Too many cooks: is one team leader better than multiple at the Tour de France?
Pogačar is the only GC contender in UAE Team Emirates, meaning his team can give him full focus as the leader. Is this one of the factors in his success?
They say there is power in numbers, but they also say that too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the broth.
The title contenders at this year’s Tour de France stand to prove which of those idioms is most accurate, with the first summit finish of the race indicating it could go either way.
Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma had power in numbers at the end of stage seven to La Super Planche de Belles Filles on Friday. Jonas Vingegaard, Primož Roglič and Sep Kuss finished the stage in the top 10 for Jumbo-Visma, while Ineos Grenadiers have Geraint Thomas, Adam Yates, Tom Pidcock and Daniel Martinez in the top-10 on general classification.
Tadej Pogačar used all of his teammates before he took over the pace-making at the front of the main group himself inside the brutally steep final kilometre of the 176.3km race.
Unlike Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers, who have multiple team leaders with yellow jersey ambitions, Pogačar is the undisputed main man at UAE Emirates with everyone all-in for the two-time and defending champion. There is no Plan B.
Related: Has Tadej Pogačar won the Tour?
But despite the options opposing teams had at their disposal on Friday, it was the Slovenian who, in the dying metres, toyed with his rivals like a cat does food and celebrated his second consecutive stage win to increase his overall lead.
Vingegaard attacked first and bridged the gap to lone leader Lennard Kämna (BORA-hansgrohe), leaving Pogačar, Roglič, Thomas and Romain Bardet (Team DSM) in his wake. The press who had gathered around the TV at the UAE Emirates team bus to watch cooed as Pogačar was gapped.
Was he in trouble?
Pogačar recovered the ground and then sprinted against the Dane to take line honours, with enough room to glance at his rival and throw one hand in the air in celebration. Past the finish, Pogačar kept riding. Vingegaard came to a virtual standstill from the effort the second both his wheels were over the threshold.
Pogačar outsprints Vingegaard to win on Planche de Belles Filles (Image: James Startt)
Pogačar’s start to this year’s Tour has been different to last when he was conscious of not burning all his matchsticks too soon. The 23-year-old won the stage five time trial in the first week, took the yellow jersey on stage eight but was then largely conservative through the second term. It was only when his lead on general classification was firm that he opened up in the third, breezing to two consecutive stage victories in the Pyrenees.
This year he’s taken two stage victories and assumed the yellow jersey before the first rest day. Perhaps it’s an indication of increased confidence in if not his team, then his own ability.
Pogačar is one of few title contenders this year able to count exclusively on the support of his entire squad.
Jumbo-Visma entered with two co-leaders in Roglič and Vingegaard, and a plan that first started to take shape as far back as October when Merijn Zeeman and Grischa Niermann devised it, and everyone subscribed.
“They spoke already with everyone a lot of times and that’s how we manage it,” said Jumbo-Visma sports director Arthur van Dongen. “We didn’t start it in Denmark, for example.”
One of the potential issues with having co-leaders is the nature of winners, which is what titles contenders are.
Australia’s only Tour de France champion, Cadel Evans, sees the benefits of taking more than one GC leader, but equally the pitfalls.
“I suppose you get to a certain point; you’re investing so much money and if one gets taken out in a crash, like Rogla looks like he’s out of the running now, you sort of have to in a way,” said Evans.
“But to manage it, and the dynamic between the riders, and, of course, to be a GC rider at a Grand Tour you’re usually dealing with a very motivated and ambitious athlete, so to make that work when you’ve got two or three of them in the same team, the situations I’ve been involved in, in that, I’ve never seen it work very well.
“But somehow Ineos and [team principal] Dave Brailsford has made that work in the past, so it’s certainly possible.”
Geraint Thomas of Ineos Grenadiers (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
Ineos Grenadiers rose to prominence at the Tour with the strategy Pogačar is now profiting from: one preeminent leader, no exceptions. The seven titles the team won in eight years speaks somewhat to the success of the strategy. In that time, they also had more than one rider finish on the podium. Chris Froome was second to Bradley Wiggins in 2012, third to Thomas in 2018, and Thomas was second to Egan Bernal in 2019.
