The fallibility of Team Ineos

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FOIX, France (CT) – Climbing through driving rain on the Prat d’Albis above Foix, Team Ineos showed unfamiliar weakness and a new kind of strength at the Tour de France on Sunday.

Throughout this year’s Tour, the British team has seemed several levels below its monolithic best. This was confirmed Saturday, after hints throughout the last week. On the jagged slopes of the Col du Tourmalet, the peloton had an uncharacteristic palette; the inky black of Team Ineos rode not at the front, but in the wheels behind, scrambling to hold pace with Movistar’s cyan, the blue, white and red of Groupama-FDJ and the chipper black and yellow of Jumbo-Visma.

The competition has noticed. “I think Ineos aren’t quite as strong as they have been … nowhere near as strong as they have been,” said Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) in Foix today.

Yesterday was not Ineos’ day. And today? Well, it’s hard to say what kind of day it was for Ineos, exactly, but at least it was interesting. Given recent Tours de France, that counts for a lot, especially for Tour de France spectators who have become used to a muted race.

Underdogs are, after all, more loveable than top dogs.

In fallibility, Ineos has injected a welcome humanity into the Tour de France. For the six editions of the race that they’ve won, Team Sky – now Ineos – rode with totalitarian authority. Once in yellow, they very rarely gave it up, at least without an obvious way to take it back. Over those six editions, the Tour de France grew increasingly dull, like a colour image steadily faded to washed out, faded hues. Because predictable racing is boring racing.

This year, in the absence of perennial favourite Chris Froome and with a meeker Ineos squad, the Tour is technicolour. If you believe the French – who, admittedly, may be a little biased – you have to go back to 1989 to find one better vintage. It is no coincidence that the apparent decline of Ineos’s power coincides with this.

In dominance, Ineos and Sky built a near-impenetrable apathy in the other teams. Too many raced for the podium rather than the win. Other teams were unable – or, maybe, stopped trying – to take on Ineos’ might. AG2R La Mondiale, Sunweb, Astana, Movistar – all have seemed content to trail a line of black-clad riders around France in the hope of a minor placing. For years, that’s all that they’ve seemed able to dream.

In Ineos’ weakness and Alaphilippe’s audacity, the rest of the peloton have been shown a different possibility. They’re taking on the race rather than following it. Two things have happened: the level of the race has risen, and the level of Ineos has dropped. The result is a far more even playing field.

Team Ineos’ lineup is largely unchanged from last year, with key domestiques like Kwiatkowski, Castroviejo and Poels again shepherding their team leaders through the race. A key difference in 2019, however, is how early they’re dropping off. In today’s finale, Poels was the lone surviving domestique. On the Tourmalet, Bernal and Thomas were left to fend for themselves. In years past, Sky had stages locked down from start to end.

Despite a stronger showing from Geraint Thomas on Sunday, Team Ineos’ play from here remains unclear. It has two leaders, and each have been given the right to ride. Bernal did not wait; if their roles were reversed, neither would Thomas.

“It was difficult tactically because I had the legs to go but I didn’t want to bring the others back to Egan,” said Thomas after the stage, somewhat ignoring the original source of the gap between himself and his dynamic young teammate – his own inability to follow an acceleration. “At least the legs were a little better today,” he said. “I just need to bite the bullet to dig in.”

Though Bernal appeared stronger than Thomas thus far this race, he remains behind on GC and pledged his support to last year’s race winner. “The most important is to win the yellow jersey. If at some stage I have to sacrifice myself for Geraint Thomas to win the Tour, even at the cost of the white jersey, I’ll do it,” Bernal told reporters. Indeed, selfless sacrifice may be the only way that Ineos can win this bike race.

Heading into the second rest day of the Tour de France, six riders remain in contention for the win, separated by just 2:14. Any one of them could feasibly stand atop the podium in Paris. It is a Tour de France for the ages. “It might come down to every man for himself, really,” said Porte.

Ineos is now in unfamiliar territory – human rather than robotic; flawed rather than flawless. There is new strength in that. They may not win this Tour de France, but by having to fight for it, they may leave the race with something almost as valuable: the support of a jaded public.

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