The last time the Tour de France visited the Grand Colombier in 2020, Michał Kwiatkowski spent the climb riding within himself, several minutes behind the front of the race. He had had to drop back in order to help out his Ineos Grenadiers leader Egan Bernal, who was on a bad day and had been distanced on the early slopes of the climb. It was a terrible moment for the team - Bernal was looking well in contention to defend his yellow jersey title, in third overall within a minute of overall leader Primož Roglič, only to lose all hope on that climb.
Kwiatkowski stuck by his side the whole way up, fulfilling the role of loyal domestique that he so mastered in the previous Tours riding for Ineos. After signing up for the team in 2016, he was a part of Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas's victorious yellow jersey campaigns in both 2017 and 2018 as well as Bernal's in 2019, and on each occasion had done an invaluable job as a super-domestique, from setting the pace on the kind of flat and rolling roads where his skills as a Classics specialist came in useful, to huge turns on the lower slopes of the major climbs.
That stage on the Grand Colombier was the definitive moment that Ineos lost their grip on the Tour de France. Prior to that race, they'd won seven of the past eight Tours de France stretching back to Bradley Wiggins' breakthrough triumph in 2012; since then, they've ceded supremely to Jonas Vingegaard's Jumbo-Visma and Tadej Pogačar's UAE Team Emirates, and their best finishes have been third-place for both Richard Carapaz and Geraint Thomas in 2021 and 2022 respectively.
While that loss of status must still hurt for a team so used to complete dominance, it has had the effect of allowing riders like Kwiatkowski more freedom to ride for themselves rather than sacrificing themselves entirely for the team, and the Polish rider made the most of this opportunity by winning today's stage atop Grand Colombier. It was a typically astute ride from a man who has always shown great racing nous, as he allowed Quentin Pacher (Groupama-FDJ), James Shaw (EF Education-EasyPost), Maxim Van Gils (Lotto-Dstny) and Harold Tejada (Astana Qazaqstan) to all drop him while he went at his own pace, rejoining and then passing them further up the climb; and he also proved that he can maintain a pace all the way up to the top of a mountain and not just some way before swinging off to let his teammates take over.
In fact, this was the second time Kwiatkowski has won a Tour de France stage from a breakaway having been relieved of domestique duty - in 2020, four days after Bernal's Waterloo on Grand Colombier, he rode away with teammate Carapaz to take victory. Before reaching the finish line it was decided by the team that of the two Kwiatkowski would be the rider to be allowed to win, in what was a thank you for the years of selfless service he had provided the team. He was a very talented rider, who won multiple elite Classics and was world champion in 2014, who reigned in his freedom in order to best serve his team.
As someone who could win both cobbled and hilly Classics, time trial among the world's best, and even be up there in large group sprint finishes, he was a complete all-rounder who fulfilled a similar role for Ineos that Wout van Aert now does for Jumbo-Visma, only with the denial of any personal freedom to chase success for himself. No rider better epitomised Ineos' all-for-one attitude and strict internal discipline.
So to see Kwiatkowski up in the breakaway today (not for the first time this edition, but the third) illustrates how Ineos have taken a different approach to this year's Tour. Although they have both Carlos Rodríguez and Tom Pidcock high up on GC, they seem to have acknowledged that reclaiming the yellow jersey is now a huge long shot so long as Pogačar and Vingegaard continue to ride as they are, and are therefore branching out to find other ways to achieve success at the race.
What now constitutes a successful Tour de France for Ineos Grenadiers? Should it be measured on how they end up finishing on GC, or how many stages they manage to win? Historically, even in the last couple of Tours where they haven't managed to win the yellow jersey, the GC has taken precedence, with riders uniting behind Thomas and Carapaz's successful campaigns to make the podium in 2022 and 2021 respectively. And a third consecutive podium finish in as many Tours is certainly on the cards, with Rodríguez still fourth overall just under two minutes behind Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe), and Pidcock in the ascendency having been the best-placed rider behind Pogačar and Vingegaard at the top of Grand Colombier. But should this pair be riding defensively to try and seal as high a place as possible on the GC, or refocus on targeting stage wins instead? It's a dilemma that's bothered Pidcock in particular, who, as a naturally aggressive rider, has regularly stated his intentions of going for stage wins throughout this Tour, but finds himself unable to do so while he tests himself as a genuine GC contender for the first time in his career.
For Pidcock, the GC has become the priority, as part of a long-term plan to see if he's capable of being a GC rider at Grand Tours, and therefore if he could genuinely target the yellow jersey one day. Given the young age of 22-year-old Rodríguez, it seems this Tour is, more than anything, a transitional year for Ineos, one on which stage wins and high GC placings are both perhaps less important than revealing how and with which young talents they might seek to reclaim their superiority in the coming years.