However, in responding to new competition and a new generation, the squad has had to rethink its playbook.
Last season they presented four leaders at the Tour, with Richard Carapaz, who finished third overall, among them. But otherwise, didn’t have the best time of it.
The 2019 champion Bernal was slated to spearhead the squad at the Tour this year, but the Colombian’s season was derailed following a serious training accident in January.
Yates and Martinez stepped up to the plate, before Thomas, after winning the Tour de Suisse last month, found himself in an elevated position.
“I wasn’t a leader until maybe a week ago after Suisse but I’m just taking it as it comes. The other two boys have been preparing full gas all year,” Thomas said.
The Welshman, at the start of stage seven, forecast that the finish at Super Planche des Belles Filles didn’t suit him as much as it did Yates and Martinez. But the 36-year-old out of them was best on ground in a gutsy ride, never far from Pogačar's wheel until the Slovenian went after Vingegaard. Yates lost ground because his pedalling style didn’t mesh with an included gravel sector at the pointy end.
“This is the first climb of the race so it’s hard to know how everyone is really going,” Yates said post-race. “With the gravel there it’s a little bit different than a normal climb. We’ll wait and find out.”
When Evans was competing, his preference was to not to share leadership with teammates at Grand Tours.
“Being the ambitious athlete I was, I probably wanted to do it on my own,” he said.
“On the other side, it does take pressure off both the athletes because not everything is on them, so that can make it a bit easier in some ways for both leaders, or three leaders if you have to go with three, like Ineos have at the moment.”
Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma lead the peloton at this year's Tour de France (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
Ineos Grenadiers sports director Steve Cummings counters when asked about the intricacies of managing three GC riders who all want a shot at glory.
“I’m not sure we’ve got three leaders. It’s just that we’re trying to, we want one leader,” he laughs, “but we’ve got to find who it is, we don’t really know.”
Another factor in taking multiple title contenders from one team to the Tour is that while it may ease some of the pressure on their shoulders, it adds to the load of support riders.
“The idea was to have two, that was more manageable for the group but because of results and stuff like that we ended up with three, which is good,” Cummings continued.
“But they also understand that it is a real challenge for five riders to protect the three, so everyone has to chip in and they’re doing really well so far. Everyone has bought into it and they’re not afraid to take wind if they have to.”
Richie Porte for one has credited Cummings’ direction in situations where managing egos and tough leadership calls need to be made. Porte and Thomas were prolific in the lead-up to the Tour last season, effectively taking it in turns to claim some of cycling’s biggest week-long stage races with little in-house turmoil.
“I always ask them their opinion,” Cummings said. “Sometimes I have to challenge it because it’s not always logical and I believe that there is a logical solution, which is in the best interest of the team, which is in the best interest of the riders.
“It’s just trying to get people’s opinions because it’s not like I’m God, I don’t know everything. Sometimes someone will say it and I’ll go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a good point,’ and it changes the idea, so just trying to be flexible but at the same time be honest and transparent.”
Thomas is one of the few remaining original members of Ineos Grenadiers’ Tour team (originally Sky). He’s competed in all except two editions since the squad’s inception in 2010, racing for 2012 winner Wiggins, four-time champion Froome and Bernal.
Naturally, the dynamic on the bus has changed since his title triumph in 2018 to now.
“We had Froomey then who had won four times and he really wanted to win his fifth whereas now it’s different. Yatesy is a completely different character, as is Danny, but the vibe and the atmosphere is just as good and we’re all enjoying it so far, so, hopefully we can continue,” he said.
Thomas is measured about his own personal expectations but hasn’t ruled himself out of the running for a result against the likes of Pogačar, who is 13 years his junior.
“I’ve performed here before and I’d love to again but at the same time I’m happy to help the boys if I’m not up to it,” he said.
“I’ve been feeling good, so yeah, we’ll see, but maybe ask me stage 13-14 and we’ll have a bit of a better idea.”
Maybe by then we’ll also have a better idea of if what they say is true. If there is power in numbers, or if having too many cooks can spoil the proverbial broth.