‘You have to move on in elite sports’ - Sports director Oli Cookson on the next chapter for Ineos Grenadiers

The long-standing member of Ineos team staff talks about changes in the team over the winter and what comes next

While some teams made headlines for marquee signings and mega mergers over the winter, the Ineos Grenadiers remained remarkably, eerily quiet. There was scarcely a social media post from the team announcing a new rider contract. As big names left, no other riders were drafted in to fill the gaps. The silence from the team left questions in its wake. What was the plan to return to the halcyon days of Team Sky dominating Grand Tours? Why were the team letting talented riders leave their contracts early? With the likes of Dave Brailsford and Jim Ratcliffe seemingly focused on football rather than cycling now, did the team still have drive and direction?

“There’s a strategy in place,” the team’s sports director, Oli Cookson, told Rouleur during the first WorldTour race of the season, the Tour Down Under. “We’re looking at how we can perform this year, but also long term. For us within the team, we’re calm and confident and we’re working incredibly hard behind the scenes.”

It’s no secret that Ineos have fallen behind the current generation of super teams. As Visma-Lease a Bike took a clean sweep of cycling’s three Grand Tours and Bora-Hansgrohe made their intentions clear with the signing of Primož Roglič for 2023, it seems as if the British team have struggled to move with a changing sport. Lidl-Trek took one of the team’s key Grand Tour hopefuls in Tao Geoghegan Hart – a rider who Ineos had developed since he turned professional – while Pavel Sivakov made the move to UAE Team Emirates, Ben Tulett to Visma-Lease a Bike, Luke Plapp to Jayco-Alula and Dani Martínez to Bora-Hansgrohe.

Filippo Ganna during his first race of the season at the Tour Down Under (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)

To replace these established stars and young talents, Ineos signed four riders: two 18-year-olds in AJ August and Theodor Storm, as well as former individual time trial champion Tobias Foss and experienced rider from Movistar, Óscar Rodríguez. The acquisition of riders like August and Storm help to partly understand Ineos’ strategy: they are investing in turning young talent into Grand Tour winners for years to come. Foss and Rodríguez, on the other hand, are two strong domestiques, which could end up being crucial in stage races, but they haven’t been signed as team leaders. The likes of Egan Bernal, Tom Pidcock and Carlos Rodríguez remain in the team, but they still are a long way off challenging riders like Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard for Grand Tour victories.

Cookson argues that the team doesn’t need to worry yet, asserting that they are confident in the ability of the current roster who he believes can perform across a range of terrain.

“There's definitely been some changes, but we still have a strong core group of staff and riders here, that's also really important. We've got a lot of new faces as well and you have to move on in elite sports,” he explains. “For us within the team, we concentrated on ourselves and I think there was a lot of talking in the media, but we've been calm and focused. We've got the balance of experience and big riders to win races, but also we’re developing youth at the same time, as you've seen from our roster. It's a pretty exciting time really.”

When it comes to the 2024 season, Cookson argues that there’s more to the year ahead than just worrying about challenging Visma-Lease a Bike. He explains that his team is far from disheartened by the Dutch team's dominance last season, pointing out the transience of the cycling season.

“Every year is different. I want to say congrats to Jumbo [Visma] for last year, winning all three Grand Tours. I think that's the beauty of sport, though, there's always the trajectory and the curve where you're building to win, you stabilise winning and then you come back to try and win again. We're at different points in that trajectory,” Cookson says. “I think we're in a good place with our riders that we've got on our roster for this year. It's going to be an interesting year, both for Classics, Grand Tours and also seeing the youth development.”

Ineos during the 2022 edition of Paris-Roubaix (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)

Ineos have certainly shown flickers of hope in the last couple of seasons, notably showing a brave, attacking riding style during the Classics, as well as taking tactical risks to go for stage wins in Grand Tours (when things have gone wrong for their GC hopefuls). In the 2022 edition of Paris-Roubaix, for example, the team embraced the aggressive racing style that has been seen in the peloton in recent seasons, splitting the race early in a move that went against tradition.

“I think you have to evolve with the sport. I think that's what our riders and our performance staff are ready to do. We’re always looking at new ways to race in a more expansive style. You can see in general, not just our team, many others are opening up the races earlier and the younger riders are coming through, that’s really exciting,” Cookson says.

As much as change is afoot in the British team, Cookson still harks back to the Tour de France being the pinnacle of Ineos’ aims in the years to come (just like it was when the team started out as Sky Procycling in 2010).

“I think maybe not this season, but long term is obviously the Tour de France. Without naming every rider, we’ve got Tom, Carlos and each rider has their own goals. But also you've got all the Monuments, you've got the Olympics this year, which is pretty important for many riders. Those like Ethan Hayter can win various types of races. Winning is important but also the way you do it, we want to inspire as well.”

But, if they don’t want to splash the cash to sign superstar talents like Remco Evenepoel or Tadej Pogačar, does Ineos have a future Tour de France winner in its current roster? Cookson is hopeful, but incredibly diplomatic in his answer.

“It’s a big question,” he says. “There's a short and a long term long term plan there. We have that in place and I think it's going to be exciting to see that journey.”

Cover image: Getty/Tim de Waele

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