Haunted by the absence of Nico Portal, Ineos begins to ride on

As Ineos returns to racing, they bear a heavy weight – the absence of Nicolas Portal, their lead director sportif and the architect of eight Grand Tour wins.

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At the start of stage 2 of the Route d’Occitanie, Dave Brailsford articulated the grief that has been haunting Team Ineos for the past six months.

“It feels like he’s in the back of the bus there still,” Brailsford told Cyclingnews. “I go in there and half expect to have a chat with him, about racing or something completely unrelated. I think the lockdown stopped us thinking about it to some extent and now a lot of emotion is coming out.”

For Ineos, this year’s Route d’Occitanie – a 2.1-classified four-day tour in the south of France – has taken on a special significance. In it, the team is grappling with the loss of its beloved director sportif, Nicolas Portal, who died tragically of a heart attack at the age of 40, just before the season went on hiatus.

At Chris Froome and Egan Bernal’s first race back since everything changed, Ineos has been trying to find a new norm – not just in the return to racing, but in how to function as a team. For the first time since 2011, the most dominant Grand Tour team of its era is adapting to life without Nicolas Portal in the driver’s seat.

Egan Bernal celebrates winning the 2019 Tour de France with Nicolas Portal.

It was Portal, a likeable Frenchman, that was the tactician behind eight of Ineos’ Grand Tour wins – all of Froome’s, plus Thomas’ and Bernal’s. He was recruited to the team’s management by Dave Brailsford after riding out his final year as a pro with the team, and became lead director sportif in 2013. While Froome has been the avatar of his team’s dominance, it was Portal that helped orchestrate that dominance.

Ineos has been a powerhouse for close to a decade, but in its strength it has sometimes lacked human softness. Dave Brailsford, the team’s general manager, is the most recognised member of the Ineos hierarchy outside of its riders, but even Brailsford acknowledges that there are places where his powers stop.

Speaking warmly of Portal in 2019, Brailsford said: “I recruited Nico for his human qualities. He respects others and makes himself respected. You can teach technique or tactics, but not human qualities. That’s innate.”

On March 3 at his home in Andorra, the humanity in the Ineos hierarchy suddenly died. The team pulled out of all upcoming WorldTour races, including the aborted Paris-Nice, and didn’t race again until last week’s Vuelta a Burgos.

Nicolas Portal, 2019.

In the days following Portal’s death, most of the Ineos squad gathered at Portal’s funeral in his hometown in Auch. In a somber line behind his coffin, Thomas and Bernal and their teammates paid tribute to their director, offered comfort to his wife and two young children, then scattered around the world to wait out the lockdown that was to come.

As the world changed around them, the riders of Team Ineos carried an additional burden – the loss of someone Froome called “the kindest, happiest guy I knew”. At the Route d’Occitanie – Portal’s home race – they bear the weight of that sorrow again.

Brailsford, who visited Portal’s family prior to the race, spoke of the raw emotion that still haunts Ineos. “It was very sad actually. They were doing well, but it was a real reminder that the last public occasion we had was Nico’s funeral,” he explained. “After that we all went into this lockdown for a long time, and coming back is a reminder of how much we’re missing him. I think this is going to be in everyone’s mind for quite a while.

“It does give this race particular significance. Now we’ve all come out of lockdown, away from our own houses, I think it’s hit quite a few of us that Nico is not around because we’re so used to having him with us.”

Image: Team Ineos

Ineos is a team that is used to winning, and that means they need to establish the mechanisms for that to continue. While Portal isn’t replaceable, the team has a plan. At the Route d’Occitanie, Brailsford unveiled Ineos’ new management structure, which shares the load between existing staff without bringing in anyone new.

“Rather than relying on the experience of one individual … we’re now focused on having a group of directeurs having input and making sure that we work in such a way that we can share all of the collective knowledge within the team, so that we can all benefit from that,” Brailsford told Cyclingnews. “We didn’t think about bringing anyone else in. We’re confident in the people that we’ve got, and we simply have to make sure we share collective knowledge and experience,” Brailsford continued.

Gabriel Rasch will nominally be the team’s lead director sportif, but he’ll be backed by Servais Knaven, Xabi Zandio, Oli Cookson and Xabi Artetxe – Bernal’s coach – at the Tour de France. None of them are trying to directly replace Nico Portal, but they follow in his footsteps with the hope of building on a legacy.

The cast of riders has changed, but almost every Tour de France in the last decade ended with a variation of this shot – a victorious Team Sky or Ineos squad, directed by Nicolas Portal.

Days into the return to racing, Ineos is already back to a winning start. On the concluding climb of the Route d’Occitanie’s queen stage, Ineos took a familiar position at the front of the peloton, ramping up the pace steadily before Egan Bernal soared free at a kilometre to go.

On the summit of the Col de Beyrède, Bernal punched the sky in triumph, moving into the lead of the general classification. In doing so, he made good on a promise made before the race began, to “remember [Portal] in the best way possible, if we can.”

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