Froome was the defending champion of all three Grand Tours. It has never been so good.
Watching on was a boy named Ben Tulett. He had just turned 16 and on holiday in southern Spain with his family.
“I saw Chris in red, saw the team bus, saw all the riders from the team there, and I just thought, ‘yeah, I wanna be on that bus. I want to ride for that team one day’,” he says.
“We went the next day to watch the Alto de Velefique stage and the weather was terrible that day, miserable. I remember Sky was on the front, they destroyed the race, they controlled it so well.
“I remember watching this team coming up the mountain, four or five guys drilling it on the front, and I remember thinking ‘this is so special, I want to be a part of that’.”
Four years on and Ben Tulett is speaking from the hotel in Port d’Alcudia in Mallorca where Ineos Grenadiers, formerly Team Sky, traditionally ensconce themselves for their winter pre-season. The hotel has a plastic mural stuck on its large glass windows depicting the team’s top 2021 moments. The team vehicles are parked outside, generators humming while mechanics spray down the Pinarellos. There’s a stash of new Ineos Grenadiers outfits with his name on it. At the age of just 20 years old – in the space of just four years – Tulett has turned that dream into a reality.
But then Tulett isn’t a man to hang about. When Team Sky were first formed in the winter of 2009, he can remember his mum told him about the news while driving him to a London League cyclo-cross race. He was only eight, but already racing, along with his older brother Dan.
“I just thought that was so special and so exciting that this new British team had started out,” he says.
Racing was all he ever wanted to do. In 2015 he said in an interview that by age 20 he wanted to be as good as Wout van Aert who, then aged 20, was winning ‘cross races for fun. Before the decade was out, Tulett was double junior world champion in the mud and a road professional with Alpecin-Fenix. By the end of the following season, 2020, he had gone from junior races to Liège-Bastogne-Liège, becoming the race’s youngest finisher in over 100 years (nobody so young had made it to the end of the sport’s ‘old lady’ since 1909).
He backed it up with another Liège finish the following spring along with 17th at Amstel Gold Race and 12th at Flèche Wallonne. In August he entered the Tour of Poland as the second youngest rider in the field and finished ninth overall. A fortnight later he celebrated his 20th birthday.
This precocity explains why Ineos Grenadiers endured a messy, protracted buy-out of his contract with the Roodhooft brothers in order to add him to their roster for 2022. According to Tulett’s agent, the topic is subject to a non-disclosure agreement but it’s not hard to see why both teams desperately wanted to have him. He is young, extremely talented, and has a level-headed maturity that is immediately apparent even over the phone.
Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix
Ineos now have a crop of British youngsters like they did back in 2010, only this lot come from the ‘cross fields rather than the velodrome. As Geraint Thomas and Ben Swift embark on what are likely to be the last contracted years of the class of 2010, in their place come Tulett, new signing Ben Turner (22), Tom Pidcock (22) and Ethan Hayter (23).
“There’s a lot to be said for knowing your teammates off the bike and really building that strong team environment. It goes a long way,” says Tulett, adding that he and Turner spent a winter living together in Belgium. “It’s really good to have not just teammates but mates as teammates.
“We’re all now good at going at our own pace and finding what works and what doesn’t work for us. In the future we all want to be as good as we possibly can be. We know how good that generation has been in the past. I wouldn’t say it’s a pressure thing, it’s more a motivation. We’re part of this big team and we want to get the most out of ourselves.”
As much as Tulett feels little personal pressure, Ineos themselves are under something of pressure to rediscover the golden years that Tulett remembers watching from the roadside. In 2021 the team won plenty of races, the pick of them being the Giro with Egan Bernal, but a disappointing Tour and underwhelming Vuelta meant the super team failed to live up to the standards that their lofty ambition (and budget) would expect. A winter management reshuffle has seen Rod Ellingworth take on a more central role and a rejuvenated squad features seven new signings, five of them aged under 23.
Pick of the crop in 2021 was Tom Pidcock; when the youngster from Leeds found himself at the bottom of the Poggio last March leading Milan-Sanremo but not quite knowing what to do with himself it provided a handy metaphor for the raw talent on Ineos’ books. Pidcock matured exceptionally quickly, earning a string of excellent Classics results and Olympic gold in the mountain biking at Tokyo.
Given their common backgrounds, it’s natural that comparisons are being drawn between Pidcock and Ben Tulett. They come from the same ‘cross scene. They both have a compact, lively riding style born from playing around in the mud. They share a love of motorsport, a regular conversation topic that they will indulge in again when they become training partners on the roads of Andorra next year.
“I think our attributes are relatively similar but I turned away from cyclocross earlier than Tom did, in order to focus on the road,” Tulett explains. “My ambition is to focus into a leading GC rider, so I’ve taken the step at an earlier age to step away from the cyclocross for the time being. I’m now in that transition where I’m going into the road, and in particular into the GC, climbing profile races.”
The path to GC contention can be a tricky one to follow. Too little responsibility and riders run the risk of training to be very good teammates, but not much more. It’s a critique often pinged at Ineos, with their apparent knack of turning the world’s best race winners into the world’s best super domestiques. Yet too many responsibilities too soon can crush confidence, as exhibited by the 21 year-old Remco Evenepoel carrying the weight of unrealistic Belgian expectation at this year’s Giro.
“I think there was a lot to be learnt about that [Remco at the Giro],” he says. “I don’t want to miss steps or skip steps. I think that was a good example of how we have to be careful with my development, not rush things, take it as it comes.
“There will be riders who have two or three years of success and then burnout, and we don’t want that, we want a long and successful career. We don’t want to have a career where I get to 24 and I’m finished.
“I’ll go to some races where I really want to perform and really want to go for the win, and others where I’m a domestique, or there to help and there to learn. Next year it’s important that there’s a good mix of both.”
There will be expectations, as there will be of any young Brit in the colours of their hometown team. But Tulett is careful to point out that the decision about how to respond to those expectations remains in the hands of the rider. It doesn’t have to mean pressure.
“I wouldn’t be an athlete if I didn’t think that people expected something from me. That’s what I would expect from them, I would expect them to expect me to perform well. That’s a big motivation to perform well. It’s self-driven, but it’s positive, I don’t see it as a negative thing.
“I see it more as a thing that drives me on more. People want to see me do well. It’s all about how you take it, how you look at it. You can see it as a negative or you can flip it on its head and really see it as a positive, and that’s what I try to do.”
In a few months’ time, he’ll step off the team bus and take his place in the most famous controlling force of the modern peloton, just as he pictured himself doing four years ago. Who knows where Ben Tulett will find himself in another four years’ time. But won’t it be fun to watch.
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