Geraint Thomas' third place at the Tour de France last year, behind Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar, no less, was hard fought, but it also emphasised the impression that Ineos Grenadiers are a super-team of super-talents that keeps falling short when it comes to Grand Tours — the Paris Saint-Germain of WorldTour racing.
The day before Filippo Ganna's podium finish on the Via Roma in Milan-Sanremo last weekend, Jim Ratcliffe, the British billionaire owner of petrochemicals giant Ineos, was working on improving his offer for Manchester United, amid rumours of a waning interest in his sponsorship of the Grenadiers, who have not won the Tour de France since 2019.
Ratcliffe does not sit still — as his daring bid to secure Remco Evenepoel at the end of 2022 showed — and his visit to Old Trafford last Friday, in pursuit of the majority ownership of Manchester United, showed the seriousness of his intent.
The Failsworth-born 70-year-old is said to be willing to increase his offer for United, initially believed to be in the region of £5 billion, to secure ownership of the team and its legendary stadium. To do that, he will have to fend off the challenge of Sheikh Jassim Bin Hadam Al Thani, of the Qatari royal family, whose extensive wealth, and his bid to buy United outright, has made him the front runner.
But Ratcliffe's pitch, unlike that of the Qataris, is far from flash and is wholly personal. He is a local and will rely on the same homespun "I'm a fan, just like you" approach he took to the takeover of the Ineos Grenadiers, which he launched in the cramped confines of The Fountaine Inn, a remote Yorkshire pub.
He may have arrived at the launch in his Ineos helictopter, but lauded for his love of cycling, he was seen as a perfect new owner for the Grand Tour winning team, driven but personable.
Chris Froome with Jim Ratcliffe and David Brailsford at the launch of the Ineos Grenadiers team in 2019
Hanging back a little at Old Trafford last Friday, as Ratcliffe took centre stage, was his guru of performance, Dave Brailsford, there to assess the problems and possibilities that would come with acquiring a sporting brand as global as Manchester United.
Brailsford's involvement with the day-to-day running of Ineos Grenadiers is now minimal. In fact, few of the key figures that took the team's prior incarnation, Team Sky, to multiple Grand Tour titles now remain.
In July 2019, when his move to becoming Ratcliffe's director of sport, was first mooted, Brailsford, once the driving force behind the British success in road and track racing, had seemed ambivalent.
"I don’t want to leave cycling," he said at the time. "I love it too much, but equally I think this could be quite a challenge and it feels really invigorating."
“It [Ineos] is such an invigorating and dynamic organisation and culture. He (Jim) is a charismatic guy. He really does love sport. It feels like something is being built here. This is an exciting project.”
Yet last summer Brailsford was living in a luxury mobile home and presiding over the summer transfers at OG Nice, the French football club owned by Ratcliffe. Now if the billionaire's bid is successful, Manchester United is likely to become the centre piece of the 70-year-old's sporting empire, but where will that leave Brailsford and his cycling team?
A decade ago, in 2013, the Brailsford-led Team Sky dominated stage racing. It won the Tour of Oman, Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Criterium du Dauphine, the Tour de France, and the Tour of Britain. The French media described the British team as a 'steamroller' and bemoaned its stranglehold on racing.
That domination ended in 2020, when sports director Nico Portal dramatically passed away. When that July, it was made clear that Chris Froome was to leave the team, an era drew to a close.
Tao Geoghegan Hart celebrating his Giro d'Italia victory in 2021
Tao Geoghegan Hart's unexpected but exuberant win in that year's Giro d'Italia was followed in 2021 by Bernal's win in the corsa rosa, but as the team became less readily identifiable, it wasn't the same. The last time I saw Brailsford at a bike race was at the Tour de France in July 2021.
On a baking afternoon in Libourne, we spoke in the shade of the team bus during the final time trial. Tadej Pogačar rolled by in yellow on his way to the start ramp, yet Brailsford, who'd been treated for both cancer and a heart scare in recent months, remained defiant, even though his team’s best-placed rider was Richard Carapaz, third overall.
"I’m very proud of Carapaz," Brailsford said when I suggested that third place was something of a disappointment. "This is our 34th Grand Tour and we’ve won 12. We have won more stage races this year than we have ever won, so I’m not sure where any pessimism is coming from."
Two years on though, his team are not any closer to a further Grand Tour win. The problems endured by Bernal have stalled his career. Meanwhile, with the confirmation of both Evenepoel and Jonas Vingegaard, the pressure to claim another yellow jersey has become even greater.
In 2022, Ineos Grenadiers, not long after Carapaz wilted on the final weekend of that year's Giro, took third overall in Paris again, this time with Geraint Thomas.
They are still awaiting Bernal's return to his best, while also keeping plates spinning elsewhere, all of which might have explained the sudden interest in securing Evenepoel, hot on the heels of his wins in last season's Vuelta a España and World Championships.
Now faced with the challenge of the behemoth of Manchester United, how safe is Ineos Grenadiers and it's multi-million budget? It is understood that Ratcliffe has a 'rolling' contract with his staff. But he also expects results.
Geraint Thomas with Ineos teammates, riding the Santos Tour Down Under
As the Manchester Evening News asserted earlier this year, when casting an eye over Ratcliffe's expected bid for United: "Ineos is meticulous in its investments, making sure they are likely to reap a return."
“What you don’t want to do is pay stupid prices for things because then you regret it subsequently,” Ratcliffe told the Wall Street Journal, only last week.
Clarifying their interest in Manchester United, Ineos said: “We are ambitious and highly competitive and would want to invest in Manchester United to make them the number one club in the world once again.
“We would want to help lead this next chapter, deepening the culture of English football by making the club a beacon for a modern, progressive, fan-centred approach to ownership."
As when Ineos moved into cycling, there have been critics, with Greenpeace among those to attack what they consider another example of sportswashing, by describing the bidding process against the Qataris as a "dirty derby".
"Having already plastered its brand all over cycling, sailing, football, running and rugby, Ineos is the undisputed champion of sportswashing," Greenpeace said.
Ineos meanwhile, ended their own statement by saying that football governance is "at a crossroads". If another season goes by without a Grand Tour win, Ratcliffe's cycling team may find themselves in the same situation.